Tuesday, September 23, 2014

23 Sept: Great Yarmouth - Stowmarket (107km)

Well, that was a little further than I expected! Mainly due to poor navigation in the morning. I shall say this once and for all: you cannot find your way through a town using a 1:100000 map. As such I saw a lot more of Yarmouth and Lowestoft than I ever want to again.

Once I escaped those two, things got a bit more bucolic. I lunched in Beccles which was a cute and buzzing town. The early afternoon was swooping downlands and pretty, empty lanes. The latter part of the afternoon the roads were a bit bigger, the legs a bit tireder and (perhaps) the hills a bit steeper.

All of which lands me at Stowmarket station in time to scoff a cheese toastie and a bar of chocolate before catching the 5.35 train home to Cambridge.

Suffolk really is a peach of a county. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

22nd Sept: Sheringham- Great Yarmouth (88km)

Last week of freedom.

Another misty start, but offset by a cooked breakfast: YHA luxury. I headed down the coast road, through a wind and wave-swept Cromer which isn't doing badly, for an old resort town. Missed the turning out of town so ended up continuing on the relatively busy coast road and then, once I realised, heading across country on designated 'Quiet Lanes'. I don't know what these are, technically, but they are signposted with pride and certainly lovely and quiet indeed.

After coffee at Mundesley I deserted the national cycle route for a spot of Broads. Now in truth it's hard to get near a Broad on bike, as there aren't really many roads to choose from, and only the very fast A-roads actually cross the water. Nonetheless I had a nice time pootling some heavily boatie villages and plenty of pretty lanes that looked quite a lot like Holland/Cambridgeshire.

My random historic find of the day (it seems to be the way of this trip) is St Benet's Abbey. Once the centre of trade and power in this area, it was - uniquely - not closed down by Henry VIII. It didn't last much longer though, and as usual the stone was soon taken for building material. The gatehouse still stands, sort of, though in the 18th century someone did build a windmill in and around it. The Abbey is still technically part of the Bishop of Norwich's domain so he holds a service there (ie in a field with some historic stones in it) once a year. You've got to love the multilayered history of East Anglia. 

The latter section of the day was rather head down as I used a moderately inadequate map to cut east back to the coast, while trying to avoid the biggest of busy roads. It gradually became more suburban and I emerged into Great Yarmouth. This is a pretty big town for these parts, and has a fairly rough reputation (according to Vic). The only but I have seen this far is the seafront which is one lovely long sandy beach, and even a bit sunny.  It also has clean, pleasant, central ensuite B&B for £23. Can't complain about that.

Finally, can I just mention a rather amazing thing? When travelling by train and bike in East Anglia (albeit only with booked tickets, which I do not have), the train people will, for free, come and rescue you and bring you to a train station if your bike breaks down or gets nicked. Isn't that nice of them?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

21 Sept: Wells to Sheringham (50km)

love Norfolk. The whole place feels like a very small community and people just assume you are friendly and want to talk to them. I've had more random chats today than in ages.

I knew I didn't need to cycle far today, so took advantage of the available pottering time to have a most enjoyable day.

I left my pannier at the hostel first thing and biked down to see the sea. The tide was half in, meaning a long way out: Wells is raising funds for a new lifeboat as at low tide they have to tow their current lifeboat 2.5 miles across the sand to launch it!

I walked the beach and dune forest which is an old favourite haunt and then got briefly rained into the beach cafe. It's dog-friendly so on a Sunday morning, great entertainment for the dog-deprived like me. It was also packed, so I shared a table with a very nice family whose child was also commenting on every incoming dog ('that looks like your dog grandma but it's much fatter' 'Sshh, you can't say that!').

Reunited with my pannier I headed east-ish, first up and down some slightly hairy green lanes then through the back roads a bit inland of the fast coastal road.

I stopped at Binham priory, an extraordinary place. It was a Benedictine monastery set up by a Norman baron in the stated hope that it would count in his favour come judgement day (presumably he had done terrible deeds during the conquest). It thrived through till Henry VIII when it was sold off and ripped up for building stone - but the central building has survived and is still the parish church. In fact as I poked my head in to have a look the Sunday service had just finished and a very friendly retired farmer offered me a post-church cup of tea. 

A few sets of sunshine and showers later I cruised into Blakeney, which was looking as lovely as ever. Apparently there were several feet of water in the quayside buildings during the storm surge last December. I planned a few future art purchases in the gallery where my hare pictures came from, and then was fed coffee and cake by two lovely ladies running a cafe out of the Methodist church.

More quiet back roads, flint-built villages and cycle route that was nicely undulating but not painfully so, and I found myself in the Felbrigg estate, a National Trust place. I bought a cycle map and admired their cows but as yesterday, wasn't tempted to join the house-visiting masses.

A final few miles, in which I had to face the main road, and I reached my destination of Sheringham. The YHA here is a former children's home, and looks it, but I have to say it works pretty well.

Sheringham is in the midst of a 1940s weekend. That makes the world seem a little odd, because loud speakers all over town are blaring 40s music and there are people in airforce uniform rolling out of pubs everywhere. Not to mention the odd tank. The place has really gone the whole hog, the  streets are covered in bunting and and every café is displaying Camp Coffee ads etc. I did wonder what was going on this afternoon when I saw biplanes flying overhead and a Routemaster bus...

The wind got up this afternoon and there's a hell of a sea now. After a little wander round town, it must be time for some food.


PS: the Round Norfolk Relay that I kept seeing yesterday looks AMAZING! The concept is the whole county border in 24 hours, with 17 people per team. If anyone ever wants to do this I am IN.

PPS: how lovely Norfolk looks:

20 Sept 14: Cycling Downham Market - Wells-next-the-sea, Norfolk (82km)

One last mini-adventure before working life returns.

On a misty moisty morning I took the train north from Cambridge, accompanied by Horace all spick and span after an 87-quid (!) service. The Fens were under layers of gloom and it looks a lot like my good weather luck has for the present run out. 

I debated a bit about where to start and eventually got off at Downham Market. This was perfectly pleasant, once I'd found my way out of the housing estates, but probably a mistake in that one can have too much of fens in the mist...

First stop was King's Lynn. I had been following good national cycle route signage but as always, I lost it instantly on entering the town. I've been to KL before but only the scuzzy bits, and was surprised to find myself in a lovely park with a sweet little chapel on a raised mound. In fact apart from an excess of Jehovah's Witnesses, the town gets a definite thumbs up on second sight. 

I was also happy to find signposting for an off-road cycle path along an old railway line towards Sandringham. Sandringham estate really does have super woods.  Even though the trees haven't turned yet they are particularly lovely here, perhaps because it seems to be a massive mix of species. I took advantage of the coffee and cake opportunity presented by the estate but didn't feel inclined to venture into the house/gardens.

Had a bit of a low mid-afternoon. Not sure why as I was plenty sugared up, but everything has felt like very hard work today and it's been hard to stay the right temperature. It's basically cool and very clammy and Norfolk is hilly enough that several times an hour you get sweaty and then chilled all over again. 

Enough moaning. I bucked up on nearing the coast. Passed briefly through Burnham Market which looks like a lovely village, though it's rather hard to tell due to the 100 white 4x4s and similar parked all over it. Then Burnham Thorpe: Nelson's Village! (Says the sign). It's tiny. The biggest treat was following cycle route signposting through the tiny rear entrance (so small Horace had to squeeze through) into Holkam Park. The house was all shut up but the parkland, full of deer, was glorious. You've got to love a stately home that allows a national cycle route to cut through its property where there is no public right of way.

