Sunday, 5 August 2012

Edinburgh, Scotland - The epilogue

“Life is like a bicycle. In order to keep your balance you must keep moving” 
Albert Einstein

I gave up a good life to undertake my world bicycle adventure. I had a decent job, lived in a nice place and was always enjoying my passion, the great outdoors. But I’m not one to settle into a routine and I believe in life that you can’t just keep doing the same thing. Every now and then you need to throw your life up in the air and see where it lands. And so, alongside a longing for adventure, that was one of my reasons for setting out on my bike ride in the first place. 

So now the adventure is over, I ask myself … how is my life now and how has the trip changed me? My life does feel more balanced by the experience. Living simply for two years and travelling by bicycle has helped me put things back into perspective and a more sensible priority. We worry so much about having a bigger house or nicer clothes or getting the latest gadgets.  But these things don’t make you happy. I have lived for over two years with only the amount of stuff that I can carry on a bicycle and have been deliriously happy. I’ve met people across the world with very little material wealth but with hearts of gold, like the mountain peoples of Turkey who gave me food and shelter when I needed them most. I’ve talked to people with different priorities to ponder such as people whose lives have been devastated by flood, earthquake or just plain poverty. 

I’m not going to say that the trip has changed me … the same person who left, has returned. But everything that we do, every experience we have, makes us the person that we are. So in that way, the trip has added to the magic that is me! But I’ve learned some important things. Most of all that despite what we see on television, the world is actually full of good people ready to show kindness and warmth to strangers. When I think back about all the good people who gave me a bed or a meal or just a smile on the road, I am overwhelmed to the point of tears. I’ve also learned just how lucky I am to be able to undertake such a trip and I’ve learned to always remember those less fortunate than me like the miners of Potosi or the people of flooded Minot or crippled Christchurch who lost everything. Through experiencing other countries and cultures, the trip has given me a more balanced view of the world. 

“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live” 
Mark Twain

It was always my dream to load up a bicycle and cycle it away to distant lands. And that’s another  lesson learned on the trip … that you should live your dreams … except the one where you get eaten by a giant spider!

Soon after setting out, it was clear that travelling by bicycle made a whole world of difference to my experience. I really got to know the contours of a country on a bike and every day I lived and breathed its landscapes and elements. I was outdoors 24 hours per day, either cycling or enjoying my camp spot. On a bike you get a depth of experience that you can’t achieve any other way, except perhaps by foot. When you do the whole of your journey by bicycle you inevitably end up travelling through all the “places in between” which are usually far more interesting than the famous sights on your route. The delightful and friendly little towns of the American Midwest were a prime example of this.

Travelling by bicycle also changed the way people interacted with me. First of all I was going slowly and often passing through out-of-the-way places on the quiet back roads that don’t see many visitors. So local people had the chance to stop me, to chat and to bring me into their lives. I am sure the bicycle breaks down barriers as it was often so easy to speak to people and form bonds with them. Nowhere was this more evident than in the United States when there were so many invitations to stay with people after chance encounters in the street or diner like the time bumping into the Donaldsons in Havre resulted in staying with the family for several days and being taken to an Indian pow-pow and rodeo. I will never forget the people that showed me such kindnesses. They made a huge impact on my journey and I hope, in some small way, I also touched their lives as I passed through them, all too briefly. 

I know people back home were worried about me travelling by bicycle but I made it back having had a wonderful adventure and the bike wasn’t stolen, I didn’t get sick, I wasn’t robbed or murdered … and the tales I lived to tell were all the better from the saddle of a bike! 

“Chasing records doesn’t keep me on my bike. Happiness does”   
Lance Armstrong

I found deep happiness out there on my bike on the open road. It was partly the joy of living simply, of being out in the elements and nature all day, every day and of pitching my tent each night at a different place. The thought of something new around each corner kept my wheels turning. And it was partly the spectacular landscapes that I cycled through from the deserts and red rocks of the Argentinian Andes to the simple beauty of the North American plains. Throughout the trip one sight that always filled my heart with happiness was seeing a shape coalesce on the horizon into the unmistakable outline of another long-distance pedaller on a heavily-loaded bike. It wasn’t just a chance for a chat – it also felt good to be part of a network of people travelling by bike, enjoying an alternative lifestyle and living the same dream as me. 

Of course, I wasn’t happy all of the time. Cycling across the Argentinian pampa drove me to tears with terrible trucks, hideous headwinds that often forced me to walk and saddle sores that rubbed through to raw flesh. But even the bad bits added to the sum of the whole … I just loved the challenges, the hardships and the adventure of it all. Heat, cold, rain, snow, hills, solitude, endless miles and getting lost … I couldn’t get enough! 

There is an art to life and happiness, you can’t just expect it to happen. For me happiness is about having adventures in the present and making memories for the future … memories that will give me a warm glow inside for years to come.  Even now when I go to bed at night, I imagine that I am back in my cabin on Lausanne, the cargo ship that took me across the Atlantic. I can still hear the throb of her engine, the creak of the superstructure and the gentle roll of the ocean waves. 

The only ocean waves that I’m currently experiencing are those off the beach at Portobello as I paddle along in my canoe. I look back to shore and this sweet little town that I called home.  At first I felt desperately sad to arrive back in Portobello at the end of my journey but soon I started to feel something else … that this was just another stopover on a longer journey. I have never wanted to settle down to a normal life and that feeling is even stronger now. I know that one day in the not too distant future, I’ll load up my bicycle again, roll out onto the road and feel the deep excitement as my tires turn at the start of a new adventure.

 The End 

New folder on Flickr capturing the photo highlights from the whole adventure

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Edinburgh, Scotland - Loose ends


The “bicycle diaries” will soon draw to a close so just a few loose ends to tie up before I say a final farewell.

