The European Tour July 2008-Dec 2009
In July 2008 we loaded up whatever could fit onto the back of our bikes – acoustic guitar, a small library of novels, a foldable kitchen sink, and our two furry co-pilots – and pedaled into the unknown. Neither of us had ever changed a flat tire before, but we had the vague notion to cycle from Belgium to Australia. Eighteen months and 25 flat tires later we had cycled over 17,000 kilometres through 18 countries, experiencing an unforgettable, life affirming ride. We were further away from Australia than when we started, but that was beside the point…
Cycling in Europe
Quiet village roads, cycle paths galore, hassle free border crossings, regular bicycle shops, great food, great wine. Europe is probably the easiest continent on Earth to try your legs at cycle touring. Click on a country name to check out highlights, handy links and musings.
- Austria – Climb the Alps or cruise along flat riverside cycle paths…
- Belgium – Bicycles reign supreme. Cycle pub to pub tasting the best beer in the world…
- Denmark – From quiet coastline to a cosmopolitan capital. Farm fresh roadside fruit and veg…
- France – Make your own Tour de France among the most comprehensive network of village roads on Earth…
- Germany – Cycle paths galore and a wonderful selection of organic food…
- Hungary – Flat, cheap and some nice bicycle routes…
- Italy – From tortuous Tuscany to the majestic Dolomite mountains. Cycling in Italy is rarely dull…
- Norway – Wild camping paradise. Mountains, fjords, reindeers and more…
- Portugal – Wonderful down to earth people, stunning mountains and Port Wine…
- Slovenia – A highlight of our trip. A small country with a little bit of everything…
- Spain – It can be hit and miss, but when it is good it is great! Festivals galore…
- Sweden – Rolling hills and smorgasboards…
- Switzerland - So well signed you don’t even need a map. Enjoy some mountain beauty…
- The Baltic Countries – Medieval cities to migrating birds. Flat, tasty and easy on the wallet…
Our Top Rides in Europe
We pedaled higher and deeper into the mountains until the sweat trickling down our faces gave off an icy chill. It was May in the majestic peaks of the Italian Dolomites and a fresh one metre dump of snow was made all the more beautiful by a string of sunny days that had turned the sky into a deep blue canvas. Read on…
As we continued on roads littered with the spiky fruit of the chestnut trees, we realised our days were falling into a familiar pattern: wake up in the dark for a frosty tent pack up… swear at the frosty weather gods for our numb fingered agony… sweat it out on mountain roads… climb up a ridiculously steep hill into a cobblestoned town… find a bakery to liberate some of our little sugar covered friends… praise the beautiful blue skies and apologise for swearing at the weather gods earlier on. Read more…
Not far from the ornate and lavish interior of Seville, where the stylish and bohemian turn boulevards of orange trees into 24 hour catwalks, dingy apartment blocks and cheap housing sprawl through a tangle of highways. Winter is fast approaching in the south of Spain and it is set to be a cold one. Beyond the tangle we cycle east. Read more…
Belgium’s beaches are hardly impressive. Their ‘mountains’ barely climb over 500 metres altitude. Their canals and maize fields can become repetitive, and their climate has a fetish for rain. So why bother to cycle in Belgium when you can make up your own Tour de France next door? Two words: ‘bicycles’ and ‘beers’. Read more…
The scheduled two hour ferry seemed to drag out to eternity, as the ship zig-zagged its way through the high swells. The novelty of the up and down, and side to side soon disappeared. The dogs were sliding across the floor, our books and corn chips began tumbling off the table, and Zoa became the first to stumble for the toilet. Read more…
Find out the highs and lows of our trip so far. From our favourite mountains, to the best bakeries, to our scariest moments and our craziest camp spot.
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Midnight screams in the tent
One of the pleasures of being on the road is unexpected encounters with wildlife. Otters sunning themselves by French wetlands, wild goats jumping across the trail in front of us in the Spanish desert, a hawk carrying a snake in its mouth whizzing overhead, wild pigs grunting around our tent, a family of deer interrupting our dinner. One rainy night in Austria in a boggy camping spot by a little old wood shed, I awoke to feel Fin’s hand laying across my head. As I went to brush it away I saw a sudden and unexpected flash of movement. My shriek was loud enough to awaken the nearest village. Paco was terrified and cowered at the edge of the tent and the sleepyhead Fin looked out of bleary-eyes at what all the fuss was all about. The startled frog, slimy and as big as a baseball jumped from my head, and was springing for dear life all over the tent. Try not to sleep with the tent door unzipped next time…
Spirituality and Stinging Nettle Soup
On the road many strangers have invited us into their homes for a warm meal and a place to sleep. We have been offered eggs, roasted duck, foie gras (sorry mom), homemade pasta, and even stinging nettle soup. We had just arrived into Villach, Austria which sits on the Drau River not far from the Slovenian border, when a couple of young parents cycled over with a trailer for their children and asked us where we came from. Before long we were in their backyard saying grace and tucking into a delicious spread of lunch, including freshly picked stinging nettle soup. Normally we are cursing stinging nettles for a fiery rash from last minute runs into the forest, but who knew they could be so tasty and healthy (excellent source of iron, best picked from new growth in Spring)? We enjoyed some fine company from some down to earth folks, who were focusing on their spirituality without being preachers. Another delicious breakfast fit for a king, some celebrations for their son’s 3rd birthday and we were finally off, fit to tackle the 18% grades of the Wurzen pass to Slovenia, our most taxing of the trip.
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Belgium’s beaches are hardly impressive. Their ‘mountains’ barely climb over 500 metres altitude. Canals and maize fields can become repetitive. Belgium is not the most adventurous place to ride a bike, but don’t write it off altogether. Belgium has an infectious bicycle culture and a fantastic cycling network linking cosy pubs which serve some of the best beer in the world. But, beyond opinion, there is undisputed mathematical formula. Bikes + Beers x Belgium = Good Times.