I came out the bottom of the estate into the sandy dune land of the coastal forest. A bit of almost uncycleable sandy cycle path led round to the front of Wells. I meandered slowly round town and up to the YHA which is hidden among the quiet backstreets.

Wells seems to be further upmarket - it has just got a supermarket (!) and bistro-like cafés seem to now outnumber amusement arcades and fish and chip shops. It also seems pretty busy and as well as it's usual weekenders also had the Round Norfolk Relay (relay marathoning by the looks of it) and a wedding or two going on. 

The clouds are closing in. With any luck some actual rain will happen overnight and then clear to a beautiful sunny September morning!

Hmm. The weather forecast thinks not.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

4th Sept - Nolton Haven to Marloes Sands

find that the more spectacular the day, the more difficult I find it to describe. Today has been completely spectacular. 

For one thing it's been roasting hot. I've had Factor 30 on and still have a few burnspots. In Wales. In September. 

For another it's just been one amazing walk. Apart from a couple of villages near the start (of which more later) it's been a mostly flat path alongside spectacular cliffs and isolated bays, a jade sea, red rocks, and a handful of sailboats and canoes pulled up in the inlets. There are other walkers, but only a few each hour. The coastline twists and turns and sometimes what you think is a far-off headland turns out to be an island, and vice versa. The heat haze kept the tankers coming in and out of Milford Haven just as shadows on the horizon. Every passing conversation is about what a stunning day it is.

Having left my toothbrush and toothpaste in the bathroom of the hostel two nights back, I was delighted to finally find a 'normal' shop today in Broadhaven. I don't think I have ever been so glad to see a Londis in my life. It provided not only the necessary to make my teeth fit for dorm-sharing tonight but also some bread, cheese and tomatoes to double as both lunch and supper today. Super.

This YHA is in a set of cowsheds, the girls dorm appropriately enough in the henhouse. As there are still no clouds in the sky I have high hopes that I may finally get a full sunset. On all previous nights this has been denied by sea-level cloud on the western horizon...

Totally exhausted by so much sun, I shall sleep well tonight I think.

Mini-adventure ends tomorrow, with a short final coast path section and then a bus, a train, a drive home. 

If I had more than two thumbs I would put them all up for the Pembrokeshire coast path!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

3rd Sept - Whitesands to Nolton Haven

This morning I set off into a misty overcastness that made the world a rather mysterious place. Deserting the coastline briefly I headed due inland for St David's. I followed a handsome fox down some quiet lanes, and then several young male runners taking advantage of the hills for early morning training. It was too early for anything to be open in the city/village, but I did sneak a peak into the cathedral and momentarily considered attending the 8am Welsh language morning prayer. In the end I thought I might stick out a bit, and instead enjoyed the view from the churchyard.

The main beauty of the cathedral, and indeed the ruins of the Bishop's palace next door, is in its perfect fit within the landscape. Alone it is a nice little country church. In context it is a really lovely old thing. Seems to be my lot to spend this year in sites of pilgrimage. Those arriving at St David's would certainly have been less overwhelmed than Santiago pilgrims, methinks.

I had planned to wait for civilisation (a cafe) to open but instead decided to head on down to the coast path. I do feel quite sluggish today though nothing particularly hurts and - thus far - there are no blisters.

I struck civilisation at Solva, a little harbour and village with a cafe and pub, and half a dozen non-useful shops (I haven't met a useful one, ie one that sells bread or milk, since leaving Fishguard).

Caffeinated, I headed on over lovely headlands with the sun glinting off the sea and kayakers and sailboats the only humans in sight. Lots of steep ups and downs, and my knees are currently knackered enough that I have joined the ranks of people who hurt more going down than up.

The sun came out around midday, and by the time I hit the lovely long beach at Newgale I was feeling a little sun-frazzled. With not many more miles to go I spent the afternoon lolling around the low-key cafés and beaches between there and my 6pm appointment at the Mariners Inn at Nolton Haven. 

'Tis a funny old place. There is not only a VHS player but also a Betamax in my room. I'm not sure I've seen a Betamax before. Anyway, despite the stuffed albatross in the bar, it's in a beautiful spot. I am fairly confident I shan't be kept awake by mad revelling from below.

Sunny days and an endless and endlessly beautiful path make the world seem a wonderful place. Hurrah for mini-adventures.

2nd Sept - Pwll Deri to Whitesands

A pleasant night last night with a friendly and mostly empty hostel, including a guy who looked younger than me but turned out to be an on-sabbatical vicar with 3 teenage daughters. I had a room to myself and the most amazing sea view. If only all hostels could be like that!

I thought today might be a bit long so was on the road not long after 7. In the first 3 hours I met a total of 3 sets of dog-walkers and no-one else. In fact the only civilisation today was the small village of Trefin, which sports a pub and a cafe-cum-gallery. I took advantage of the latter for coffee and eggs benedict. My absolute fave.

Glorious weather made the walking just perfect and the ups and downs and various body-grumbles didn't put a dampener on it. The morning was again full of choughs and the afternoon seals, including several sets of babies. The pups tend to be well tucked in under huge cliffs on the most inaccessible beaches - but you can often spot them because of the large visible adult guarding the mouth of the cove.

There's a lot of Welshness around here. My favourite sign today was for 'Tato newi' - new potatoes!

To find tonight's hostel I left the coast path and headed up over some tors and high ground. Breaching the top a huge flat stretch came into view including (ahem) 'city' of St David's. Well, it has a cathedral.

The hostel is an old farmstead at the bottom of a big hill. There's a rather sad story attached: in 1943 an American Air Force place crashes into the hill, killing all on board. Apparently it was one of a group of planes flying a relief flight from the US to the UK. The last leg was Morocco to Cornwall but to save weight (and hence fuel) only the front plane of any group had a radio, the rest just did it by sight. Unfortunately they flew into fog and, absent any navigational equipment, half the planes went down. They found a propeller from it only a few years back.

After a bottle of cider, a peaceful night in a dorm with some very sleepy ladies.

Monday, September 1, 2014

1st Sept 2014 - Fishguard to Pwll Deri

With the big adventures beginning to fade from memory, I have decided to maintain 'choose life' momentum through mini-adventures. 

Mini-adventure number 1: the Pembrokeshire coast path. There is actually now coast path the whole way around Wales but Pembrokeshire is the oldest section and still reputedly the finest. Mum and Dad visited earlier this year while I dog-sat; their comments on returning were 'well, it's just like Cornwall. But without the tourists'. Sounds good to me!

So far I would concur. It's beautiful, and I have managed to line up some good weather. This morning was occupied with getting out here, so I walked only this afternoon, about 10 miles I believe. (Worryingly enough, say my legs and feet already. Gulp!).

Saw two seal pups lounging in coves, with two adults swimming in the water. Was telling this to a man with a nice collie and he pointed out that circling overhead were five choughs. So, two top wildlife spots in the first few hours of the odyssey! I then saw loads more choughs, and it is rumoured that there are seals just below the hostel. 

I am staying tonight in a youth hostel with an amazing location high up on a cliff with a perfect sunset-watching spot. For a sunny evening like this you simply could not ask for more.

So far Pembrokeshire is completely excellent.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Day 69: to Bottisham (117; 4660)

The ferry has an interesting business model. 