First of all ... the moment you've all been waiting for ... the result of the final "bicycle diaries" competition. I can tell you the winner is ... John Forker of Edinburgh who made the closest guess to the correct total mileage of 16,053 miles. A 2013 “bicycle diaries” calendar is on its way.

Secondly, my warmest thanks to everybody who has contributed to my fundraising for Oxfam. I have just reached my target of £2000! The page will remain open for a wee while yet if you still want to make a donation.

Last but certainly not least, I’d like to say a big thank you to my base camp manager, Graham, who has been a wonderful help throughout the trip and my financial manager, my dad. A huge thank you also goes out to all my wonderful hosts and helpers on the road … and to all of you … thanks for watching.

Keep reading for the final blog …

Monday, 23 July 2012

Edinburgh, Scotland - Home is where the heart is


It was another miserable, wet Sunday morning. Wind-driven rain lashed against the big bay windows of the waterfront guesthouses where, dry and cosy inside, the guests enjoyed their croissants and lashings of hot coffee as they looked out over the grey North Sea. Did they see the woman on a heavily–loaded bike cycle by, wrapped up in layers of waterproofs that hid the shabby clothes that she wore, tattered by the winds and bleached by the sun? Did they wonder where she had come from or where she was going? She was going home. 

That woman was me on my way north up the coast of Holland. I had battled across the horrible sprawl of Rotterdam in pouring rain the day before and was now riding in the rain again to the ferry terminal at Ijmuiden to catch the Newcastle sailing. It’s funny how there are key moments in life and you imagine exactly how they are going to be but it never quite works out like that. I had imagined this moment for some time. Although I still had some cycling to do back in Britain to get to Portobello, stepping onto the ferry in Holland seemed to me like the end of my world bicycle adventure. As the ferry pulled out from the quayside I stood out on deck and, as I listened to a favourite, melancholy tune on my ipod, I gazed to the horizon and tried to look well-travelled, windswept and interesting. But my music was drowned out by the ferry company playing at deafening levels what sounded like the comedy theme tune for Pathe News and the moment, as I had imagined it, was lost. Next morning the rain was still falling as the boat docked in Newcastle and I began my ride towards Scotland.

I cycled north up the coast and passed the seaside town of Whitley Bay. It was freezing cold and raining and a bitter wind whipped up white horses on the gunmetal grey waters of the North Sea. But the beach was full of people picnicking, swimming and surfing. You have to admire the Brits with their stiff upper lips, making the best of another bad British summer. 

The sun came out briefly next day as I pedalled by the sea and along the back roads of Northumberland but it was raining again when I picnicked below Bamburgh Castle and cycled across the old bridge over the Tweed at Berwick. It was pouring when I started climbing up through the Lammermuirs, the last hills to cross on my journey. On one of the most foul weather nights I have ever spent in the outdoors, I pitched my tent at Whiteadder Reservoir behind the sailing club. I re-arranged some of the outdoor furniture to get a good spot for my tent. The correct thing to do was to put it back next morning but I thought my own arrangement had slightly better “feng shui” and I had left quickly to take advantage of a beautiful morning, as early sunshine bathed the hills. 

I had chosen this particular route over the Lammermuirs for a special reason. Just after the last rise, where the little road from Longformacus comes in from the left and beyond the first bend, there is a stunning view of the Forth estuary. Today, with morning sun and blue skies, it was magnificent. Edinburgh nestled on the shore in the distance, the Lomond Hills of Fife provided a backdrop and the sapphire-blue waters of the River Forth stretched out passed North Berwick Law and the gannet colony on the Bass Rock. It was the route that I had set out on over two years ago on a ferry to Belgium. I choked back tears as I gazed down on the scene now and imagined an orange-painted ferry cutting its way through the blue waters and out into open seas. I imagined I could see a Scottish woman standing out on deck on the brink of the greatest adventure of her life. She had a bicycle below and a big smile up top. And I thought to myself … I would give anything to turn back the clock and do it all again. 

But there was already a small welcoming party gathered on the promenade in Portobello so I cycled on along the familiar routes of East Lothian and down the banks of the River Esk. Due to the rains, much of the route was under several inches of water but I cycled on right through it, just like Lausanne, my Atlantic cargo ship, ploughing through the high seas. A local cyclist pulled up beside me and said “Have you been on a bit of a tour?”. “Yes” I said, “a bit of a tour”. Minutes later I was pedalling along the prom back to my starting point of two years ago. The “Pauline’s World Cycle” banner that had been hung out at the start of my trip was up again but it had been repainted from “Start” to “Finish”. So my bicycle adventure has finished and I am back home. 

But I’m not sure that I am home. Home is where the heart is and my heart is out on the open road with a distant horizon, an ever-changing view and a colourful set of characters. And there’s another cyclist on my road and in my heart … a rather loveable Belgian man!


Brit pics on Flickr. Keep reading for the final installment and the competition winner.

CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Edinburgh, Scotland - Update

This afternoon, two years and two weeks after setting out, I rolled into Portobello under sunny, blue skies to complete my world cycle.

Keep reading for the rest of the story ...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Seahouses, England - Last chance to win

Blimey, I'm back in Blighty! In celebration of two years on the road and the fast-approaching end of my trip, I'm launching the third and final "bicycle diaries" competition. There's a fabulous prize up for grabs - a 2013 calendar featuring the top photos from the tour! Tigger, my faithful navigator, is currently pouring over the maps to work out the total number of miles that I have cycled on the trip. All you have to do to win is guess correctly the total mileage and send your answer by email to symaniak88@hotmail.co.uk with your agreement to be named in the blog if you win and your postal address. Closing date is 31 July. Good luck!