Cycling by Numbers
It’s a big claim, but here goes…. Flemish Belgium has one of the best laid out cycle networks on Earth. Pick up a cheap map from a bookshop or tourist store, and you can cycle by numbers, playing Bingo from village to village, pub to pub. Crossing into French speaking Wallonia is another story. Cycle routes are fewer and further between, and the terrain is much hillier, sometimes quite steep!
A New Beer for Every Day of the Year
Around 450 different varieties of beer, made by around 125 breweries. If the idea of trying so many beers is giving you a headache, focus on the Trappist breweries: strong, flavourful beers made from premium locally grown ingredients by Trappist monks. Be warned: 5% is a weaker beer in Belgium. 7% or 8% beers are common and 10% or 11% isn’t exactly rare.
Family and friends are probably wondering why we changed our names, so here is the low down.
Clearing out a whole house full of STUFF is not as easy as expected. Sure, the appliances will go quickly. A fridge, TV, washing machine, vacuum, iron or printer will probably be snapped up in a day or two. But then you are still left with the odds and ends that sneak into your home like mice through unseen cracks and crevices. Half finished paint tins, assortments of screws and tools, photo frames, cutlery, utensils, spices, clothes unworn for months and years, electronic hair curlers, house plants, STUFF hanging off hooks and screws, STUFF shoved to the backs of draws and dressers. Read more…
With routes to choose, equipment and bikes to research and hunt down, visas to obtain, and possibly shots to inject, most people agree on one thing. A trans-continental cycling trip is not something to rush into. The general advice is around 12 months of planning and preparation, including test rides. General advice? Ha! I laugh in the face of general advice! Two and a half months would be plenty. Read more…
Not far from where the pancake plains of Flemish Belgium meet the waffled mountains of the French speaking Ardennes, is the small city of Leuven. A charming city injected with the vibrancy of a large university population. A place of harmony where old buildings stand alongside modern sculptures. Where the rundown building of a giant beer corporation becomes a squat house with live music on Sundays. A place where high end shopping is around the corner from a bakery with no name. It was living here that gave me the chance to study local cycling culture up close. Before long patterns emerged and I found that you could generally categorise cyclists into 4 different groups – Cruisers, Chameleons, Billboards, and Salamis. Read more…
Cycling across the world with dogs was never something I had put any thought into, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. The last time I had owned a bicycle it was the late 80’s in suburban Australia. A time and a place where it was cool to have multi-coloured plastic pieces on your spokes, to match multi coloured fluroescent t-shirts. For a brief time my pride and joy was an overwhelmingly red ‘Duster’ BMX. Red frame, red grips, and red tyres. No extra fluff like gears, just pedal forward to start and pedal backwards to stop.
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The Danish Wind Gods smiled upon us and gave us a helping fondle up Denmark’s west coast. During our week or so in Denmark the prevailing winds were south-westerly, allowing us to clock our highest kilometre day of the trip (still only 106kms though) . Unfortunately our roughly patched up trailer (a tent pole/duct tape/zip tie job) meant we often avoided the gravel trails of the North Sea Cycle Route. A pity, because there was lots of quiet gravel trails. and some of the coastal roads are quite busy.
Some quick observations about Denmark:
- The scenery of the west coast is pleasant without ever being spectacular. Some nice, long beaches and dunes, but most of the interior is cultivated; little forest and large monocultures of wheat can get tedious.
- They use their wind in positive ways. Lots of kites, lots of flags, lots of windsurfing, and LOTS of windmills producing renewable energy – the Danish and Germans are leading the way in this area.
- Their villages have sexy roofing. Grass roofs, and more commonly thatch-roofs decorate small villages. Thatch roofs are expensive and have a lifespan of around 30 years, but are enforced by the councils in some seaside areas; especially beautiful when old and covered in moss.
- It is more expensive in Denmark than Germany, but not by too much. The conversion to Danish Kroners had us budgeting tighter, so we probably spent less here than most countries. A pleasant surprise was all of the roadside stalls selling local produce. Better quality and cheaper than supermarkets selling delicious home grown potatoes, beans, herbs, berries and cherries, mmmmm….. and all on an honesty system with just a cashbox. Love it.
- Cycling in Denmark is a way of life, not a fashion statement. Not many people were hung up on being the fastest or having the latest cycle-wear. We saw our first teenagers cycle touring, and plenty of families cycling together as part of a summer holiday. We even saw an 8 year old girl cycling solo on a busy road!
- Danish share their art. Everyday we cycled we rode past art/sculpture galleries that were attached to the artist’s home. Some driftwood sculptures of strong, sexy women particularly caught our eye.
- They know how to bake.
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Highlights: Chattel de Montage, Auvergne Volcanoes, Site de St Nazaire, Arnac, Figeac, Lot River, Carjere to Caylus, St. Antonin Noble–Val, Grottes de Betharran, Col de Napale , St Jean Pied-de-Port
Above the Vodka Bar in Montpelier
It was early springtime and the hills in southern France were returning to life. Gnarled grapevines, evenly space in rows, stretched out fresh tendrils after their winter slumber. A gravel hill and an asphalt cycle path brought us into ornate Montpelier. After lunch in a medicinal herb garden we happened upon a bike shop covered in cool graffiti-art. We were just after a spare tire, but were soon convinced of an expensive job to replace our entire drivetrains. Not surprisingly after 8500kms of cycling without a change, our chain stretch was off the charts, causing it to slip out of gear on steep up-hills. Also at the bikeshop we met a Canadian from Zoa’s stomping grounds, named Gerry, an energetic and kindhearted cyclist. As darkness approached and the bikes unfinished, he graciously offered us a place to stay for the night. We left with a much lighter wallet and followed his map into the centre of town, until we found a stylish plaza filled with trendy people, drinking and laughing. Their eyes followed us around the square, watching the fish out of water, until we found the right number, beside the Vodka bar. A call came down from the third floor and he introduced us to his wife Shoko, who he met in Japan. We struggled to fit the bikes and trailer in the narrow tower-like stairwell, but somehow managed to get everything to the third floor. While we admired Shoko’s paintings, we were fed pizza and beers and swapped travel tales. In the strain of getting all the gear upstairs, I forgot to take my shoes off at the door and found myself in inner turmoil. Upon sitting down I had begun to unlace my shoes but stopped half way. As the conversation continued my mind kept returning to its indecision … do I keep my shoes on and risk offending them, or do I take my shoes off and unleash my extremely smelly socks. I sat squirming on the edge of the couch, until I could bear it no longer, unlacing and quickly tucking the smelly socks under the sofa. The everyday dilemmas of the cycle tourist…
Safely back in France we headed to Riversaltes (near Perpignan) to pay a visit to our lovely friend Mireille. We met Mireille and her boyfriend Claude in Champagnole back in September. We were caught in a thunderstorm and setup camp in a pine forest. While packing up in the morning we suddenly became nervous we had been caught camping on someone’s property. The two walkers greeted as warmly though, and it turned out they were mushroom pickers and new lovers. Mireille invited us to stay with her when we made it to the South of France. “Why Not?” she said with a big smile on her face.