The passenger part is a bit like a casino: there's a captive audience and the aim is to keep them in places that will induce them to spend for as long as possible. It's really hard to find your way out on deck and even the way to the cabins is hidden, so you have to traverse as many attractive entertainment/ shopping/ eating/ drinking areas as possible. The ship docked this morning at 4am but passengers aren't let off till 6.30. In the meantime the other part of the business, the freight lorries, are moving fast. The chap who sold me a coffee told me that they unload 200 lorries and start reloading for before they let the non-freight passengers off. As Alex said, sort of amazing that people put up with this - in Greece there would be a riot! Someone else told me this was allegedly because customs didn't open until 6.30. Which makes you wonder who searches the incoming lorries...

In contrast to the way over I slept really badly - perhaps because a day's riding is no longer enough to tire me out. Or perhaps because I'd been watching the rather scary 'Woman in Black' immediately before bed. 

Once we hit English phone reception I got a reassuring voicemail saying Mum's ok and home, so that cheered me up.

It was a hot an humid day in England but with no longer any fear re. hills or distance I took the scenic route home. I tried out national cycle routes 51 and 13 - both lovely but quite the contrast to be back on UK roads, where marked cycle routes sometimes involve an A road with heavy traffic shooting by... Such a contrast. I definitely had more scary moments in this one ride than in cycling eg in Budapest, Prague, etc.

I only went on the wrong side of the road twice. Oops. Let's hope that part of my brain reprogrammes before I drive anywhere. (I was laughing at a Dutch guy on the ferry who had a printout on top of his handle-bar bag saying 'ride on the left!'.)

So a looping, swooping 117km put me back where I started, at Vic's house in Bottisham. Job done!

Trip stats:

69 days; 4660 km; 12 countries

68 nights:
2 on boats
9 staying with friends
11 in hotels and apartments
8 in hostels
38 camping

Flat tyres: none
Chain incidents: 2 
One broken pannier rack
One new set of rear gears

I'm pretty happy with that! Not bad for a first solo cycle tour. It won't be the last.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Day 68: to Hook of Holland (86, 4543)

An absolutely beautiful day for the last leg on foreign soil. I hung out with Khanum and family in the morning and set off at lunchtime. I've grown so much faith in the Dutch cycleways I just used their signage for navigation, which was impressively only 6k more than the most direct mapped route. 

Back along the Harlememeer, the beautiful bit of river and lake I've ridden twice before. Now that Dutch schools are out this looks like proper holiday terrain and I was (happily; it was hot) shot at with water pistols by some kids. 

Also passed through miles of glasshouse through the thick of the flower market belt. The auction house in Alsmeer apparently puts 6 million euros worth through every day (says quite an old Lonely Planet, so perhaps more by now). By Dutch auction, of course. It's certainly a massive complex when you're trying to get through by bike.

I hit the sea near The Hague and had a lovely last run down the coast, somewhat overshadowed however by the news that Mum had fallen off her horse and broken her arm. I'm awaiting more news but certainly glad I am already on the way home and hope I can get there and be useful soon.

I showed my passport for the first time since arriving in Holland ten weeks ago. Amazing how Europe now is.  Had some in-depth questioning from passport control ('so... Are you going home then?') and then a long delay while we waited for lorries to manoeuvre themselves onto the ferry. It's an impressive sight: the ramp up starts on quite a sharp bend so the biggest artics have to reverse half way up a different ramp and then take a run at it. 

Day 67: to Amstelveen (again) (78; 4457)

I started the day not that far from Amstelveen, but spent most of looping around more beautiful sand dunes for the hell of it. Some cracking headwinds made the seaside sections interesting, but they turned tail for the run inland, which was amazingly quick and easy as a result. This inland run was along the same section I took in driving rain two months back. What a difference a bit of summer makes.

Khanum and family were back from ten days' holiday in France by just one hour when I arrived, so my bags etc are adding nicely to their chaos!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Day 66: to Ijmuiden (82; 4379)

Not enormous mileage today as I am rapidly running out of land! But a very pleasant day of cycling through sand dunes in beautiful national park.

The coastline around this part of northern Holland is lovely, and generally protected by a couple of kilometres of sand dunes with scrubland and pine forest. Looks a bit like the sandy parts of the north Norfolk coast, and is grazed by ponies and Highland cows who are totally unfazed by cyclists.

The family holiday havens petered out soon after I set off, and while there are plenty of people around there's been noticeably less dense tourism today. I stopped for coffee at the splendid beach of Camperduins and also detoured inland through the classy holiday town of Bergen and the rather big town of Alkmaar. I was hoping to find a cheese market in the latter but turns out it's only on Fridays. Sometimes having a German-speaking map book lets me down... Still it was a pleasant enough diversion. And other than those diversions it's been just cyclists, walkers and pony trekkers all day. 

Took my second to last ferry into Ijmuiden where I am staying in <sniff> my last campsite in a wooded park on the edge of town. The cheerful Dutchman in reception ('I had an ex-girlfriend called Barnett.. She was from Lewes. Don't worry you can still stay here') kindly gave me a little clearing to myself to celebrate my last night under canvas. So I have pitched my little tent for the last time! What good service it has provided. With a last pasta dinner and a little unladen cruise around town, my camping days draw to a close.

If Khanum and I understand one another correctly, they are arriving home from holiday tomorrow afternoon, and I will detour inland to overnight with them before catching the ferry on Weds night.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Day 65: to Sint Maartenszee (86; 4297)

Another day, another dyke. This was the mother of all dykes though: 26 straight kilometres with a fairly strong headwind. It felt quite good at the time, especially when the drizzle stopped and the sun came out. 

But by early afternoon I was properly tired. Not just low blood sugar, or legs needing a rest, but actually ready to lay down and sleep where I am. Made me realise how used to continuous moderate exercise I've become, in that it's been ages since I have felt like that. Possibly not since the early days of the camino.

It felt like there was a strong headwind almost all of the day, which doesn't seem logically possible since I wasn't cycling in a straight line. Once over the big dyke (direction southwest) I followed the coast northwest, then around the top of Den Helder (due west) and then down the west coast (south). This last part was through and next to large sand dunes which perhaps help to funnel the wind... Or maybe I was just particularly tired by then.

At 2pm I stopped in a beach cafe for a burger, chips and a beer. Don't judge me. The Dutch are amazing for many reasons, but one is that the teenagers who work in such places will happily serve you in Dutch, German or English.  Another is their totally cavalier attitude to appropriate attire: no shoes necessary in cafés or supermarkets around here it seems. And also their height: I saw a cyclist today who must have been over 7 feet. How did the gene pool get so tall? 

But most of all I love that being on a bike makes you part of the club here. As I cycled across the dyke a wiry older chap slowed down to chat; he'd been at a music festival in Friesland until 3am and was now cycling home (this was at 8.30, and he must have been 65 if he was a day).

This coast is a big holiday destination and just dripping in campsites, the difficulty being picking one that is reasonably priced and not completely monstrous WRT kids clubs, water slides, and the sheer number of pitches. Some I passed today have 800 mobile homes according to my (very useful) camping app. As you can imagine I try and avoid those. With just two nights of camping and 4 days of cycling left, I want to enjoy every last moment. 

One last surprise in store today: a cycling Greek girl en route to Athens! Not entirely sure where from, but she was heading for the Rhine and Danube. I'm the first lone female she's met so we had a nice chat. She's a bit homesick after 9 months away (including 6 months on Skye!) so was surprised to hear I will be there soon. Alex send me a message saying 'see you in a week': moving from the Dutch sand dunes to Cambridge to Athens feels like quite a crazy change of pace ahead!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Day 64: to Sotterum (92; 4211)

A little cooler today, and with no wind in the morning providing perfect cycling conditions.