And remember to sponsor me for Oxfam if you've not already done so ... just click on the link on the right. Thank you.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Dordrecht, Holland - A river runs through it


It’s one of Europe’s great rivers, an industrial powerhouse and a key transport artery into the heart of the continent. It’s graced with natural landscapes, historic towns and vineyards but blemished by urban sprawl and factories. Since I left the Alps it has guided me north on the homeward leg of my trip. It is, of course, the River Rhine or, as I shall forever affectionately call it, the “River Rain”. Yes … it has been wet!

I joined the Rhine just east of Basel after I cycled out of the Swiss Alps and it was just west of Basel in the French village of Kembs that I was kidnapped by Bart and returned to the mountains for another idyllic month of hiking, biking and living it up in his campervan. And so it was that when Bart returned to Belgium he dropped me back on the Rhine at Kembs to continue my journey home. We said goodbye on a miserable, wet Sunday morning and I cycled away in rivers of rain and floods of tears. 

As I pedalled downriver through forests and pastures and pretty little villages, the rain lashed for several days, a case of the weather matching my mood. But eventually the sun came through for a little while and with it came the mosquitoes! I’ve slept in some strange places on this trip from gas stations to hotel storage rooms to public toilets and on the Rhine I found another strange spot. It was getting late in the day and I couldn’t find a place to camp as every good spot was infested with millions of mozzies. Then, just outside the quiet village of Reinsheim in the far corner of a sportsfield, I spotted a tent that on closer inspection was empty and abandoned. It was one of those huge, cheap tents that people buy in Asda for 50 quid then throw in the bin after the first gust of wind blows it down. I wheeled my bike straight in and dived into bed in one of the rooms, well out of the reach of the mozzies! 

There is a bicycle route that runs the full length of the Rhine, all the way through Germany and into Holland where the river splits into a huge delta and flows into the North Sea and it’s that route that I followed for nearly two weeks. It’s a small part of an amazing network of bicycle routes throughout Germany and Holland, all mapped and signposted. I barely ever touched traffic. In an effort to save money, I didn’t buy a proper map of the route and was laying my trust in the efficient signposting. Unfortunately the signs all disappeared around the large town of Ludwigshafen in a maze of roadworks, motorways and diversions, and I got incredibly lost. A local man came to my rescue and cycled with me for over an hour in a mini adventure along back roads, bike routes, farm tracks and muddy fields to get me back on my route. I had a job keeping up with him even though he was 72! 

Each day I would pass and exchange a greeting with all sorts of cyclists from locals on their daily commute to heavily-loaded, long-distance pedallers like myself. I especially remember two very loud German cyclists that I kept meeting. They wore those “bib” style cycling lycras that Bart likes but then Bart has the figure for them … these chaps did not! They didn’t even wear T-shirts on top so their huge, bloated bellies bulged out between the braces, looking like they’d been inflated with bicycle pumps! I never saw them without a beer in their hand so that explains a lot. Mind you, you have to sympathise with them because you can’t pedal a mile along the Rhine without passing a bar or café with a waterfront terrace. It’s so tempting to sit a while and watch the barges ferrying cargo, coal and cars up and down the river, or the cruise boats depositing tourists at another castle or historic bridge or souvenir stall. I took a few short cruises on the Rhine myself … each time I had to cross from one side to the other on the little ferries. Thankfully there are hundreds of these ferries that haven’t been replaced by bridges. They are a very charming aspect of cycling along the river. 

The sun did make a few appearances. At the beautiful small city of Koblenz I sat on a terrace enjoying a coffee at Deutches Eck where the Mosel adds its waters to the Rhine and listened to the music from an accordion player drift through the hot summer air. But the sun brings its own problems! My water bottles had developed a lining of green algae and I didn’t have a long-handled brush to clean them. Late one afternoon I stopped to ask a farmer if I could have some water. He helpfully took my bottles away into the house to fill them but took a long time to bring them back. I later discovered why … he had cleaned all the algae out of them! It briefly got really hot and sweaty as I cycled through the vineyards and orchards of the upper Rhine before I was engulfed by rain again. As the Rhine passed into Holland huge headwinds whipped across the flat farmland and waterways, driving the rain into my face. I cycled on along bike routes and quiet back roads, peering through the rain for views of windmills and pretty little villages with narrow, cobbled streets. I always wanted to linger in these places but the rain and wind blew me onwards to the end of the river.

My wet but wonderful journey along the Rhine has brought me from the mountains to the sea. In the next few days I’ll cross the city of Rotterdam and cycle north up the coast to catch my ferry from Amsterdam back to old Blighty! From what I’ve heard about this summer’s weather, I can expect more rivers of rain.


Photos from the Rhine on Flickr - sorry but the camera wasn't out much in the rain!
CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Rastatt, Germany - The king and queen of cols


As I pedal my way north along the Rhine in the rain, the world’s most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France, is underway. I never paid much attention to it myself but this year I’ll be eager to catch the mountain stages. You see, Bart and I have just finished an eight-day cycle tour climbing some of the highest Alpine road passes, many of which have been made legendary by the cyclists of “Le Tour”. 

Many people may find it a bit strange to want to cycle every day up one, two or even three high mountain passes in the stinking heat of a European summer, only to come straight back down the other side. But “collecting” these passes, or “cols” as the French call them, can become quite addictive! We’d loaded up our bikes and parked Bart’s campervan in the quiet ski village of Saint Sirlon d’Arves, where it would be safe while we were away, and started our tour with one of the most famous and beautiful cols, the 2642m Galibier. Hours of hard climbing took us up into the mountains and the last of the winter snows alongside hundreds of other cyclists keen to add this col to their “tick list”. Most cyclists undertaking these rides are cycling superlight race bikes with no luggage and some even have support vehicles.  So I was pleased to do the climb on my superheavy touring bike with all my kit for a week on the road and to make the top not too far behind Bart! The climb was rewarded with spectacular views of Park Nationale des Ecrins and a bit of a party atmosphere on top as all the cyclists celebrated their achievement and queued to take a photo in front of the sign! 