Six months later we finally arrived at her doorstep. Although she recently turned 60, Mireille has the vibrancy and the lust for life of a teenager in love. She is not content to sit and knit granny squares and teaches aerobics, refreshes her language skills in a group once a week, and talks fondly of her newfound romance. She drove us formula 1 style through orchards dripping pink with peach blossom in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. After enjoying the rustic stonework and houses of charming in the charming village of Eus, we headed to the Abbey of St Michel de Cuxat to fill up some bottles of mountain fresh water. Congratulations to Mireille and Claude on their recent engagement.
I was happy but happy is an adult word. You don’t have to ask a child about happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind. Much easier to let it blow all over you.
The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
If it wasn’t for all of the rubbish on the ground I could have been back home. Puddled woodland trails had given way to the scrub and scent of Eucalypt forest. I was on a gentle downhill, the kind which lets your ego believe you had just become really buff lately, when the familiar twang of an Australian accent brought me to a stop. Read more…
There was something unnerving about the way he straddled his bike. He couldn’t stand still, shifting his weight from pedal to pedal, and spinning them with the end of his shoe. My mother had told me to be wary of strangers, and this was a prime stranger to be wary of. Where did all his energy come from? He claimed to be exhausted from his morning of cycling, but he looked like he was ready to run a marathon. Read more…
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Highlights: The Mosel River (especially Wittlich to Beilstein), Strasbourg (France), Freiburg, Staufen, The Black Forest
It didn’t take long to realise that BirchBarkBobAnanda (BBB) is not your average can of soup. With his homemade panniers made from advertising banners, birch bark covered bike frame, hand made windproof jacket and tires from the dumpster of a bicycle store, he is the living embodiement of the phrase ‘Reduce/Reuse/Recycle’: an everyday superhero, sent to fight waste and the insanities of the modern world. Read more…
“Berlin is a passionate, rebellious, unconventional and extremely liberal city. A survivor of several wars. It is resilient like no other city has shown to be. It bends over, stretches, and transforms itself in a disorganized manner, driven by nobody’s master plan.” Maria Angeles Capellades There will be no more self-imposed hardships and no more tales of woe. Not, at least, for the next six weeks. We are no longer pedaling with grim determination, struggling with iced over tent poles, or battling cold weather. Sorry, we are comfy and snug in the home of angels. Read more…
The first thing I noticed upon regaining consciousness was her underwear. A faceful of silky whites and a non-sensical stream of German words welcomed me back from the haze. “Sprechen sie English?” I muttered. The woman crouched in front of me in a short skirt effortlessly switched languages and played the role of calm, reassuring nurse, questioning and comforting me. Read more…
The Train Rides from Hell – 8 in One Day
After enjoying Slovenia for so long, we decided to make some tracks North in our goal to get to the North Cape without being frozen. A list minute decision had us taking advantage of a cheap Sunday train deal which allowed us to get from one side of Germany to the other. The catch, 8 connections. This would not be so bad as a foot passenger, but imagine doing it with two heavily loaded bicycles (one bicycle which is extra long and one with a trailer) and two dogs. We must have looked a sight carrying the whole lot down and back up stairs to get to the correct platform, often just in time to cram it into the last remaining space of an already full train carriage just in time for the conductor to blow his whistle. We started our train journey at 6am in Passau and arrived fresh into Flensburg, Germany just after midnight somehow making every connection.
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Useful Links: Travelling Two: Hungary
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Useful Links: Travelling Two: Italy
Crazy Italian Drivers?
Our route through Italy meant negotiating many mountain ranges, often with steep north-south running valleys. Deviations onto quiet roads are more tranquil and scenic, but add alot of extra kilometers and hard-work. So, feeling lazy, we decided to brave the busier roads and the much hyped crazy Italian traffic.
Were there people driving manically like Roberto Begini playing the cab driver in Night on Earth? Yes. Were their hands often far from the steering wheel as if their conversation would collapse without being propelled by an elaborate waving of their arms? Of course. Were the people driving solo any better? No, they were on their mobile phones. But despite all this, we had few problems (1 close call apiece) on the open road, because cyclists are as much a part of the everyday traffic as the mopeds ripping up the middle line at any opportunity.
The Land of a Thousand Tunnels
What we weren’t ready for in Italy was all the tunnels: sometimes short, sometimes pillared and open on one side, and sometimes absolutely freaking terrifying. We found Michelin maps to be very loose with their marking of tunnels, and we often found ourselves happening upon them unexpectedly.
The worst of the lot was a 2km doozey in Umbria, carved through a mountain heading to Norcia. We realized our mistake as soon as we entered, but by then it was too dangerous to turn back. Between the deep, rhythmic thumping of the gigantic fans, the barely visible potholes, the lack of shoulder, the steady stream of traffic in both directions, the blinding headlights coming towards, and the thundering roar of the semi-trucks gaining on us, you can imagine fear was pulsing through our veins. Our pathetic red, flashing tail-lights and safety vest seemed horribly inadequate, gobbled up in the darkness. Be warned: If you are cycling in the Italian mountains invest in strong headlights and reflective vests.