...Except for the thunderbugs which were at times like a slow form of torture as they crawled behind my glasses, down my top, etc. It's tempting to shave every exposed surface of skin just so they get caught less. 

I was feeling quite lazy this morning, perhaps as a result of the good ride yesterday. I also knew that the day would be limited to the beginning of the enormous dyke that is tomorrow's challenge. It is too long to be sensibly tackled at the end of the day, so I could spend today taking a fairly loopy tour through a last bit of Frisian countryside and hitting up a couple more of the eleven towns.

As always, not a hell of a lot going on around here. For some reason I find it hard to identify sources of food and drink in small Dutch towns. There's often an advert for coffee and a sign saying 'open' outside something that looks like a residential house and is quite clearly closed. Plus a lot of residential properties have awnings and/or picnic tables and chairs outside, further confusing me as to where to go. There's obviously some sign I'm not picking up on. And as an aside I do believe I am back slightly addicted to coffee as I really do feel much more full of joy once I've had a cup.

Lots of wildlife around, especially herons, hares, and oystercatchers. The Dutch have an abundance of comedy domestic animals, mostly ponies (Frisians, Norwegians Shetlands and Haflinger types, in that order of frequency) but also a good few goats, pigs and deer grazing the patches of lawn next to the cottages.

The big surprise of the day was Harlingen, which was a lovely town. For some reason I was expecting an industrial and ferry port, but it has a stunning old town centre set around several little yacht-filled harbours. The Tall Ships Races were here a few days ago: flashbacks to the Baltic trip last year where we chased them down the coast, always a few days behind. Perhaps it's time for another Tall Ship trip.

Harlingen also provided some €2.50 flip flops (hurrah for Hema, the Dutch M&S) and some fresh food to see me through tonight and tomorrow. It was actually really heaving, and I don't say that often around here!

The last stretch of the day was another beautiful ride right along the dyke and, for the sake of a peaceful campsite, a few km beyond where I will turn onto the long dyke tomorrow. I am quite excited about it, and have plans to pre-load with plenty of Nutella and caffeine.

I write this sitting on a warm dyke with a curious sheep nibbling my shoulder!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Day 63: to Dokkum (105; 4119)

probably have said this more than once, but this was THE perfect cycle-tour day.

A mysteriously condensation-free night gave me the opportunity for an early start. It was a beautiful clear morning and I was away by 7.30, although subsequently delayed by the breakfast temptations of the supermarket, which didn't open till 8. 

With a mostly tailwind, clear skies, easy navigation, and no hills (obviously) I made great progress and had done 80k by 1.30. Which I think is a record. Feeling a bit frazzled by then I was delighted to find a beach cafe on the edge of the Lauwersmeer, a nature reserve and UNESCO site that's basically a dammed inlet of the Waddenzee. Interesting flora and fauna, wifi, and cold drinks on a sunny terrace. Pretty much the perfect rest-stop.

Given that this is the official North Sea route I have been surprised to see relatively few cyclists over the  last couple of days, and no official signposting - not that that matters much around here. More tractors than anything else as it's largely rich agricultural land and with a couple of exceptions not even much tourism around. Lots of horses though, I have twice met a Molly-alike going for a ride today, possibly the first horses I've seen being ridden all trip.

Things got even better this afternoon when I crossed into Friesland proper.  The sluice bridge was up so there was a buildup of cyclists on both sides, including the most glamorous lady in front of me in a 1950s dress and heels, who then totally kicked my butt in the race to be off (on consideration, she may have been on an e-bike). 

It was a really magical moment crossing the few km of dam. I took the route right along the water's edge with the North Sea on my right, dyke on my left, the tide rushing in and a thumping tailwind. You can't get better than that. 

Just hope I'm as lucky in a day or two's time when there is a 26 km crossing to be made! 

There are noticeably more cyclists in Friesland, lots of whom I think are cycling the 'eleven cities' (of Friesland) tour. This is historically a super-tough one day skating race, which hasn't taken place for years because it no longer freezes hard enough to be possible. (Nonetheless my Frisian friend Alle-Meije is often heard muttering about the likelihood..). Cycling it however is a lovely and more manageable holiday. I am staying tonight in Dokkum, one of the glorious eleven, and famous because St Boniface and fifty-odd followers were massacred here in 754. St B, originally from Crediton, was over here missionary-ing, and told his followers not to resist the robbers who attacked them. A storyline worthy of Game of Thrones I believe.

It's a gorgeous place, the town centre is a hexagon of bulwarks and with canals all around that are covered in sailing vessels. The overall effect is very charming but kind of difficult to get around - my trip to the supermarket which is probably about 200m away as the crow flies took 20 hot minutes each way due to the need to detour over multiple bridges.

A cosy campground, a cute town, wonderful weather and a full belly. I think I'm really getting the hang of this cyclocamping now!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Day 62: to Appingedam, Netherlands (93; 4014)

Through the 4000k mark, into the Netherlands, and an awesome lowland ride on a hot and very humid day. 

I loved the campsite last night, just the dyke between it and the 'sea'. I watched an amazing thunderstorm come across in the early evening and then ate breakfast overlooking the water. Oh and it also had rabbits bold enough to graze the campsite during the day as well as at night. Brilliant.

This morning I cycled southeast to Emden, got lost in the town, and eventually found my way out to a small ferry across the strait. The ten-minute ferry ride was packed with cyclists, and enlivened by a group of twelve retired gentlemen, average age 70 I should think, who solemnly shouted 'hoy hoy hoy' and then each downed a miniature Jägermeister as the ferry set sail. I had been wondering who ever bought the miniatures that are stocked at every supermarket checkout...

I was feeling slightly below par, and assumed that I needed either sugar, caffeine, or liquid so stopped for a coffee and a rhubarb cheesecake in the cute village of Ditzum where the ferry docked. It definitely improved matters and I shot out into the countryside through hot, sunny dykelands. Thence a happy afternoon navigating by the sun, dykes, and number points. It was really humid, the sheep were panting like dogs and I was desperate to take my Tshirt off (but got instantly coated with thunderbugs when I tried).

I didn't notice the border into Holland - my last land border! But did notice as soon as I hit a Ditch village, where the orange bunting was flying and the architecture was just somehow cuter than Germany.

It took till I had checked into a campsite, showered and ordered a beer, in other words till about 5pm, for me to find out that the Netherlands lost the football last night. In fact I had to ask for an explanation since the headline in the Dutch newspaper was 0-0! Which is technically true, though putting a rather positive spin on it. Anyway, luckily there's still the Tour de France to entertain the Dutch sporting enthusiasts. 

Lovely to be back on Dutch cycle paths and if this weather sticks around this is going to be a fantastic last week for me.

Is there a women's TdF? There should be.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Day 61: to Upleward (85; 3921)

A perfect pension last night: wifi, a house full of roses and orchids, a doggie bag to take away extra food from breakfast, and a bed so comfy I didn't bother watching the football - which as it ended 7-1 to Germany was quite the game to miss!

Hopefully my last pension though as I'm choosing to believe there's drier weather ahead. Set off into mizzle and it continued misty +\- drips for most of the day. I had a few map-reading hiccups but mostly had a day of great happiness zooming around warm farmland on little roads and avoiding big towns (of which there are a surprising number). Lots of cows, ponies, and maize. 

My mileage today is somewhat fictional as my cycle comp has again been fried by its drenching. Probably not far wrong though. I could easily have kept going but really wanted to camp out here on the western end of east Friesland. The sun came out while I cycled in, put my tent up, and ate, which was very considerate in drying everything out - though I think a thunderstorm is likely from now on.