Our next famous pass was the 2360m Col d’Izoard, a bizarre landscape of bare mountains and weathered rock formations. As we sat on top eating our picnic, we watched with admiration as an elderly coupled arrived by bicycle on the summit. They were probably in their sixties or seventies! When the man stepped off his bike, he was almost bent double with a bad back but the woman was fit and beautiful for her age with long, plaited hair and tanned skin. We hoped to still be cycling when we were their age! After Izoard we ticked off the easy 2109m Col de Vars which was notable for me as there I passed the 15,000 miles mark on my world bicycle trip. 

I never come first or win anything in life but that was about to change as we pedalled on to tackle our next legendary col! The highest road pass in Europe is the 2802m Col de la Bonette which seems to sit on the roof of the Alps, high up in remote and rugged mountain scenery. Bart and I couldn’t believe our luck when we got to the final section of the long, hard climb to the col – snowploughs were just clearing the last remnants of the winter snows to officially open the road for 2012! As soon as we could, we squeezed by the machines and pedalled furiously to be the first official cyclists over the col this year. Forever a sweetheart, Bart let me go ahead to reach the col first and crowned me Miss Col de la Bonette 2012! 

We added many more miles and many metres of ascent as the days rolled by and we conquered one col after another. And as the temperature soared into the thirties, we watched the world go by sipping cold drinks on the terraces of bars and cafes in the pretty, little French towns that we cycled through. On our final day we cycled over the easiest col of the tour, the 1367m Col d’Ornon, and then the most difficult one, the 2067m Col de la Croix de Fer. As Bart’s GPS gave a temperature reading of 36 degrees, we climbed a long and initially steep approach road that dispiritingly plummeted back down several times, forcing us to climb again all the height that we’d lost. But eventually the top came and we cycled over the col which is dominated by the impressive rock spires of Les Aiguilles d’Arves. A short descent took us back to the van at Saint Sirlon and we were surprised to see it joined on this quiet spot by about twenty other campervans. Bart and I laughed all evening when we found out that we had parked in the middle of a campervan club reunion! 

All-in-all on our 8-day tour we conquered 14 cols over a distance of 632 kms and with 14,567m of climbing! We may not be signing up for next year’s Tour de France but I think we have earned our title of the “King and Queen of Cols”.


Photos on Flickr in the Alps folder

CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Barcelonette, France - 15,000 miles

I know you are watching so ... please sponsor me as I have just completed 15,000 miles on my world cycle. Bart and I are back on the bikes to take on the challenge of cycling over some of the highest passes in the Alps. Keep reading for the full story.


To sponsor me for Oxfam, click on the link on the right. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

L'Ecot, France - Technical? Me?

You are probably all sitting at home asking yourself “what does one pack when one is cycling for two years in various parts of the world” and even if you are not, I am going to give you the answer. Yes, the time has come in this blog to give you all a bit of technical jargon … at least as technical as I ever get … which is not very technical at all! 

Of course, the first thing you need for adventure cycling is a bicycle and I’m so happy with my Thorn Sherpa which has been strong, reliable, versatile and very comfortable … although the old girl is a bit on the heavy side. Every now and again I have popped the bike into a local bike shop wherever I am for a quick service and replacement of any worn parts and the only serious problem I have had is a buckled rear rim from riding on the appalling washboard gravel roads of Argentina. I had to hitch a lift to the next town with a “bicicleteria” for a replacement. I don’t carry many spares as in most parts of the world you will find a bike shop of some description but I do have a puncture repair kit and spare inner tubes though to date I have only had three punctures in nearly 15,000 miles thanks to my expedition grade Schwalbe tires. I do carry one of those rather nice multi-tools with secret compartments that reveal all sorts of useless attachments including the one that takes a week to open a tin of beans. Such multi-tools are commonly known in the trade as “the wrong tool for every job”. 

The second most important item is my camping kit which allows me to spend the night almost anywhere I choose and helps me save money by staying in campgrounds or camping wild rather than paying for rooms. Most of the trip I have carried a super-lightweight Terra Nova Laser Competition tent which packs small and light but is still quite roomy, especially if you are my tiny size. When Bart joined the expedition with his strong thighs and bottomless bike trailer, the accommodation was upgraded to a very spacious MSR three-person tent – there were only two of us but, like any couple, you never know when you might want to entertain in the evening! Dinner parties may be somewhat limited by simple cooking arrangements. I have an excellent Primus multi-fuel camp stove which can burn gas canisters, white gas, diesel, petrol and buffalo dung … OK, I’m lying about the buffalo dung. I cook with two titanium pots so I can make decent meals on the road and one of them is non-stick for goodies such as scrambled eggs and steaks! I also have a Titanium mug for enjoying the best part of any day – relaxing with a cup of tea or coffee. Titanium is very lightweight and, unlike aluminium cookware, doesn’t give you Alzheimer’s Disease.   For a comfortable night’s sleep I have an inflatable Thermarest camping mattress which fortunately has never punctured and a down-filled sleeping bag.  A silk liner for the bag keeps it clean, is all I need for sleeping in hot climates and adds a touch of luxury to my boudoir! 

Now to my wardrobe! Mostly I have followed summer around the globe, so shorts and T-shirts suffice for most of the day. But in the Andes, the east and west coasts of the United States and the mountains of New Zealand and Turkey, I cycled and camped in snow and freezing temperatures. So I also carry some really warm clothes including a thermal vest and long johns – had I known Bart was going to be joining me, I might have packed some sexier underwear! In the electrical department I have a Toshiba netbook computer which has allowed me to use free wifi, a Panasonic Lumix digital camera, a mobile phone for emergencies or sending texts to friends when I’m bored, an ipod with some favourite tunes and one clever device called CamCaddy that can charge all of these through the computer’s USB port!   

