Thoughts and tales from the saddle - on my own in Europe.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Day 229 - Ingolstadt - South-Central Germany

My recent posts have been perhaps a bit long and, on re-reading them, I seem to do a lot of moaning. Ok, so I always do a lot of moaning - it gets me through the day and I can't help it if people are so annoying - but still, I thought I'd try a 'normal', positive post. Here goes...

Germany is nice. They have cycle lanes and big clock tower things in the town centres so even when there's no signs telling you where the centre is, you just aim for the clock tower. They also have nice beer in Germany. Something called Helles, which is different to Pils and Weissbier. I've had them all, of course. I quite like Weissbier but I think too much of it would send me loopy. They also have an Irish pub in pretty much every town so when I feel the need I can get myself a Guinness. They do it surprisingly well here. Nearly as well as the best Guinness of the trip - Scanlans Bar in Gernika Lumo, Northern Spain (Hello Patrick!).

The weather is chilly now but actually quite pleasant to ride in. Kind of fresh feeling. Birthday weather, for those in the know.

I am aiming for Luxembourg and will soon leave my friend since Bulgaria, the Danube, to head towards Stuttgart. We've had some good times together, the Danube and I, and it's been nice to have such a solid reference point when my bearings have gone a bit awry. She's been with me through three capital cities, countless miles of countryside and seven countries now. Rivers really are quite amazing, aren't they? All that water, flowing constantly. If we had to build a big river from scratch it would be quite a hard job. I like big rivers.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A typical day in Austria

I wake from a deep, vivid dream and look at my watch. 8.45am. Really, already? I wrap myself in the duvet and lie still, trying to think of a way of freezing time so I can sleep for another four hours.

I give in a 9.02am, dress quickly and head bleery-eyed to the breakfast room. Do I want coffee, the woman asks. No, thank you. 'Coffee?' she asks in English, believing I hadn't understood her. No, thank you, juice is fine (I don't drink coffee or tea). She looks amazed, as do the rest of the people in the breakfast room. I eat two rolls, one with butter and honey, one with nutella, and some juice. I don't like being too full up when I'm riding. It's too early to be eating anyway.

I confirm that I have to be out of the room for 10am, which I do, and return to my room cursing these early risers. In the room, I open the window wide and sniff the air, gauging the weather. It feels cold, really cold. At least it's not raining. I dress - leggins, two pairs of socks, waterproof overshoes (even though it's not raining they help insulate. Plus, it might rain). Long-sleeved baselayer, thin fleece. Gloves and headband/earwarmer at the ready.

At 10.15am I carry my bags down the stairs to my bike, pat him on the frame and say, 'Morning lad'. He doesn't reply. He never does - he doesn't like mornings either. I check neither tyre has deflated in the night. They haven't, this time. I load my bike as I have done for the last 200-something times - rear panniers on, bungee strap ready, dry bags on, bungee round, attach second bungee, slip cable lock under bungee, do the same with D lock, attach computer to handlebar bracket, return settings to zero, strap watch to handlebar, clip on barbag. Ready.

I go and pay and they give me an A4 sheet of paper as an invoice, which I stuff into the back of my barbag along with the others.

Outside, I look up and down the road - empty. The Danube sits just 20 yards away from me, across the road, a thin mist still lingering on its surface. It looks beautiful, magical. I sling my leg over and straddle the bike. Another quick look up and down the road and a glance behind, to check I haven't left/dropped anything, and I'm rolling again. Ah yes, I remember this. I settle onto the saddle, a familiar sensation, no longer painful. I roll onto the road and start to spin again, my legs slightly stiff but not sore. I keep a low gear for the first kilometer or so, letting my legs warm up and my joints click back into place. Within minutes it feels natural again and I settle down, gripping the handlebar, breathing the cold air and relaxing.

I look around me - I am on a strip of tarmac about five feet wide, the water only another five feet to my right at about the same level. Across the river the land rises steeply from the water, trees blanket the hill displaying their earthy, Autumn colours. I can neither see nor hear a motorised vehicle nor another human being. Leaves cover most of the path infront of me and I have to concentrate on my line - last thing I want is to come off.