Tonight is my last German night! (I do believe I have said this before). Can already feel the Dutch influence: lots of chocolate sprinkles in the breakfast aisle of the supermarket, and the beginnings of the awesome knobpunkt cycle route system.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Day 60: to Jever (39; 3836)

A day of constant horizontal drizzle-to-rain: the North Sea doing what it does best!

Took the morning ferry across to Wilhelmshaven in the company of a nice Finnish lady who is couchsurfing as she cycles, and then off to do a national trust working holiday in the Peak District. Typical Finn: an unassuming, unruffled hero.

My map marks 'quaint places'. I aimed up the North Sea route and had a delicious pizza lunch in one such place, the village of Hooksiel. It was indeed quaint, and also full of that wet seaside holiday feel.

The route makes big loops across the landscape, I think to hit more of these 'quaint places' and stay on tiny empty roads. With no let-up in the weather I wasn't sure what to do: man up and head on through the rain or tuck up somewhere and assume tomorrow will be better. I still have some time in hand at this point, and the luxury of a map (rather than route book) means detours and shortcuts are both entirely possible.

In the town of Jever (famous for its beer which we used to drink in Darwin bar) I gave up, and a nice young man in tourist info found me a room. It's not cold, so when cycling it's actually not unpleasant. But as soon as I stop I realise I am drenched, and the prospect of a long afternoon and evening in a wet tent didn't fill me with glee. Instead I dripped all over a very nice landlady and Horace has a garage to dry off in. My tent will have to just stay wet for 24 hrs more.

It also resolves the pressing question, where can I watch the Germany-Brazil match and can I really be bothered given that it doesn't start till 10pm? The answer: from my bed!

The flags are all out in Deutschland today, I hope they win as I am rooting for a Germany-Netherlands final (to be watched in a campground full of cyclists of both nations).

Monday, July 7, 2014

Day 59: to Eckwarderhörne (85; 3797)

Big dramatic thunderstorms late last night, and I packed up a pretty wet tent this morning. 

I'm getting used to a new map again,  and this one does not seem to distinguish well between paved and non-paved paths. After the amount of rain that fell last night this matters! I did a fair bit of getting stuck in sandpits this morning in the middle of some rather nice woods. Lots of flies around but only buzzers, not biters, else I would have been in trouble.

I was navigating roughly west across to the North Sea port of Bremerhaven. The landscape seemed both very rural and quite full of holidaymakers; some German schools are now on holiday and the number of kids on campsites etc has suddenly rocketed.

Had a rare lunch failure in a cafe in Bad Bederkesa: I was expecting meat soup with beans and figs (c/o the translator app) but I think perhaps it was dog meat soup with last night's scrapings from the fruit salad bowl. Feel a bit sick just thinking of it. In recompense to myself I having a banana split for my supper. (It's going to be hard going back to normal meals).

Bremerhaven is a big industrial port but I found my way through and rolled straight onto a ferry which was just leaving. This wended out through some port bits and over the estuary of the Weser, to a rather Bognor-like place called Nordenham. 

Then I had lovely flat straight sunny run cross-country through the German part of Friesland. At least, there were plenty of black and white cows, and the local greeting has changed to 'Hoi!'. So we're definitely not in standard Germany any more.

Needless to say, it all looks Dutch to me. I apologise for this repeated comment - I guess I just never knew northern Germany looked like this, whereas I have lots of previous (happy) associations with Holland.

I cycled on following the sun to what feels slightly like the end of the world. In fact it's merely the western point of the peninsula. But all such places have a tendency to feel like the end of the road. In a good way.

On my map there's another ferry that I need to catch next, across a long stretch of what is largely mud flats at low tide. Florian kindly looked it up for me and we concluded it went between 9.45 and 5.45, perhaps when full. In fact it goes twice a day: at 9.45 and 5.45. As there's no camping close to the far side I decided to settle here for the night and take the ferry tomorrow morning. If bad weather comes in overnight this might prove to be an error... It's calm, sunny and beautiful at the moment but I know that's due to change!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Day 58: to Hechthausen (66; 3712)

Lovely day cycling with Anna and Florian - baby Ida's first cycle tour! 

They have a big new cycle trailer which they've used around town but not thus far on a longer trip. We cycled through the centre of Hamburg down to the port, took the ferry up and across the Elbe and then cycled the southern/western side of it along dykes and paths. Loads of people out on bikes, and when near the water the river is big enough here that the sky has that 'by the sea' light, making it all feel like a lovely summer holiday! 

They did brilliantly for a first time out, Ida was a bit bored of it by the end but mostly it worked really well, hopefully meaning they can do more trips in the near future. Now that all my old rowing crew except Katy are non-rowers, and there are babies etc involved we thought maybe a cyclocamping meet-up would be better than a rowing one...

I left them at Stade where they were taking the S-bahn home. I cycled on across country, now heading west and mostly on the North Sea route in fact which is my route home - barring a couple of shortcuts.

Despite a few drips at one point, and a pretty bad forecast ahead, it's been a gorgeous hot and breezy day. Really a perfect Sunday.

My campsite tonight also seems very satisfactory - and there's a lake that needs jumping in ASAP.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Days 56 & 57: Hamburg (85; 3642)

The last day into Hamburg was again a nice run across through more Netherlands-like landscape. I entered the city via a large park and confusing water-in-every-direction bits of port. Good signposting though and suddenly I found myself in the middle of huge highways and, according to google maps, surprisingly close to the centre. Hamburg is Germany's 2nd city: it's big!

A bit low on blood sugar I stopped into a McDonalds for refreshment and the wifi necessary to find out where my friend Anna lives with her German husband Florian and 8-month old Ida.

As it turns out they live near the centre and close to the shore of the Alster, a big lake. We celebrated my safe arrival with a little tipple of wine down by the Alster and then with delicious steak dinner while Germany won their World Cup quarter final. 

Hamburg seems a very liveable city; this morning we cycled to the market  etc through parks and dedicated cycle streets. It was a super humid morning but broke this afternoon with spectacular downpours which we witnessed from the safety of a tented beer garden (baby's first Biergarten!).

Lovely to see Anna and Florian and to meet little Ida who is a very cheerful and easygoing soul. Not surprising given her genes!

A trip to Globetrotter, an exquisite and enormous outdoor shop, has supplied the mapping necessary to get me to the ferry. With bad weather predicted (rain and headwinds) I'm planning to shortcut a little to ensure I get back without too much pain, and preferably in time for a quick hello to the Dutch contingent on the way past.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Day 55: to Radegast (86; 3557)

No mosquitoes, slept like a log, and woke to a glorious morning, much warmer than of late. 

Today consisted of more sweeping along the top of dykes through beautiful empty nature reserve, and occasional cute and unspoilt towns. Stork heavy too: many of the villages proudly display a plaque that enumerates how many nesting pairs they have each year, and at one point I counted ten storks in one (newly-mown) field of about 3 acres!

Totally absorbing, it was of those wonderful days when I couldn't remember whether I'd been cycling for one hour or six. 

The landscape looks like a Dutch 15th century painting. And funnily enough my campsite tonight is Dutch owned and about half the vehicles in it are Dutch. So maybe it's even more Holland than Holland. 

Tomorrow to Hamburg and friends, all being well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Day 54: to Gartow (83; 3471)

A beautiful day of cycling through the UNESCO mid-Elbe biosphere reserve. Despite an occasionally strong headwind, and ever-threatening black clouds, it was a great ride through an incredibly peaceful and attractive landscape. 