All of this stuff gets squashed, rolled, pushed and forced into four waterproof bicycle pannier bags – two on the front racks, two on the rear rack, with the tent strapped on top. Easy peasy! Most days the total weight of my kit, bicycle, food and water is about 37kg. And, despite devouring copious amounts of food, I still only weigh 47kg myself. Phew … no wonder I’m exhausted at the end of the day! And rattling off all this technical jargon is also quite exhausting so I’ll just hit the “off” button on my thingummyjig, pack away my dibberywotsit and worry about the hole in the blubberydooda tomorrow.

New photos on Flickr.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Les Chapieux, France - Kidnapped


Please help me … I have been kidnapped and am being held in a remote location in France. My kidnapper’s ransom demands will follow at the end of the blog.  Here is my statement for the French police.

After crossing the Col du Pillon, I cycled out of the Alps via the beautiful lakeside Swiss town of Thun with its trendy waterfront cafes and turreted castles. The excellent system of Swiss bicycle trails then whisked me along the course of the River Aare, whose fast-flowing, broiling waters took me by pretty little villages of wooden houses and through deep forests of tall pines. In most Swiss villages you will find a water fountain of some description which is always great for topping up your water bottles or retouching your hair which is usually matted like felt after several hot hours under a helmet. In the village of Wolfwil I was charmed by a dozen water fountains, all of a different design – on one you had to turn a handle to make the water come out of a dragon’s mouth and another was powered by a waterwheel. A local man told me that the water here comes from deep underground and gives you great strength. I would need strength for the drama that lay ahead.

An easy climb in the rain took me north from the River Aare and over forested hills to join one of Europe’s great rivers, the mighty Rhine. It had been my plan to follow the course of the Rhine north to Rotterdam to catch a boat home and so I cycled on through Basel and picked up a beautiful cycle path along a quiet canal close to the river. I cycled passed a system of huge locks on the river that allow the long, squat cargo boats to pass the hydroelectric dams. It was here that I met trouble. On the opposite side of the canal, parked in a picnic spot, I spotted a large white van, with two high windows, a satellite dish and a good-looking Belgian man. I went over for a closer look but before I knew what had happened, my kidnapper used his charms to entice me into the van and I was driven hundreds of miles back to the Alps. My kidnapper is now forcing me every day to do terrible things … things such as … climbing high mountains covered with spring flowers, cycling up impossibly steep cols and whizzing down the other side, eating delicious homemade bolognaise, drinking glasses of wine as the sun dips behind the peaks and snuggling under a warm duvet each night, reliving the memories of the day. It is a living hell!

I ask my family and friends not to be concerned as I am sure I will be released soon. But please, please send my kidnapper’s ransom demands as soon as possible … a large bag of fun-size Snickers and two Belgian beers.

Photos of my ordeal on Flickr.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Zweisimmen, Switzerland - Me, the goddess

After my Alpine walking break with Bart, I’m back on the bike, cycling my way across Switzerland and feeling like a goddess!

Throughout the trip, I have climbed some big mountains on my bicycle  – the Pyrennees, the Andes, America’s Appalachians and Rockies, New Zealand’s Southern Alps and now the European Alps. But today I probably did my last big climb of the trip, the 5000-foot Col du Pillon. I must confess to feeling very smug and a bit of a goddess when I power myself and my loaded bike to the top of these big climbs, especially when there is a crowd of onlookers of lard-ass motorists or coach parties or lightweight, lycra-clad racing cyclists who’ve carried nothing up there except their credit card. I always cycle the last section of the pass as hard and fast as I can then nonchalantly pull over at the top for a brief photo-shoot before stepping casually back on the bike and pushing off down the other side, as if I do this every day.

The day I cycled over the Col du Pillon it was grey and cold so I didn’t even arrive at the top red-faced, hot and sweaty. I was ... I believe ... looking like a goddess!

CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Turtmann Valley, Switzerland - White van man


White van drivers can drive you crazy. I had one right up my tail as I cycled through a long tunnel on the Simplon Pass, my route from Italy to Switzerland. But I didn’t mind this time … the white van driver was Bart in his camper!

Those of you following my bicycle blog will be expecting tales of the hardships of tent life and the challenges of the long road home but be prepared to be surprised … even shocked! As, for a short time only, I have swapped the tent and the bicycle for boots and a campervan. One week ago, on a cold, grey day, up in the late winter snows, I pulled up onto the 2005m Simplon Pass, one of the few Alpine passes open at this time of year, and found what I’d been looking for … a large white van, with two high windows, a satellite dish and a good-looking Belgian man!

Three weeks after parting in Italy, Bart and I are back together for a spot of walking in the Alps. Our base is Bart’s campervan … it’s a bit of luxury compared to my tent with kitchen, a bathroom complete with a hot shower, lounge/dining area and satellite TV so we can snuggle up and watch movies on the cold evenings. There is a part of the van that Bart calls the “garage” where all the play things are stored – several bikes, skis, snowshoes and sledges. Above 2000m it’s still winter in the Alps and on our first day in this valley we sat at the door of the van and watched as a north wind brought fresh snow to our little camp spot and the mountains and glaciers that rise sheer above us. But where the snow has receded colourful Alpine flowers poke up through the ground, as do the frisky little marmots that we see everywhere. The van has wifi for internet access, no matter that we are currently parked up in an empty dead-end valley. Don’t ask me exactly how it works! And yes … there are aluminium chairs … though it’s been a bit chilly for sitting outside.