I look at my computer - five miles done. That's the warm up. I feel ok, my body has warmed and the slight chill coming through my clothing is welcome. Only my hands feel the cold, slightly.

My mind wanders - I think about the book I finished last night, how it has similarities to a story I started writing a while ago. I think about my story, why I stopped writing it. It was shit, that's why. Well, not shit. I just...I lost faith in the fact that it was worth doing, as I did with a lot of things I was writing at the time. I wonder whether I'll try writing it again when I get back and decide not to - I'll write a better one. I look at my watch and realise I've been riding for an hour, spinning continuously, averaging about 15mph on flat ground. My heart beats regularly, slowly, in my chest, my breathing is shallow. I could do this all day.

15 miles gone, I approach a little town, its clock tower and traditional-style buildings sitting perfectly against the Autumn trees and the river behind. Another perfect photo opportunity. I curse. Taking photos is a hassle sometimes, especially when it's this cold. I ask myself whether I would be happy just to commit it to memory. No, it'll only take a minute, just stop and take it. Damn you.

I stop, take the photo, convince myself it won't come out any good anyway because this new camera is shit. Bloody thing. Why did my other one have to break? That was perfect - it took the clearest pictures, no matter what situation. This new one's just crap, the focussing is really shit. I'm going to sell it on e-Bay when I get back. No, actually, I'm going to write to fucking Pentax and tell them how shit it is and how it ruined my trip. 20 miles gone.

I pass fields of deer, lots of little females and one big stag, penned in by a thin wire fence. They look beautiful against the backdrop of the river and the trees. Great, another photo stop.

Another mile on I approach two more deer, this time with no fence keeping them in. They pause by the path, look my way and I can see them both thinking 'shall we, shan't we?' They don't and hop off across the field, stopping to look back as I pass just 20 yards behind them.

The road takes me up and I relish the change in terrain - I haven't climbed a big hill for ages. My legs still feel strong though and I power up it, keeping pace for a good half a kilometer without breaking sweat or breathing heavily. It rolls down again and I feel the wind run through my clothing, chilling me properly now.

Back by the river I can't help but be taken by the scenery. I think about the many hours I've spent on my bike, alone in deserted landscapes, and realise how good it makes me feel and how much I will miss it when I finally stop doing this. I stop pedalling and just drift for a hundred yards, breathing the air, enjoying the solitude.

Pedalling again, I look down at the chrome top of the headset stem. In it I can see a reflection of my head, arms and shoulders, and alternating knees as I pedal. I think, not for the first time, how cool it would have been to have had a camera on there. I play the highlights in my head - the joy and despair on my face of the first few weeks, rain and snow falling around me as I pedal, wrapped up for the cold, sweat dripping from me as I pedal in a vest and shorts, the pain on my face in the 20th mile of ascent in the Pyrenees, the relief coming down the other side - all the 'other sides', the fear as I accelerate away from a pack of three dogs. There was no camera, of course, so that'll all just have to live in the memory of my bike.

From nowhere, I get a rhythmn in my head and improvise lyrics, creating the first verse of a song, and then I realise my computer reads 40 miles and I'm passing the sign that tells me I've arrived in the town I was aiming for. I follow the road across the river and into the centre of town. It seems different somehow, to the last few towns, and then I realise why. I'm in Germany now.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Day 221 - Linz - Austria

I had thought for a long time - back even in France and Spain - that reaching Austria, marking my return to 'Western' Europe, would be a huge relief. The 'Scary East' would have been done. All the fears I had of travelling through those countries I knew so little about either dispelled or proven but, hopefully, lived through.

They were, they have been, but back on the road, after four days of partying in Vienna, I was left with a very different feeling to relief - sadness. I found myself reflecting on all that has been - remembering the nervousness of the first few weeks on the road, looking at maps of Spain and just thinking 'How?', entering the foothills of the Pyrenees, looking up at the peaks thinking 'Oh shit', worrying in Italy about what Greece and beyond would hold for me; the heat, the hills, the dogs, all of the bad talk people had of Bulgaria and Romania - and I wasn't feeling relieved that it was behind me, I was sad that it was over. I was, in a sense, mourning, if not the ending of the whole trip then certainly a very large part of it.