Lots of wildlife around, especially birds: storks, herons, and some kind of very large bird of prey. I watched a guy digging ditches with his tractor, supervised by no less than four storks following closely behind him. A hare strolled across the path just in front of me and at one point I had to swerve to avoid slow-moving crabs. Which certainly makes a pleasant change from slugs.

The HandyDoctor did indeed fix my iphone screen, and in the hour it took him I explored the rather odd town of Wittenberge. Lots of derelict red-brick factories, a modern centre, and a tiny bit of rejuvenation just along the riverfront. And, I am sad to report, a very disappointing cake shop! (I had two just to be sure, and both were almost but not entirely nothing like how they should have been).

The rest of the habitations today have been small picturesque places, all old timber-framed houses and barns made with small red bricks. I stopped in a few to eat, drink, and/or take shelter from showers.

Gartow fits the same mould though the campground is a little out of town in a wooded area. My predictions for the evening are that it will be lovely and quiet here - and there will be mosquitoes!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Day 53: to Havelberg, Germany (15; 3388)

I've been feeling a bit blah, so today did something about it. To be specific I left east Germany and the Oder-Neisse behind and took a train due west, across to the river Elbe. Whichever way I worked it I probably wasn't quite going to make cycling all the way home, and the 3 days it would have taken to cut across between the rivers on bike weren't looking very exciting or convenient, accommodation-wise. 

Surprisingly, Horace and I managed fine despite having to change trains twice and take the S-Bahn (metro) across Berlin. 

The train actually started in Kostrzyn though I picked it up at the small German village just over the border. As such, it was an international train and two policemen solemnly turned up and checked the passports of all on board. As there's a train every hour I imagine that's a big section of their day's work! Funny since no-one turns a hair as you walk/cycle/drive over the border.

My first Elbe town is Havelberg, a perfect little place, with the oldest part situated on an island in between two rivers (the Havel and Elbe). It has a lovely tall red brick 'cathedral' (which I think in Cambridge would be called a chapel) and lots of old wooden-framed buildings. Quite a change in architecture etc for a few hours on a train. 

A change in my attitude too; I think the rain and lack of camping had been wearing on me and I feel suddenly much cheerier this side of the country.

Now I have two more legs to go: an easy few days up the Elbe to Hamburg where I hope to visit my rowing friend Anna and family, then a rapid sprint down the North Sea coast to home.

Amazingly, my phone continues to work despite the completely shattered screen.  I'm going to try and get it fixed ASAP since it's very vulnerable like this, and might even get the camera fixed too while I'm at it - imagine photos without a black line through them!?

I love that in German, a mobile is a 'handy' -and I have the address for the 'HandyDoctor' shop.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Day 52: to Kostrzyn, Poland (82; 3373)

I'd been feeling vaguely unsettled without firm plans, so after two beers last night I decided to settle at least one plan, and bought a flight to Greece. I begrudge paying Ryanair a horrific amount for a peak-season flight... But the return leg is already a sunk cost and I would be very sad not to get a Greek trip in this summer.

That settled, I can work back from there to determine whether or not I will need to catch another train. 

Today's ride was again mostly lovely dyke-top paths. The river has gained the Oder and become wide and slow and there's a lot of marshy national park around. I took a surprisingly successful shortcut through Eisenhüttenstadt, a 1950s town now named for its steelworks but originally called Stalinstadt. I then stopped for various facilities in Frankfurt (Oder), a biggish town though not especially attractive. I managed to pick up a free campsite map from tourist info and the Bikeline book of the upper Elbe so that was pretty successful. Also realised that while Hamburg to the ferry might be a week on paper, it definitely wouldn't be following the North Sea cycle path! Ah well, I will work that out when I get there.

There were a few more showers around this afternoon, or possibly just one that I kept catching up with again and again! Patience is almost always the answer on this trip... 

Inspired by the Czech couple who I met again at dinner last night, I decided to spend the night in Poland - a Polish motel costing about the same as a German campsite.

Ten seconds after writing that sentence, I dropped my phone again and the front screen smashed, again. I don't understand how I owned it for so long without smashing it when it wasn't my problem, and have done it twice in two months now that it is. Grrr!

If communication goes down in the next couple of days, assume it's due to technology not kidnap.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Day 51: to Neuzelle (86; 3291)

Friendly World Cup watching with my host and a Czech couple last night (Chile vs Brazil, went down to the final penalty). Then v interesting conversation with my hostess over a delicious farmhouse breakfast this morning. I learnt that the stately park I had been admiring so much yesterday was designed by a local Anglophile nobleman, who'd been and studied how the English made them. And that the two schlosses were completely flattened during WW2 when the Russians and Germans fought heavily on this border, and rebuilt only after German reunification.  Best of all, that they (the guesthouse owners) used to keep sheep but had too many problems with wolves! Good to know when you've just spent the night in a tent.

Most of the day was along a dyke through lovely water meadows, punctuated with small villages and a strong head/side/tailwind as the river wound its way along. This was lovely cycling in the warm morning as I raced the thunderclouds that were nipping at my heels.

They caught up with me as I lunched. With a 50 zloty note burning a hole in my pocket I was determined to get a Polish-side meal and did so in Gubin/Guben in the company of a German publisher / army officer who grew up there. The town is now mostly unified but he remembers of course when the bridge was impassable. So strange as always to remember that these events really happened in what is now such a peaceful landscape.

I had an increasingly wet afternoon ahead but only about 25k to go so just went for it, head down. My destination was the tourist village (brewery & kloisters) of Neuzelle. There was a campsite marked but when I got there it was deserted apart from one angry hippy type who I think was a guest, three billy goats, and some peacocks. The attached restaurant was also closed and deserted. Moreover it looked like a madhouse. I rudely used their loo and left. Once again tourist info to the rescue: they set me up with a funny little holiday flat. Given how wet I am, I'm not sad to be in the dry tonight and for only 24 euros. The greater cost however is in mossie bites: taking a wrong turn on the way to find it I suddenly looked down and both legs were covered with mossies getting stuck in. Horrible and I itch like crazy now. The flat has netted windows, I'm delighted to note, so I guess they may be a local speciality.

I'm feeling conflicted about where I go from here. On the one hand I am having such a great trip and don't want it to stop. On the other hand, cycle touring will always be there (now I know how great it is) and I am longing not to miss other 'events'. I can't square the circles of days available, miles to be covered, and where friends are and when. 

Clearly another beer needed!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Day 50: to Bad Muskau (76; 3205)

Slightly amazed that I've been on the road fifty days.

Early morning downpours and general laziness delayed my start. I cycled back through town thinking 'well, Görlitz is jolly lively for a Sunday morning', then on checking the weather forecast realised it was actually Saturday. So perhaps the 50 days are starting to show!

A breezy day, not too hot but humid (sweat rolling down between my bum cheeks humid).

The path has little to do with the river at this point, instead taking me through cornfields, pine forests, and meadows. 

I lunched in the extremely empty main square of Rothenberg,  a completely tumbleweed town by noon on a Saturday.

In the afternoon I thought: let's see a bit more of Poland. There was a 20 km detour marked on my map, and it was nice country - unsurprisingly a lot like the German side, but with less herbicide use, fewer habitations and almost no cars.

Oh, and 5k of awful jarring cobbles. I suppose they were actually rather beautiful but I have a bit of a dicky tummy, so they were not that welcome! The worst thing was having to keep going fast enough so the flies didn't catch me - I've been bitten by horseflies on my right knee twice in two days. 