Before we tucked ourselves away in the Turtmann Valley for a few days with the cupboards well-stocked with food, we took a short detour and cycled up to the swanky tourist resort of Zermatt. The bikes were chained up and we hiked high into the woods through gorgeous villages of wooden chalets before putting on our snowshoes and trekking through the snow to get a spectacular view of one of the most famous mountains in the world, the Matterhorn. It’s sheer rock walls rose above us into a blue sky as a cold wind whipped across the little top that we had climbed for a good view. We took the express route back down on our plastic sledges. Here in the Turtmann Valley, the van is parked up beside the river where we take our water and each day we walk up into the snow-covered mountains above us. Sometimes we are hiking through the forests alive with cuckoos, deer and squirrels and above the forests we strap on our snowshoes to get higher up into Alpine peaks, passes and cirques for sweeping panoramas that take in another famous mountain, Mont Blanc. On the way back we are always looking for a good slope and some hard snow to sledge down.

And at the end of each hiking day, I can come back and enjoy a relaxing coffee in the white van with my white van man!

Photos and words on Flickr.

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Friday, 11 May 2012

Lago d'Orta, Italy - A day in the life of ... ME


6am I’m up with the sun in a campground south of Bologna. It’s the day after I cycled over the Ponte Vecchio and north out of Florence. Campground was cheap for these parts at 10 euros but it is right beside a highway, a railway line and another highway under construction. Lovely! 

6.45am After a bit of kit packing I’m eating breakfast – corn flakes with sliced banana and dried fruit and nuts mixed through, followed by a fruit smoothie made with the rest of the milk and handy little sachets of fruit puree that you get in the shops, followed by coffee. 

7.30am Fully packed, on my bike and on the road, joining a stream of rush hour traffic heading into Bologna. Shortly after, my secondary road merges without warning onto a stretch of Italy’s A1 motorway. Ooops! I’m off again in under a mile, before the “polizia” pick me up and choose another road towards the city.

9.15am After an array of junctions and highway flyovers, I’ve found the right road west and I’m pleased I’ve navigated successfully across the outer urban sprawl of Bologna. I reward myself with coffee and a mini meringue at a “pasticceria”. I have to join one queue to get my meringue, a second queue to get my coffee and a third queue to pay for it all. Italian efficiency!

10.45am I stop for my second breakfast of a banana and rice cakes with Nutella and pick up things for lunch at a little supermarket in Anzola in case I don’t pass another one before everything closes for siesta. A local cyclist, a mature lady in full hair, make-up and designer outfit, chats to me. She thinks I’m very brave to cycle alone. People have said this to me throughout the trip and they say I must be very strong to which I reply “no, just very slow”. 

1.30pm I pull over into a village park in Ravarino for lunch - a stack of rice cakes with cheese and tomato, dried fruit and nuts, some rather expensive cherries, a 100g chocolate bar and an apple. I’ve enjoyed the morning’s cycle as I’m now rolling easily across Italy’s plains, a welcome relief from the never-ending, steep climbs of the mountains. The towns here may not be as spectacular but they are pleasant, homely, full of cyclists and empty of tourists. There is always a little treasure to find when you cycle onto a beautiful piazza or across a gorgeous old bridge. I lay out my laundry that I handwashed last night to dry in the sun. 

2.45pm I’m stopped on the outskirts of the large town I have to cross today, Carpi, trying to figure how the roads in front of me relate to the map – they don’t really. A local cyclist, Luca, pulls up beside me and offers to cycle with me across town to show me the way and I get a little tour into the bargain as we weave our way through the network of bike paths which are such a feature of towns in this part of Italy. Carpi was another little treasure with its enormous piazza overlooked by the castle and church, and its trendy pavement cafes tucked under the colonnades. It’s a stinking hot day now - I drink a cold can of coke in the piazza.

5pm After crossing more flat miles of farmyards, orchards and flooded fields of rice, I arrive in Guastalla and buy groceries from the Co-op for supper and tomorrow morning’s breakfast. I only buy a few things to add to what I’m already carrying but it comes to 10 euros. I’ve been amazed throughout the trip how expensive groceries are everywhere and I didn’t budget for that or for eating as I much as I have. I also get as much water as I can carry on the bike as I don’t know where I’ll be camping tonight or if I’ll have a water supply.

6pm No campgrounds on my route today so I’m starting to look for a spot to camp off to the sides of the quiet back road that I’ve chosen for this reason. I see a bike path heading into the trees and turn off onto it. It joins the banks of a huge river, the Po. I’m sure I’ll get a spot along here but cycle further to make sure I’m well away from the road access. I find a picnic table with a bit of mown grass beside it and decide this will do for a camp spot. I cook supper at the picnic table – a delicious medley of rice, green beans, tuna and tomatoes followed by fruit, rice cakes with Nutella, coffee and some sultanas. I have enough water left to wash off the worst of the day’s suncream, sweat and dust.

8pm A local cyclist stops for a chat. I ask him if its OK to camp here. He says there are lots of “serpentis” and there is a better place a mile further on. I don’t need much persuasion to follow him! It’s getting dark but we cycle to a restaurant on the banks of the river, its bright lights reflecting in the water. Next to it there is a sort of watersports club with an area for informal and free camping. There is a motorhome already there. I thank my second “road angel” of the day and with a shake of hands he disappears into the night. I pitch the tent as the sun sets over the Po, chuck everything inside and lock the bike to an adjacent tree.

9pm Write up my journal on the netbook and add up the distance I’ve cycled today (123km or 76 miles). Quick look at the map to note the route for tomorrow then lights out and I get off to sleep.

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Sunday, 6 May 2012

Florence, Italy - Frenzy in Firenze

A long time ago my friends Graham and Andrew went on a group holiday to Florence. For years they have bored me with their tales of that trip – “Florence this” … “Florence that”. At last I can now bore them with my own tales! 