The Five Lands: Walking (NOT cycling) the Cinque Terra
The Cinque Terra (translating from Italian to five lands) are five towns on the western coast of Italy that have historically survived by cultivating orchards and vineyards on the steep cliffs of the Mediterranean. Nowadays, tourism is the big cash crop, and people flock from all over the world to walk from town to town along the romantic seaside trails.
The trails are narrow, steep and very busy with many stone steps taking you onto the cliffs high above the sea. Definitely best seen on foot, not bicycle. (We left our bicycles locked at a campground and returned by train after the walk).
The day we walked, it was stiflingly hot, and an exuberant multi-lingual Italian farmer sat in a shack on his citrus farm making a killing selling fresh lemonade. The big dog Jack took every chance to dip in streams along the way and we indulged in the best ever gelato (dark chocolate with red chilies, rich and creamy with a bolt of fire), pesto pizzas, and rosemary and olive foccacias. Monterosso and Vernazza are amazing villages, and the lovers walk outside of Riomaggiore is very romantic.
Venice, the City of Lust
We left the bikes in a carpark and took the ferry from Fusina to Venice. Having read The Passion by Jeanette Winterson which describes it so poetically, Fin was very excited to see it for the first time. We decided against even trying with a map, and headed into the maze-like cobbled streets and spent the rest of the day wandering over bridges, enjoying the mossy, seaweed covered steps, and filthy water of the canals, the crumbling buildings, and the grandiose churches. On the waterfront and thoroughfares African men tried to sell rip-off handbags laid out on sheets, ready to be scooped up for a quick escape, while couples roamed hand in hand, kissing on park benches, nibbling on ears, squeezing bums. We found a quiet pizzeria away from the hustle and bustle and ate while two sets of couples were involved in some extended foreplay. The couples sat side-by-side, the women straddling their men, who were deep throat kissing, and fondling freely. They seemed to be locked in a battle to out-do each other with more gratuitous displays of public affection. Occasionally they would stop to look if they were being outdone by the other couple and to take a photo for their new facebook profile picture. A wonderful world unto itself.
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Wild Camping Paradise
With around 5 million residents spread across the country, and so much undisturbed nature, wild camping in Norway is usually easy and spectacular. Furthermore it is “Every Man’s Right”, and besides on uncultivated lands, (and a few other little * appendages), camping wherever you want is customary law. Sleep in as long as you want. See if anybody cares. In fact roadside information centres with toilets and facilities can sometimes make it feel more civil than wild.
It is worth watching the weather in Norway, mainly because it is so beautiful and unpredictable. Much of the time the sky is on the move with clouds, some light and wispy, some dark and heavy, dancing around the sun as if on fast forward. Other times a thick carpet of clouds is rolled out across the top of the mountains and the sun is hidden on pause. A light shower might settle into a downpour, and a downpour might settle in for days, weeks. Our cheap ‘waterproof’ raingear was enough to get us through 12 months in less intense European climates but it was knocked out in the first round by Norway.
Planning a Route
Do you detour onto mountain roads, or plunge through a tunnel on a major route? The tunnels are usually modern and well lit, but nonetheless invest in strong lights and safety vests. Sometimes the lights go out!
Do you go coastal and add alot of short ferry crossings, or go inland and hang out with the mosquitoes (in Summer anyway). Ferries are fairly cheap (normally under 5 Euros a person- sometimes free if you are lucky), but after a few crossings it begins to add up.
Do you visit tempting dead end roads, or stick to the major arterial roads? Just to explore the Arctic islands could take weeks, months.
Trains and the Hurtigruten (The Coastal Steamer)
Norway’s rail service is very good for cyclists, and if you book far enough in advance you can get a surprisingly cheap deal.
Another way to travel long distances in Norway without flying is to take a cruise on the Hurtigruten (The Coastal Steamer). The fleet of ships (which used to be used to deliver mail) have daily departures up and down the Norwegian coast between Bergen and the border of Russia. If you can wrangle a student rate it is 50% off, otherwise it can be quite expensive to go very far.
If you imagine Norway as one big electric guitar, we awoke in Tromso, somewhere at the top of the fret board, feeling like a nicely strummed E Minor. After a year spent mostly wild camping around Europe, it felt luxurious but decidedly odd to be sleeping in the comfortable symmetry of boxed walls. Where was the night-time dip in temperature that made you curl a little deeper into your sleeping bag? Where were the angry squeals of wild boars rampaging through the forest at 3am? Instead we were fighting for space on a cramped single bed and fell asleep to the sounds of the mattress gymnastics from the floor above. Read more…
We had just spent the last of our Norwegian Kroners on a big load of groceries and were about to head for the Swedish border. That was until a local in Mo i Rana (an industrial port city on the cusp of the Arctic Circle) raved about Svartisen Glacier, Norway’s second largest glacier. He had lived in the area for 40 years, but had only just visited the glacier for the first time. “It is only around 10 kilometres from here until the end of the road, and then a half hour walk from the carpark. But be careful” he warned us. “Glaciers are dangerous and always on the move. Every year someone dies, normally Japanese. Nearly always Japanese.” 35 kilometres later (never trust a car driver for distance) we were deep into the national park and the blue sky was now covered by a threatening band of grey clouds speeding across the mountaintops. The summer cottages were all boarded and locked, and the only sign of life was two workers filling potholes around the carpark. They gave us astonished looks and told us, “I think you will be the last people camping here this year. Snow is coming any day now!” We read warning signs about the dangers of flash flooding from a crumbling glacier and decided to setup our tent on the veranda of a closed café. The rain settled into a misty drizzle and we tiptoed and hopped around the lake on overgrown narrow trails trying to keep on any patch not sodden from heavy rainfall. It soon became clear that we were really traversing one giant slushy waterfall. As we climbed away from the lake the roar of the glacier fed waterfall took over. Scrambling over boulders we shocked a family of pheasants who backed away shyly behind a stunted tree. After three hours of sloshing and scrambling up and down rocks we were exhausted and hungry and our feet were drenched and numb. So much for a half hour walk! I bet it just looks like normal snow we thought in the back of our heads. We rounded a corner and took first sight of the glacier, a solid mass of snow carving it’s from high up in the mountains. Wow! The dirty exterior of the glacier was crumbling away at the lakefront to reveal a pure inside of brilliant blue ice, a colour that photography does not do justice, something of fairytales, like kryptonite in Superman. Despite the heavy duty warning signs everywhere I could understand why people would be drawn so close to it. We were freezing but completely enchanted. On the way back we sloshed along the boggy trails as quickly as possible with boots full of water, racing to get back to our cosy tent.