Austria provided me with a very intense reminder that things move on, experiences last for only a moment and all too soon memories are all that is left of them. I will (hopefully) always hold those memories, of course with the aid of my journals and photographs, but perhaps never again will I be in that situation, experiencing what I did. Once I'd realised that was the cause of my rather down-mood, I was a lot happier about it and able to get on with 'experiencing' the here and now.

Talking of which, Austria is very much the return to Western Europe I thought it would be - there's stuff in the shops! And it is, of course, ever so neat and organised. Perhaps too much so - their cycle paths, which they seem so very proud of, are wonderful things. They really are. I've spent four days cruising along a flat piece of tarmac next to the Danube, far from any motorised vehicles. It's great, 95% of the time. But that other 5% is the problem. On two occassions now the path has just ended on me. Miles and miles of perfect track with an abundance of reassuring sign posts then...a field. No sign, no explanation. That's when the distance from a road becomes a problem, because I don't have a get out clause. Either head into the field and risk getting bogged down or turn around and retrace the last 3 miles back to the last junction. Great.

I have to also mention this bloody place - Linz - dubbed, by me, at approximately 11.30am today, in driving wind and freezing rain, 'The Worst Town in the World'. My task today was simple - an easy 15 mile jaunt from last night's stop into the town centre. I'd come off the cycle track last night to get to a town that wasn't on it (god forbid), but the one small road connecting that town to Linz seemed like an easy prospect - it went straight to the centre. And easy it was for about 10 miles, then there was a big dangerous-looking tunnel with 'no cycling' signs at the entrance. I have been known to ignore such signs (I would never have got through Hungary if I hadn't) but I had to agree with them here - I wasn't going into that tunnel. So what options? I turn off, there's a cycle lane. No signs. I ride it in the general direction the tunnel was going in and end up heading the opposite way. I ask some people and they point me in the right direction (after lifting my bike up to see how heavy it is and marvelling at my *ahem* amazing cycling adventures). I come to a cross roads - straight on 'Zentrum' - no bikes. Left (cycle track sign) - 'Weiner Strasse', right 'Siemens Depot'. Ok, so, Sausage Road or Siemens bloody head office. I go straight on and after 2 miles of motorway and a lot of faffing about, find my way. It turned out, however, that the track going to 'Siemens Depot' ended up leading to the centre. Why can't they just put 'Zentrum' on the cycle signs too? And why would I want to know where bloody 'Weiner Strasse' was? Pfft...give me a Greek motorway any day. At least they go where they say they're going, and in a straight line too!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Day 215 - Vienna - Austria

Justine is Australian. I'm talking to her in an Australian pub - I went in there to see what the local places were like (that's a joke, by the way, that I told myself. I know, a shit one). She's in Vienna for five days before going to Prague then back to London to 'get a job'. Jim is American. He's just got out of the navy after six years and is having a break before 'getting a job'. He's in Vienna for two days before going to Prague. Justine fancies Jim. She's been making eyes at him for the last hour and admits as much to me when he goes to the toilet. Jim seems to have noticed but doesn't seem particularly bothered. I don't blame him.

I take them to a small pub I found the night before. It's tiny - maximum capacity of about 20 people - but it's nice, cluttered, good beer, friendly staff. We drink in there for a few hours, talking, laughing. Justine is fascinated by the fact that weed grows at the side of the road in Hungary and Bulgaria and wants us three to hire a car and drive out there. I'm the only one with a driving licence. I agree, as does Jim, but I sense that we both know we won't be meeting Justine at the cathedral at 12 o'clock the next day, as is planned.

At about 2am we head towards a club the barman recommends, down by the canal. Now, before I continue, I am going to add a small explainer here: I don't know why, but it seems that I am always the one people turn to for things - information, plans, making things happen. I do seem to be quite good at it, but I still don't know why relative strangers seem to think I know things, or where to get things. I must give off some sort of knowledgeable aura. You'll see what I mean when you read on.

On the way the way to the club my new Australian friend decides she wants something to stick up her nose. It must have been all the talk of weed. They both look at me. I take them on an impromptu tour of Vienna's underbelly - seedy backstreets populated by men in hooded coats with shifty eyes. I find what she wants quite easily - as I said, I seem to be quite good at it - and we continue on to the club, which has about the same atmosphere as the small streets we've just been ratting around.