The cycle north to this beautiful city, which the Italians insist on calling Firenze for some reason, was an idyllic mix of rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves, and gorgeous little towns stacked on the hilltops … so many that I stopped taking photos or even remembering their names. It was always “Monte-something-o”, the clue to their lofty location being in the name. Some days I melted under a fierce sun and other days shivered in torrential rain. On those wet days I sat out the heaviest downpours in bars as every village has one. I had to remember to ask for my coffee “molto caldo” or it would come at a luke warm temperature, insufficient to heat me up after a soaking. The menfolk of the village can always be found sitting outside these bars during siesta. The amusingly-named village of Grotti had an electronic community notice board opposite the bar and so the menfolk sat there for hours, watching it spell out such fascinating facts as the pharmacy opening hours. It was the most exciting thing in Grotti. As I wasted away from malnutrition waiting for the “alimentari” to open so I might buy groceries for supper, I joined them. The pharmacy in Grotti is open … like most things in Italy … hardly ever! 

The last section of the ride has been most notable for a few little acts of kindness. One evening, after a long day of cycling and without a campground on my route, I was struggling to find a spot to put up the tent. It’s usually not a problem – late afternoon I simply start looking for a dirt track that heads off the road into the woods and somewhere along it will be a perfect little place for my tent in the dappled sunshine below the trees. But that day I just couldn’t find it. So I ended up asking a chap who was working in his garden if I could camp in the field next door. He said “yes” but as I was getting the tent out, came down to tell me that I could use the empty apartment below him instead. He gave me the key and that night I enjoyed a sofa-bed, a kitchen and a hot shower! Then there was the greengrocer who gave me free bananas when he learned I was cycling to Scotland and a kindly campground manager who donated milk and fruit when the shops were closed again. 


A few more miles and I rolled into Florence which was a bit of a shock as traffic, tourists and souvenir stalls crowded the narrow city streets. These last two weeks I have been cycling in a different world of quiet rural villages going about their business where bent-over grandmothers sweep the pavements and old men in flat caps poke about in the woods along the empty back roads. I’m not sure what day it is and I’ve forgotten who is Prime Minister … though I hope it’s not still that Thatcher woman. If you want lots of cultural information about Florence, you are reading the wrong blog! I simply had a pleasant time on a grey, wet day ambling aimlessly along the banks of the grotty Arno and crossing back and forth on the famous Ponte Vecchio with its quaint little jewellery shops. Yes, I admired the Duomo and the Baptistry doors, and giggled with the girls at the many naked statues of well-endowed men at the Palazzo Vecchio. But my favourite sight in Florence was Il Porcellino, a beautiful, life-size sculpture in brass of a wild boar tucked away in the Mercato Nuovo. I placed a coin in his mouth which is said to bring good luck and rubbed his snout to ensure a return to Florence. Judging by its shine, millions of tourists have done the same.  

I know this is an outrageous thing to say about one of the world’s most famous cities but I wasn’t blown away by Florence. A couple of days before I had cycled through a tiny town to the southwest of the city called San Gimignano. With its ancient towers and narrow streets reaching into a blue sky above a delightful Tuscan scenery of red-roofed farmhouses amongst rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves, I thought it oozed much more charm and magic than its more famous neighbour. But what do I know? 

I do know this … that my friend Andrew wrote a funny story about that holiday to Florence all those years ago and he’ll be peeved that I stole the title which was … Frenzy in Firenze!


To see new photos on Flickr - click on the Flickr link on the right then on the Italy folder!

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Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Barrea, Italy - I smell ... therefore I am!


Since arriving in Italy by ferry from Greece, campgrounds, and therefore showers, have been quite hard to come by. And so I think that maybe … if you were to stand too close to me … you might say that I smell! 

The first day of cycling in Italy for me and Bart was a dreary ride up the ugly coast north of Brindisi, where our ferry arrived. But at least on the first night we found a lovely camp spot and put the tent up inside an old cow shed in an olive grove. I do mean lovely! It was a beautiful old building with a large arched doorway and all its original features … except the cows! We soon left the coast and cycled up into the hills that form the spine of Italy. Here we found attractive old towns with sunny piazzas overlooked by grand churches and old men sitting outside cafes. We cycled up higher into the hills where the little villages became clusters of flat-roofed buildings stacked precariously one on top of the other on vertical mountainsides or, annoyingly for the loaded cyclist, on the very top of the hills, like the pretty old town of Melfi. I must admit that we did get a shower in Melfi as we stayed in a hotel – a treat from Bart at the end of our time cycling together. Bart is now forging ahead of me to catch his plane back to Belgium. Already I miss him and snuggling up in the tent together but we’ll meet again in a short time. 

Cycling solo again, I battled headwinds across the ugly but appropriately named area of Benevento where the only place I could find to camp was behind the football pitch above the small village of San Salvatore. I laughed to myself in the evening as I thought I had found a quiet spot but didn’t count on football practice starting and the floodlights being switched on full-beam! Next day, I started cycling big climbs over 1000 metre passes up into the spectacular mountains of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park. My efforts were rewarded by views of pretty villages at the foot of snow-covered mountains and quiet roads that wound their way through spring woodlands awash with wildflowers – I recognise the yellow primroses and purple cyclamens – and resounding with the calls of cuckoos and the drumming of woodpeckers. I found a beautiful camp spot on a grassy ledge above the village of Pizzone with the mountains all around. I’d been looking for a spot to pitch the tent in the late afternoon but the mountainsides were so steep that my tent would have slipped down like butter off a hot knife. At last I came upon a small farm with surrounding woods and terraced fields. I asked the farmer, who was chopping wood and tending his goats, if I could put my tent up for the night. He said yes with a sweep of his hand across the landscape that seemed to say “help yourself to any spot in Italy”. The view was gorgeous down the valley, especially after dark when the lights of the villages twinkled like those on a Christmas tree. Even the smell of manure overwhelmed my own smell on another evening without a shower! 

Today I am in an idyllic mountain village called Barrea but I have the triple delights of a campground, internet and a shower! So tonight I do smell again … but at least I smell of roses! 