Then just when you think you've seen it all, out of the forest comes a completely deserted, brand new, 89 metre high wooden viewing tower. With a stunning view of the local area. Thanks again, EU money.
Got quite lost the last few k back into Germany. First a (legit, marked on my map) cycle path ended at a big gate with barbed wire and an angry-looking sign. I feel somewhat less inclined to trespass in Poland, even if I could get round the wire. Then I end up in what I think is the right town... but which direction is the river / bridge / Germany? I try navigating by cigarette shop density but this surprisingly fails. I realise I'm getting nearer however when I find myself cycling through a full-blown border market, like in Mexico. Knock-off goods and pleather bags and cigarettes and multipacks of everything. Complete with police checking car boots once back on the German side. All in all rather odd - still Schengen but perhaps the first real economic 'border' I have seen all trip!

Bad Muskau, the German side of this, is a perfect little town with yet more cobbles, and a beautiful public park containing a couple of castles, follies, etc. I tried repeating my luck at tourist info but turns out it doesn't work so well in German. Even so I ended up at the perfect little camping spot in a hamlet a few km on from the town. I believe the set-up is actually a barn converted into a bell museum (?) but also has rooms.  Right now, Horace and I have the peaceful little orchard all to ourselves. Couldn't be happier!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Day 49: to Görlitz, Germany via Poland (79; 3129)

The last Czech bit was again very satisfying, slow uphill through Hansel and Gretel villages and then a long long downhill with a view out over Poland and Germany. I did finally see a horse and cart but I suspect it was a hippy, rather than peasant, in the driver's seat. 

I stopped for brunch in Hradék nad Nisou where, as the name suggests, I picked up the beginnings of the Nisa (Neisse in German, Nisou in Czech). This river and the Oder which joins it later, will form my path for the next few days. 

This is a funny little corner of the world, where the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany meet. My brain hurts with attempts at currency conversions and country-appropriate greetings. 

So back now to Deutschland, via a few km of Poland (where the petrol stations advertised their prices in Czech, Polish and US currencies). Despite Poland being the 12th country, I am thinking of referring to this trip as the 'four corners of Germany' route. I'm not sure I set out to see so much of Germany! 

I saw yet more hills this afternoon due to a river path closure - beautiful riding up and along a high ridge of cornfields, but hard work with endless swooping ups and downs.

There are flags flying absolutely everywhere in Germany now. The standard for your car, as well as flying flags from the windows, is to have red yellow and black booties covering the back of your wing mirrors. I'm not actually sure when the next World Cup match is... But Germany is definitely ready for it!

Tired, but with no camping spot in sight, I asked in the tourist info in Görlitz. I was told firmly there was no camping, and then very helpfully found a cheap room at an unusual herberge in a huge gothic house. I'm very happy with the arrangement, but amused to note there is indeed camping marked on the town map that the tourist centre gave me - but it's on the Polish side of the river so presumably invisible to the German tourist info office!

This is an amazing town for architecture (4000 listed buildings!). Blows Cambridge right out of the water, though the old town is strangely quiet this Saturday night, suggesting it's strictly for tourists. 

The headline of the promotional brochure says 'Görlitz: For many simply the most beautiful town in Germany'. I love the modesty / qualification presented by the 'for many'. 

After a cheap and cheerful German supper I strolled back through Poland. The cafés next to the bridge were full and thriving (note to self: eat in Poland), as were the cigarette shops. Differences presumably in tax - also minimum wage and profits? Away from the bridge it is obvious that the German half has had a huge amount of care put into restoration work, which is only just beginning in Poland. Still there are signs showing plenty of EU money flowing across the river so the two will doubtless match again soon.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Day 48: to Hamr ne Jazère (81; 3045)

Due to some poor interpretation of the triangulation of map, reality, and google maps, I've seen a bit more of upper Bohemia than expected today. But it's been fantastic.

For starters, Horace has some shiny new parts. Apart from giving him a good old clean up (probably in self defence!) the nice bike man replaced a chain link and the whole of the rear gear hub (is that what it's called?). How lovely it is to have silent and smooth gears! Yet another resolution - go on bike maintenance course. Although the whole shebang cost about 50 euros and was done before 9.30 this morning so I certainly don't begrudge the cost of expert Czech service.

I am loving the Czech Republic. It seems to me that the biggest irritations of the former eastern bloc states are drunk men and angry dogs, both of which are at a maximum on the outskirts of towns. But the Czech countryside is just beautiful, people are friendly, the young speak English (the older generation, German) and people, not just tourists, seem to be enjoying it - cycling, climbing, hiking. 

Admittedly I've probably been in national park all day. It hasn't been high mountains as such, but lovely old deciduous forest and crazy conical hills and tower-like rock formations. Mixed in with high farmland, lots of small lakes, and odd bits of conifers. Lovely.

The legs feel OK - there hasn't been a lot of great long hills though there's been plenty of gentle uphill all day, and occasional steeper bits. But with judicious use of sugar, and (probably most important of all) the right mentality, I've really enjoyed it.

I am rather off-course to the east, but the well-marked cycle trails will take me back tomorrow I'm sure. The mapping is really super - the biggest issue I have is learning to trust it! 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Day 47: to Melnick (55; 2959)

Rain in the night and thunderstorms forecast, with a warning of flash flooding. So not the best day to be heading into the mountains then!

Cycling out of Prague was surprisingly easy, within minutes I was in a park, then the zoo, then on the green riverside cycle path. This appeared to be part of EuroVelo 7, so that's another one to tick off, though I don't even know which it is! It was also part of the Elbe river route, which I hope to see again in a few hundred km (begging the question why on earth I'm leaving it). 

The Czech cycle maps seem excellent, once I have got to grip with interpreting the key - specifically that 'other cycle path / planned cycle path' doesn't guarantee a lot! I had a hairy hour or so heading along an ever-decreasing path that was clearly just foot access to some climbing rocks on the riverbank. I was feeling a bit foolish for refusing to give up and go back when I was caught by a Swiss couple who were on the same path whilst following the Bikeline Elbe book. So that's OK then!

The other comedy moment was when the very clearly marked cycle route 7 pointed up a very tall spiral staircase onto a bridge constructed to carry gas pipes across the river. Not sure the Czechs have completely cracked this cycle path thing.  I know from bitter experience I can't get a loaded Horace up even a marginally steep ramp, but managed the staircases successfully in two trips (panniers and Horace separately). 

Arriving into Melnick I was a bit conflicted. On the one hand, not so many miles covered, only lunchtime, and this is still the pre-hill part. On the other hand, thunder clouds looming. And on a third hand, my gears have suddenly started slipping and Melnick is the only chance of a remedy for several days.

As usual when undecided, I retired to a cafe. Two minutes into my delicious and unidentifiable soup the heavens opened, and I was escorted indoors. From my indoor table I couldn't see the action but there were some impressive thunderclaps. Decision made: cue an afternoon drinking tea and listening to early 90s soft rock (was there ever a better  era??).

The nice campsite lady, who speaks good English, has pointed me to a nice bike man, who speaks none. So I have entrusted him with Horace and, if I understood his Czech right (!) he's going to give the gears a service first thing tomorrow. 

Melnick is a funny old town, with a glorious main square and a castle. I suspect it heaves with tourists on a sunny Sunday - but on a wet Wednesday it's deserted.


Yeah that's Horace peaking up from the bottom of the steps.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Day 45: in Budapest

Surely there is no more beautiful city. 

Here's my fact of the day, gleaned from cruising the Danube (which I have done twice - once in the day an once at sunset): they held a competition to design the Hungarian parliament building -and liked the designs that came 2nd and 3rd place so much they built them as well as the winner, on the same square. I just love that.