Jack’s Great Escape
With the North Cape behind us our minds turned south to warmer horizons. We had decided against working the winter in the Arctic Circle. At 2009 the solar cycles which dictate the intensity of the northern lights were at their absolute lowest, and we passed up a low paying opportunity on a husky farm in Alta. Instead we chose to board the Hurtigruten Coastal Steamer which hops up and down the Norwegian coast all year round from Bergen to Kirkenes at the border of Russia. We picked up some half price student tickets (shhh..) back to Bodo, to give us a head start on the long ride south. Our bikes were stored down on the car deck and the dogs were required to stay in cages next to the bikes. We settled into a cosy lounge at bow/stern of the ship and watched the land going past (including the largest rock in the world). After cycling for so long it felt very sedentary. The short stops at port towns along the way were nice to stretch the legs and be able to see the dogs, but it was never long before we had to be back on board, and the dogs back in their cages. We were seeing things, but not really experiencing much. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, our dog Jack was becoming quite famous on board. During the longer periods between dockings his lonesome howl could be heard from the deck. When a storm blew in that evening, unusually early in the season, the captain warned of high waves. As we left behind the safety of the fjords and headed into open sea, five metre waves started dashing against the bows. The ship rocked back and forth, and the bigger swells sent streams of foam crashing against the windows. Meanwhile, the big dog Jack had managed to work his way out of the door of the cage, and was searching the corridors of the car deck and the dark corners of the engine room for us. Much to our surprise we were called down over the loudspeaker. We looked at each other and wondered what trouble the dogs had gotten themselves into. We were told that our big dog Jack had escaped, and was missing in action somewhere on the car deck. Eventually he was found in the engine room with his face covered in grease, much to the amusement of the workers. We re-settled him and returned to deck and our stomachs were now churning. Zoa was worsening and lay motionless on the couch between retching. “Fin, can you please go down to the receptionist and ask them if they have some drugs to help with seasickness?” So I stumbled down the stairs clutching to the stair rail and did as requested. Unfortunately she didn’t quite pick up on the American terminology, “I’m sorry dear, we don’t allow drugs on board the ship. We have seasickness pills available in the cafeteria though.” The 2am docking at Bodo had to be cancelled due to the rough weather, and we settled for a ride further south to the more sheltered Nesna (bonus!), and a free continental breakfast (yum!). Needless to say we were all happy to be back on land once more. We felt like royalty when the engine crew stood on the deck and whistled, hooted and waved us goodbye..
Love at First Hug: A Latin/Scandinavian Love Story
Wanting to make fast tracks north to catch the last of the Arctic summer, we took trains from Bergen to Bodo, covering most of Norway’s rail network in the process. What would have taken us three weeks by bicycle, took two days of squirming around on train seats. On route to Oslo, the first leg of the journey, a Mexican student studying bioengineering in the Netherlands sat down next to us. She didn’t seem too bothered that our dogs Jack and Paco were hogging the floor space leaving her little room to stretch her legs, and we quickly warmed into conversation. She had just attended a friend’s wedding in southern Norway for a Mexican groom and a Norwegian bride. An obvious question was how did this unusual cultural combination come about? The answer? “They met at a ‘Free Hugs’ meeting on the streets of London” she told us. “Anybody can choose to hug anybody, and he decided that one free hug wasn’t enough. He chose to come back for second hug, and then a third.” Their immediate connection soon sparked a dramatic ‘close your eyes, give me your hand darling’ Eternal Flame, and a wedding to remember. A strong contingent had flown out from Mexico and they watched on as the Norwegians drearily made their way through the traditional set of formal speeches. But before long the Mexicans had things loosening up, and they were all smashing piñatas and dancing into the early hours of the morning.
No Whales, Seasickness x 3
The puffins had already packed up and flown with their young ones out to sea, and by the time we reached Andenes at the tip of the Vestervalen Islands in mid-August the weather had become too rough for whale spotting as well. We boarded the ferry to Senja, labeled The Whale Route, with warnings of 5 metre waves at sea. The mornings earlier ferry crossing was cancelled due to the conditions, and we soon found out why. The scheduled two hour ferry seemed to drag out to eternity, as the ship zig-zagged its way through the high swells. The novelty of the up and down, and side to side soon disappeared as the dogs started sliding across the floor and our books and corn chips began tumbling off the table. I (Zoa) was the first to stumble for the toilet. I knew from a very young age my weak stomach would never allow me to be a fighter pilot, astronaut or a yachtsman. I was one of the few children that had no desire to go to Disneyland as the slightest circling motion had me tossing my cookies. An onboard mechanic acknowledged that it was not really the best ship for this route. “It was made in the 70’s for fjords. It’s too narrow for the open sea.” Great! “Yesterday we had to clean up a lot of accidents on the floor.” Fin had lasted the greater part of the journey, before a particularly rough patch had him unexpectedly double over the ship’s floor. His retching triggered off the small dog Paco, who vomited over my shoe, which had me reaching for the nearest bag. By the time we reached the stunning cliffs of Senja, the big dog Jack was the only man left standing, although he looked apprehensive at best.