Photos on Flickr - again, not many as the weather has been mostly grey and wet.

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Monday, 16 April 2012

Igoumenitsa, Greece - The silence of the lambs

Let’s get some things straight. I don’t do fashion or make-up; I don’t do babies and small children; and I certainly don’t do dancing. But somehow, at some point cycling somewhere in Turkey, I promised Bart that I would do traditional Greek dancing once we got to Greece. As we neared the ferry port for our boat to Italy, I thought I had got away with it!

As soon as our ferry from Crete had docked at the port for Athens we jumped on our bikes in the half light of early morning and started cycling north, eager to make a bit of fast time. But the weather had other plans and again and again over the next few days we found ourselves cycling through heavy downpours when we couldn’t even see the road for torrents of muddy water. We warmed ourselves in dark, smoky roadside cafes where the old men of the little villages we cycled through gathered in the mornings. We even checked into cheap hotel rooms a couple of times to escape the wet. As we cycled on through misty mountain towns we noticed many households were killing and skinning sheep as gunshots rang out across the valleys, silencing another poor sheep or lamb. We soon learned that Greece celebrates Easter one week later than Western Europe and that mutton is the traditional dish served on Easter Sunday. We also learned that on Easter Sunday every shop and every gas station and every restaurant is closed! And of course … we had no food … only the smell of roasting mutton drifting across the road. On empty stomachs we pedalled north then took a quiet road along the coast where we lingered over the map beside a campground that looked closed, trying to decide our best options for finding food and a place to pitch the tent. Within seconds we were being ushered inside to join the family for a traditional Easter lunch!

A whole sheep was roasting on the barbecue and the stereo was belting out Greek music as bottomless glasses of wine were pushed into our hands. Then the traditional meal was served - the sheep entrails were difficult to stomach but the mutton itself was delicious. And, of course, the Easter celebration wasn’t complete without some traditional Greek dancing and, with a bit of tuition from our hosts, I was able to fulfill my promise to Bart! As we board our next ferry across the Ionian Sea, I’m now looking forward to picking up some Italian fashions!

More photos on Flickr – not many but it’s been too wet to get the camera out!

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Sunday, 8 April 2012

Crete, Greece - A day in the mountains

After a few days of cycling along the pretty south coast of Crete, it was time to return to the north coast and cross the peaks that form the backbone of the island. It was time for a day in the mountains!

We woke early in the cheap room that we had found above the taverna in the quaint mountain village of Amoudari and Bart popped out on his bike to get fresh milk for breakfast and croissants from the bakery. We left most of our bags with our landlady, a grey-haired old Greek woman dressed in black, and only took with us what we needed for a day in the hills. We started our day in the usual way of cycling on Crete...with a long, steep climb on a gravel road! We rode up through pine forests that thinned out to snow patches and rocky ridges, giving us beautiful views of the snow-covered mountains above. Yes ... you read correctly ... snow-covered mountains on Crete! We chained the bikes to a tree and started walking, picking our way through dense bushes with vicious thorns and across boulders with holes in like Swiss cheese and then finally up steep snow fields. We climbed to a top at 2135m for views across the snow-plastered Askifou Plateau and tried to eat a snack as we were blasted by a strong, cold wind. We made a quick descent, running down the snow and then cycling back down the mountain, to enjoy a cold drink back at the taverna late in the afternoon. We picked up our heavy bags and a few groceries from the little supermarket before cycling over another mountain pass as we scoured the countryside for a camp spot.

We eventually found a gorgeous little spot for the tent beside a small chapel, tucked in olive groves below the mountains. The chapel was unlocked and in the evening people came to light the candles inside. We cooked supper in evening sunshine and looked back up at the snow-covered peaks with a feeling of deep satisfaction from a great day in the mountains.

Photos from Crete on Flickr - click on the link on the right.

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Saturday, 31 March 2012

Rhodes, Greece - Off-road Rhodes

I have cycled through more beautiful, off-the-beaten-track places than I can count on my bicycle trip so when Bart and I cycled south down the west coast of Rhodes through the ugliness of mass tourism, I wondered if we had made a mistake coming to a holiday island. But we quickly discovered that the secret to happy touring on Rhodes is to go off-road.

Our ferry from Turkey arrived on the Greek island of Rhodes as it was getting dark and we had a fun evening cycling madly through the narrow, dimly-lit alleyways of the medieval town trying to find a room for the night. Next day, after a morning of wandering around the beautiful cobblestone roads and narrow passages, we cycled through the gates in the ancient city walls to pop out into the modern town and start cycling down the west coast with its endless strips of bars, cafes, restaurants, ugly hotels and partly-built resorts. Fortunately we found a pleasant escape route as we picked a dirt trail that climbed up into the mountains. What a change! Soon we were cycling through lemon and orange groves and up through little terraced plots of vegetables as farmworkers downed tools and finished their working day. We pitched the tent that evening beside an olive grove and listened to the tinkle of the bells on the goat herds as the setting sun cast a peachy light on the rocky mountain above. Further meandering along the quiet off-road trails of Rhodes took us up into the high lands, past deserted monasteries that looked out over the hills and sea and through little mountain villages. At one village we stopped for lunch in a small café as we had been unable to buy any food that day. We wondered if we had somehow offended the owner as she scurried off across the street after we gave her our order … but she quickly returned with potatoes freshly dug from the field and in ten minutes we had delicious, fresh, home-made French fries!

We came back out of the hills to enjoy a relaxing day in the picturesque coastal town of Lindos with its typical skinny streets and whitewashed buildings. In the morning we walked through the village which, like most of the island, was deserted awaiting this year's first influx of tourists. In the afternoon we sipped drinks at a little bar right at the edge of the crystal-clear, aquamarine sea – I had always imagined doing this on a Greek island one day – and raised our glasses to riding off-road in Rhodes!

Photos in the Greece folder!

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