The club is packed, dirty, sweaty, smelly, loud, sticky-floored and beer soaked - just my kind of place. I lose Jim and Justine almost immediately - I think I last saw them snogging in a corner - and dance on my own in the heaving mass for a while before deciding it's time to go. I walk out of the club at about 6am and realise I have absolutely no idea where I am. I walk aimlessly away from the canal until I see the big cathedral spire appear above the rooftops and head for it.

I wake at 9.30am and phone reception. Can I have the room for another night, please? Yes. Thank god for that.

Monday, October 08, 2007


I was too busy copying out my journal yesterday to mention the statistics that were in my head while I was riding. Entering Slovakia brought with it the following:

The 8th different currency of the trip.
The 12th different language of the trip.
The 14th country of the trip.

Thought I`d share that. Here`s a few vids I`ve had lying around for a bit.

Bulgarian Hotel:


Travelling companion in Hungary:


If I ever have a wedding, I want these dudes to play:


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Day 209 - Komarno - Southern Slovakia

Some journal entries from the last week or so:

Thursday 27th September - Szeged - Hungary

We both got sore throats last night from talking so much. Beers in a bar followed by pizza, then another bar and more beer. Went to look at the (very impressive) town hall clocktowers and were attracted by a huge bunsen-blue flame blasting from one corner of the square - a nightclub called Burn. They wanted student cards on the door but I blagged us in - told him our cards were in the hotel and looked desperate and he just said OK and let us in. Peoper student nightclub - lots of beers, lots of people, shit toilets, music a bit RnB for my taste, but it was ok. We drank beer and Jagermeister and danced like fools. By about 4am I was knackered and hungry so we went.

Monday 1st October - Budapest

Nice riding, again. Perfect weather (can´t believe I´m still cycling in shorts and a vest in October), flat roads with good surface, traffic OK. Saw more weed at the side of the road and lots of prostitutes about 6-7 miles from Budapest. Was waiting for it to get really busy and horrible but it never did - went straight to the centre, along the Danube, all the way to the chain bridge.

Tuesday 2nd October - Budapest

Walked up to the castle on the other side of the river. Nice views of the city. Went into the art gallery thinking we´d be able to go up and outside the dome for better views but after 5 flights of stairs and only boring old paintings to look at we were told we didn´t have the ´special tickets´required to continue, despite asking for them initially. We could get them, back down in the lobby. Fuck that. Went instead for postcard writing and white wine in the ´Old Town´.

Wednesday 3rd October - Budapest

Went to a ´Rock Bar´ which was more like a school disco. DJ wouldn´t play our requests and was very rude and a guy in the bar was being quite agressive towards Ashley. We considered beating him up or something but just left, heading for a club the barman told us about, next to the opera house (near the flat). Went there - cellar type club, lots of beer, karaoke, people dancing etc. Got out at 4am still asking people where to go out in Budapest. Go to bed! They told us.

Sunday 7th October - Komarno - Slovakia

The first thing I did today was cross the river into Slovakia. No passport control from Hungary but, surprisingly, there was a guy looking at them, comparing faces and photos, on the Slovak side. First impressions were of a very ´Eastern European´ looking place - lots of towers blocks and a sort of neglected air to the place.

It´s really weird to think that it´s all winding up. I was thinking about the ferry ride over from Portsmouth and, of course, it seems ages ago. But all the hopes, fears, expectations I had then have been lived out now, nearly. I will be relieved to not have to think about it so much, when it is over, but I will miss that feeling of discovery every day, of adventure yet to come. That´ll be the weirdest thing I think, being back. Not having the daily adventures. The fact that they´re gone. The fact that all of this - the three years of planning, saving, spending, thinking - is gone. Over. I´ve lived it - I am living it. But it will end. Then I will need to look forward again, to focus on other things. It goes on, life goes on, of course, but stick something like these last seven months in it and it´s a strange, perhaps unique feeling. That´s why I´m here.

They have the biggest, blackest mosquitos here. One was biting my arm a minute ago and I just tried to grab one hovering over my beer. I missed.