Japanese Scooter Man
At first I thought the cyclist coming down the hill was riding a unicycle. I could tell the rider had a huge knapsack on their back. How uncomfortable I thought. As they neared, I guessed they were atop a small folding bike. Wrong again. Racing down the hill was Japanese Scooter Man. When he saw our circus show on wheels he put on his brakes and started laughing. We were both intrigued by each other’s mode of transport and took turns taking pictures and sharing stories. He told us he had already scootered 3000km from Stockholm, to the North Cape, and down to the Lofoten Islands in the north-west of Norway, and was planning on looping back to Stockholm after visiting the Baltic countries. As he continued down the hill, turning back to wave with a big grin on his face, we were in awe. The Japanese Scooter Man regularly clocks over 100kms a day, needing only 6 hours sleep a night. On the uphill roads he carries his scooter on his back.“I got tricked by the long hours of sunlight in Scandinavia.” he said. “It was still light out, so I just kept going. By the time it got dark I realised it was midnight and I had just gone 200 kilometres.” It appeared that caffeine was his secret weapon, with three 1 litre bottles of Coca Cola hanging in a plastic bag on his handlebars.
Ask and you shall receive
Call it coincidence, or what you will, but many times on our trip our simple fantasies have been answered again and again. A much needed toilet we ask for appears around the bend in the middle of an uninhabited forest. We bet about who will be the first person to see a reindeer, and 5 seconds later one appears on the hill grazing amongst the trees. After 2 months in Spain I start to think it is about time someone invites us into their home for the night, and 20 minutes later it happens. A plea to the Wild Camping Gods is answered by a perfect campspot at the top of a rise. Or I wake up thinking of a particular song, only to have it come on the ipod on shuffle 5 minutes later, a 1 in 8000 chance. Our favourite though was after a long period of rain in Norway. Wet, cold and hungry we pitched our tent at a picnic spot off the main road and spent 2 nights drying off and watching the rain tumble. Huddled underneath a dripping tarp we cooked up the last of our food supply and decided that rain, hail, or drizzle we had to leave first thing in the morning. We awoke at 4am to enjoy the sunrise and cycled on rumbling bellies to the nearest village. As we cycled past closed cafes (too early) we started to daydream about all the foods we would love to eat. “Scrambled eggs.” “Yeah, scrambled eggs on toast.” “Fresh bread and jam”. “Cheese platters.” “Definitely hash browns.” “Bottomless coffee.” “OJ for me.” We began salivating and the kilometers kept ticking by. By 9am we had almost cycled 50 kilometres, and the dry dog food was starting to look more tempting. A hotel on the horizon beckoned us and we walked into our first all you can eat buffet in 12 months, including everything we had just dreamt of, and more. Bon appétit!
We have often looked out enviously from underneath the hoods of our rain jackets at campervans, and gigantic recreational vehicles flying past. Damn those smug people, with their fat engines, and their windscreen wipers. They look like they are watching the world from behind the panel of a spaceship. No wonder they are usually asleep or look paralysed. Damned tourists. At a less cynical moment we were surprised to see another cyclist with a Belgian flag and a heavy load coming up to our tent in the rain. Wet and weary, but smiling, we offered him a lukewarm cup of honey tea and listened to his story. Luk had been travelling the UK and northern Europe for six months when his old van broke down. Not wanting to spend the money fixing it, he put his insurance money and family connections to the use, swapping over to a bicycle for the remainder of the trip. His child trailer was packed to the top with supplies, including 2kgs of potatoes and 2 different stoves, which he was still hanging onto after the van switch. Throwing himself straight into the deep end with Norway’s steep mountains and harsh weather, Luk started cycling from Kristiansand on the south coast of Norway, with his goal being the North Cape in the Arctic Circle. We admired his adaptability and enjoyed his company for the following days while we leapfrogged each other up and over mountains.
Aluminum is difficult to re-weld, which we found out at the top of a mountain pass in southern Norway, surrounded by curious sheep. The trailer arm that attaches to Zoa’s bicycle was recently re-welded in Kristiansand by a tall, white haired Viking. The price? Buy a Norwegian a beer if you find them travelling in Australia. Unfortunately, although the Viking assured us it would be as strong as before, without anything to brace it, the welding only lasted a few days. This time both arms broke completely, disconnecting the trailer’s umbilical cords from the bicycle. Our big dog Jack was out of a ride. We struggled in the rain and wind to temporarily put the trailer back together with our usual materials of duct tape and zip ties, with some broken tent pegs for support. It was wobbly and far from ideal, but it got us all the way to Stavanger, including a steep 7km hill to Lysebotn with a 2km tunnel. As we got off the ferry along the Lysefjord, famous for its hanging rock Kjerag and the sharp cliffs of Preikestolen, a Mr and Mrs Oil came up to us interested in the bike/dog combination. As it turns out Mr Oil was an engineer and told us to visit his company, and he’d see what he could do about the trailer. We cycled through the oil and gas businesses on the industrial coast west of Stavanger, and heard from Mr Oil that all the aluminium welders in the area were on holidays, but that he would try to brace it with some homemade repairs that evening after work. Perfect! But before the trailer could be fixed that evening the plan was hijacked by another Norwegian, Mr Fix It, a retired electrician. Having just met him outside of a grocery store, he surprised us when he found us at the nearby campground. We tried to explain that it was ok, the trailer was going to be fixed, showing him the business card of Mr Oil. Mr Fix It called Mr Oil on his phone, and explained he had taken over the project. Mr Fix It said to us that Mr Oil was a company man and that company men want money, it would be better if he did it for free. Three hours later Mr Fix It returned triumphantly with the braced, glued trailer, ready to roll again. We listened to his stories and advice about Norway, and thanked him warmly. As we slept in the next morning, we were surprised by a voice out the tent. Mr Fix It was passing by and had brought us some extra straps and zip ties, oh, and a road atlas of Europe. Before we packed off and headed north he had returned for one last encore, with some tasty sandwiches and some snacks for the dogs. Welcome to Norway.
Northern Exposure – The Media in Scandinavia
“Don’t you want to be famous?” she asked excitedly. The dogs and I were enjoying the last rays of sun outside a shopping complex near Bergen, while Zoa was picking up some last minute groceries. “You should be in the newspaper. You are crazy!” she continued looking down at our bikes, before searching though her mobile phone address book for the number of the newspaper. A few days later we left Bergen for a 24 hour train ride to Norway’s northernmost station, Bodo. Sitting down eating a bakery snack on a public bench, we were shocked when 2 strangers stopped to mention they saw us in the newspaper. “Really? Are you from Bergen?” I asked surprised. “No, I live here.” It turns out that not only did our story make page 5 news in Bergen’s BA newspaper, it was forwaded on to a national newspaper. “I already know about how you fell in love, and where you have been” she continued, smiling at us. Five minutes later we were encouraged again by a local to have our story told in the paper. Out of the news office walked a sweet, young woman with a pad and paper and camera to question us. When I said that it was strange to be in 3 newspapers in the space of a week after going 12 months within being in any, she told us that Norwegians love to inform the media of a story. “Often I find out about an accident or a story before the police.”
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Useful Links: Travelling Two: Portugal
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A Slovenian woman selling cherries told us that when God was creating the world, Slovenia was left until last. When he went into his bag all that remained was a jumble of odds and ends; a little bit of coast, some snow capped mountains, rivers, flatlands, rolling hills, etc. He turned his bag upside down and shook out all that was left into the small area now known as Slovenia (it gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991). Add to this a friendly and gentle folk not jaded by heavy tourism, a young and vibrant capital city, some rustic countryside not yet fallen to giant monocultures of crops, tasty well priced food, and some nice cycling routes. Love it.
Within Slovenia’s Trigalav National Park is Europe’s cleanest river (or so we were told) and certainly one of its most beautiful. The Soca river blasts out of a snow covered abyss high in the mountains, and cascades furiously in part through spectacular narrow limestone gorges. The water is a crystal clear aqua marine unlike anything we have seen before, carving through valleys of wildflowers and thick forest. The area is a haven for water sports and most cars are crowned by a kayak or two. Unfortunately long delays from heavy road construction had us very late for our first ever kayak lesson, and after a donning our wetsuits and life jackets and 60 seconds of instruction, we pushed off into the strong flow of white water. The river welcomed us like old friends. It was late afternoon and the river was empty, with the last kayakers drying up on the banks and packing their vans. It was glorious and exhilarating, but unnervingly we both found ourselves spinning around to face upstream. “The river is so strong you can’t really fight it, just use the flow of the river to turn around again and look where you want to be going” our instructor yelled across the rapids. “What if we flip our kayak?” Zoa yelled back. “Don’t worry, you will not flip. Just avoid the trees and you’ll be fine, and remember to always look where you want to be going.” Confidence grew as we navigated our first series of obstructions, some fallen trees and some rocks. When the river split in two with a rocky bank in the middle favoured by nudists on hot days, another tangle of tree branches loomed in the distance. I looked off to the safe path to the left of it, but found myself spinning around again. Shit! Not the time to be facing the wrong way! By the time I had straightened the kayak, it gave me just enough time to shit my pants. A thick, tangle of branches were rapidly approaching, and there was no way I was going to avoid them. I braced myself and tried to lean back to slide through underneath. Sky turned to water. Water everywhere. Water, rushing and dragging all around. Water that didn’t give a damn about me. Panic kicked in when the natural instinct of surfacing for air never came. In the shock I had forgotten I was strapped in and started wriggling and wondering if this was the end. Finally, I came up loose and gasping, and with the help of the instructor I managed to cross the river to safety. Meanwhile Zoa was now going solo downstream and the nervous instructor yelled at her to wait. She tried paddling upstream but the current was too strong and she heard the shout, “left, left, left….”. She caught on that he wanted her to reach the shore on the left. Finally, the three of us were reunited, all safe, albeit I was a bit white and shaken, and the instructor went through what to do if one of us capsizes again.
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A new chapter of our journey began at the buzzing French-Basque town of St Jean Pied-de-Port. Literally translating to ‘foot of the pass’ in Pyrenean French, it is the last resting point for pilgrims before the arduous Roncevaux Pass over the Pyrenees, the natural frontier between France and Spain. A well worn route throughout human history, it has been treaded by ancient traders, Roman legions, and Napoleon’s soldiers. These days its main traffic is from shepherds and a growing trail of adventurous souls seeking an inner and/or outer journey on The Way of St James pilgrimage, more affectionately known as the camino. Read on…
An unexpected encounter with Daza, an abandoned dog in the abandoned mines of Andalucia, southern Spain. Read the story…
Empty Chairs by the Highway
Looking to make some quick progress up the east coast of Spain we decided against our usual meandering routes along quiet village roads and instead took the most direct route, whatever the cost. The kilometers were ticking by steadily when we turned off the highly developed coast onto an arterial road heading north to the French border. Our heavy, recently fed bellies and the sound of the cars whizzing by had us in a dreamlike trance, until a vision on the crest of the hill snapped us awake.
On the opposite shoulder of the road in front a rundown, derelict block of buildings a woman stood confidently in a tight black leather skirt, thigh-high laced black boots, and a black bustier bursting with ample cleavage. As we took in the sight she called out something to us in Spanish with a smile on her face. We laughed as we always do when we have no idea what someone is saying, although we could hazard a guess.
1km later we passed another mini-skirted woman sitting on a white, plastic garden chair beside a pull-off to a dirt track. A few more kilometers and a few more chairs, one of them empty, with a car parked in the bush. The last chair sat at the bottom of a hill in a very dangerous area to pull off, and we felt sorry for a chubbier black mama in fluro clothing with bleached blonde hair and big white Elton John style sunglasses. When in Rome…
It felt like we were stuck in the Twilight Zone, cycling aimlessly in Barcelona’s suburbs for eternity. When we finally found our way to the downtown, we were overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of such a large city. After getting our bearings we zipped around the city following the route of the tourist buses, on some handy bicycle paths.
Our frustrating morning soon disappeared as were dazzled by Gaudi buildings, the funky narrow streets of the old town, and the bustling and vibrant beachfront. Having spent as much daylight as possible in the city, we cut ourselves a difficult job of finding a camping spot. It was a clear night, so we were hoping for a quiet corner along the waterfront to lay down our tarp and sleep under the stars. We kept looking without finding until we got to Badalona, Barcelona’s bad ass sister.
Pitch black now and with busy Friday night traffic we settled for a quiet corner of a seawall in the dark. Tired as always, we fell asleep quickly, while on the rocks below night time fisherman sat amongst the rubbish. Before long we were awoken by the sound of a bottle smashing. We looked down and saw a bunch of drunken teenagers doing what drunken teenagers do, laughing and doing goofy things. One of them peaked over the wall to take a look at us and we were a wee bit nervous, but eventually we fell back asleep.
At 2 am we were again woken up by the sounds of loud voices. This time a middle-aged couple was working out their marital problems, probably too loud for their thin walls at home. They argued back and forth until resolution was reached at 4am and then quietly walked away hand-in-hand. We fell back to sleep for another couple of hours when our alarm clock went off. Not your average alarm clock and definitely no snooze button, this time an enthusiastic trumpet player blowing out his soul to the Mediterranean. He practiced his repertoire until the sun rose and the cyclists, joggers, and dog walkers came to life.
Blowing in the Wind
We have heard quite a few warnings about cycling the dangerous roads of the east coast of Spain, so we were clever and navigated inland into the hills. As we made tracks north in the province of Valencia we were confronted by more and more windmills, being powered by stronger and stronger wind. Every day it grew stronger, until it got to the point that even going down hill was hard work. It was almost impossible to keep a straight line on the road, and the wind knocked us over a few times luckily not into any traffic. One day, exhausted by lunch time after cycling and pushing for only 30kms, we crashed in the shelter of a railway bridge, Fin and Paco falling into a deep sleep. Defeated, we decided to head back to the coast for a busier but easier route to Barcelona. We now understand the value of researching the prevailing wind patterns of countries before choosing a route.
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As we departed the Arctic Circle and entered Sweden through mountains freshly dusted in the first snowfall of autumn we were pretty sure of one thing. It was late September, and with nighttime temperatures consistently below zero, Scandinavia’s six month snow season was set to begin any day now. Surely we would be the only fools to cycle here at this time of year? Wrong. Meet Christopher…
Sweden wins the prize for most unusual gift of the trip; a moose leg presented to our big dog Jack by a friendly hunter. It also has the honour of being the only place where we have had two offers of hospitality for one night. We arrived to the tiny village of Trodje late in the afternoon. A pizzeria, a kiosk, a primary school and around 250 houses. I entered the pizzeria and tried to contact a friendly Swede called Olle who had invited us for coffee at his house three days earlier. There was no answer, but we were soon taken under the wing of Yvonne, a grandmother living by herself with a heart of gold. When she found out we were sleeping in a tent, she said. “Naj!” with a big laugh, and waved us into her home, pointing to a double bed. “You can sleep here” she told us. “Too cold for tent.” We gratefully accepted and were half way through eating a pizza when Olle walked in. “Hej! You could have eaten with us you know” he said, noticing the pizza. “You can still come over for coffee and dessert. Do you need a place to stay?” We were warmly invited into the musical home of Olle and Ingrid, and their beautiful daughter, and left several hours later with a handful of gifts; a CD of the traditional Swedish harp-like instrument, a map of the Baltic States and a Lonely Planet guidebook. Wow! We headed back to Yvonne’s and were made to feel like it was our home, like she was our mother away from home. “Today there will be rain and wind. Not leave today. Leave tomorrow.” She had called local newspaper and we soon were being interviewed and photographed by reporters. The next day was all rain. “Not leave today. Leave tomorrow” she told us again. The pizzeria, seeing the article in the newspaper sent us over 2 free pizzas for lunch. Meanwhile Yvonne was masterfully knitting us some beautiful scarves, toques and gloves from the softest of Alpaca wool as a farewell present.
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Highlights: Gorges du Pichoux, St. Ursanne, mountain biking the River Doubs, Romainmotier
The Baltic Countries
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Free Camping in Estonia
Be on the lookout for RMK campsites in Estonia, which are most common in natural areas, away from public roads and settlements. You can pitch your tent legally, for free, and can often find a nearby toilet. Ask for details from tourist info, or check out a roadside map if you happen upon one.
The ever-hungry cyclist can’t go too wrong in the Baltics. From or brief experience, food is cheap, fresh, and very tasty. Nice salads with cabbage and pickles, big portions of hearty carbs, and lunch time milk aplenty for the dairy lovers. Normally we cook a lot of our own food to save money, but here it is cheap and plentiful, and we are happy to add our small contribution to the struggling economies. Vegetarian? Hmmmm… outside of bigger cities that can be difficult. “This soup has three kinds of meat in it. This one has four…”
Matsalu National Park: The Heathrow of Migrating Birds
You don’t have to be an ornithologist to appreciate a bird in flight. Matsalu National Park is a wetlands of international importance on the west coast of Estonia. The floodplains, reedbed, islets, coastal and wooded meadows are home to 282 species of birds, 49 species of fish and 47 species of mammals. In the tiny town of Penijõe you can visit the State Nature Conservation Centre to view exhibits, slideshows and videos or get additional information about the hiking trails andwatching towers. Best seen in Spring and early Autumn. For maximum birdage, visit in May.
If you like the idea of jumping on a train as plan B, be warned. Keep in mind that the train network in the Baltics is fairly threadbare.. There is not even a direct connection between Riga and Vilnius, two capital cities. There is a better network of buses, but getting a bicycle or two on board depends on whether there is enough space left.
Apparently there are many reasons not to travel in the Baltic Countries, but the main one is radioactive thieves. “You might get mugged…. Don’t leave anything unlocked…. Be careful where you camp…. The drivers are crazy…. They dump nuclear waste by the roadside….” We pedaled off the ferry into Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, on a chilly autumn morning with pitch forks in hand, prepared for the worst. Besides some bundled up old ladies, the car-free cobblestone streets were empty… phew! It was a Sunday morning and the gangs of radioactive thieves must still be asleep, hunched over broken vodka bottles. Read on…
Armed with a free map of the Baltics and a free Baltic guide book (both kindly donated to us in Sweden), for once we were well informed tourists. We could drop obscure historical facts into conversation as if we were highbrow intellectuals, and navigate with the sonar efficiency of a bat. Or so we thought. Read more…