I spent a fair bit of the day on Margarite island, watching the dancing fountains. It's like a never-ending firework display (without having to crane your neck). Then every hour on the hour they play some music and the fountains perform a routine to it. 

This is my most southerly and easterly point: tomorrow I head north and west. By train! Exciting, and a little bit sad.

Day 46: to Prague by train (10k; 2904)

No matter how well organised the system is, getting a loaded bike on a train is always a faff. The system here was in fact excellent but, mostly because the users don't know how it works in advance, there was faff aplenty. Luckily it wasn't a full train.

I had forgotten the existence of individual compartments in trains. How wonderful they are! Makes you hopeful of sitting next to Benedict Cumberbatch (Parade's End; if you haven't see it, do). Britain should definitely bring them back.

We rolled through the central European countryside retracing my steps back to Bratislava before heading north into the Czech Republic. Because Hungarian, Slovak and Czech all look and sound completely incomprehensible to me (are Czech and Slovak even the languages?) I had very little idea which country I was in or what was going on at any point, though I think we marked each new country with a new set of conductors. Since Prague was the end of the line it didn't matter, and the journey itself was really rather restful. 

The weather is suddenly looking a bit cooler and rainier after this extraordinary hot spell. Tomorrow also starts what I think will be my toughest section, as I head north to Germany. I reckon it's three days, and for days 2 and 3 it's plenty of hills and not a lot of civilisation. Should be beautiful, just hope Horace and I can handle it!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Day 44: to Budapest (80; 2894)

A lovely last day beside the Danube. Hungary seems very different on a Sunday, with tons of cheery cyclists, pedestrians, and families everywhere. And shops are open!

I took two ferries across the river today, both fun if a little overpriced. The first was basically a large floating platform which a small tug pushed around the river. The second a standard, and very busy, roro carrying I should think 12 bikes, plus cars - more than I've seen in days. In between was a lovely cycle path on the north bank (now also Hungary) which was largely smooth and picturesque. Various parts of this, including the hour's wait for the ferry, was back in the company of the Kiwis I met just before the dog attack. Taking the Slovakia route they covered 117k that day with a massive tailwind, reaching 37 kph, and said it was beautiful and plain sailing. Ah well, you win some you lose some!

Coming into Budapest the riverside paths were heaving with endless beachbar set-ups. By happy accident I crossed the Danube too early and ended up escaping all that hecticness and finding impeccable empty cycle paths on the opposite (Pest) side.

In celebration of reaching the farthest point and the goal, if not the end, I have booked myself two nights in a very nice Danube-side apartment.

I can't quite believe I have cycled to Budapest!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Day 43: to Esztergom (101; 2814)

Seems fitting to do my longest (non-British) ride yet on the longest day of the year. It was a corker. 

The first half of the day alternated between reasonable roads and crazy off-road sections with sand, mud, ruts, stones, and/or overhanging branches. Tarmac turning without warning into tiny track and then turning back into paved road 5km later. I stopped a couple of times for Nutella sandwiches - here in strange crescent-shaped rolls - but basically kept my head down and my wheels turning. 

The second half was a complete contrast: this alternated between mad sections of busy, fast road and sections of dreadful juddering mandatory cycle path next to the road. Which I wouldn't have minded except I had, with regret, obeyed the 'no cycles' sign and taken a huge detour off this very same road first thing this morning. 

So with the exception of about 10k of lovely smooth cycle path, it was almost all quite tough going today. But having left before 8 I was into my campsite by 2.30. If Horace were a horse, he would have earned an extra ration of oats today.

Esztergom is a town of decaying grandeur, crowned by a basilica that is the home of the Catholic Church in Hungary, and the third largest in Europe after the Vatican and St Paul's (surely that's going to win you a pub quiz some day). It also looks straight out onto the communist era tower blocks and industry of Slovakia, across the river. Quite the contrast. 

As I climbed up to the basilica, a wedding was starting in the (also quite impressive) church below. The bride entered not to the march of an organ, but to the poignant wail of a single violin which carried a long way through the hot, empty streets.

I spent the evening beside the Danube, watching the sun go down over Slovakia and listening to an acoustic band.

Some Slovakian girls asked me what the time is in Hungary. I told them then realised I wouldn't have a clue if I'd changed time zones, since I haven't had a fixed appointment for weeks. Sign of a successful sabbatical!

Day 42: to Györ, Hungary (96; 2713)

Some days you've got it and some days you ain't. Today was one of the latter.

I slept badly in a stuffy room and was for some reason feeling vaguely anxious. I left early and had an easy ride - so easy that I would have liked to go further than Györ, but the location of upcoming camping options made that impractical.

I met a Kiwi couple who had come a similar route to me and we rode and chatted together for a bit. They had at some point come up the Prague to Vienna greenway and were strongly advising against it (unmarked and rough trails) which is good to know as, doing the maths on days left, I had been considering it.

There are multiple Eurovelo 6 paths leading out of Bratislava (at least on paper); two minutes after our paths diverged I was attacked by a bloody large Alsatian. His owner was calling him off (ineffectually) but luckily he went for my pannier, which now bears the large puncture wound that would otherwise have been in my leg! 

Not sure what the solution to dogs is. You can buy sprays etc but then have to be quick-witted and sure-handed enough to get to it at the relevant moment. Which I'm almost certainly not. I then almost had a second dog incident later: a huge black bull terrier type that was also loose on the street, but luckily was so busy having a growling match with next door's dog that it didn't see me till I had just gone past. Welcome to Eastern Europe! Or perhaps just a reflection of how few cyclists there are on this section of the trail relative to the pre-Vienna cycle superhighway.

Dogs aside the cycling was easy and I rode into Györ, which is a pretty and big town, very early, and then got instantly lost. Eventually found the swankiest possible tourist info office, staffed by a sour old lady, who grudgingly gave me a map and some incorrect info about campsites. Deciding sustenance was the only way things were going to get better, I then had a nice soup and ice-coffee break in the very beautiful main square at a cafe staffed by grumpy waiters.  I had been pre-disposed to like Hungary by the Hungarians I have known... But so far, not so good! 

Part of this is being back to square one with language. I had got quite fluent in pidgin German, and not even being able to say thank you and where is the loo is quite isolating.

It's been considerably cooler today, less than 25, and when the cloud is over that feels pretty cold after the last couple of weeks. I actually put my coat on against rain spots at one point but they didn't amount to much - lucky as I need to complete a waterproof pannier repair before any major rain.

The route out of Györ was always going to be tricky. The final straw of the day came in the form of a well-meaning elderly gentleman who insisted on taking me a 'better route' than the way I was going. We had little common language and I followed him protestingly for what felt like 270 degrees of ring road before eventually leaving him under the pretence of stopping at a garage (he cycled on shouting 'nein, nein, kom, kom'... And may still be doing so for all I care). Anyway I found my way fine once the pressure was off but it ended up being a bloody long way to get from the centre of town to my campsite.

Resolution of the day: I am absolutely going to stop giving in to other people's directions unless my map happens to agree with them!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Day 41: to Bratislava, Slovakia (85; 2621)

Last night Claudia took me to a heuriger in the town where she grew up, on a hillside outside Vienna. A heuriger is a very traditional Viennese occurrence where a family vineyard opens its doors for a couple of weeks and serves its newly-made wine along with some homemade food. Then when that batch of wine is gone it closes up again and a different vineyard has a heuriger instead. What a great system. The wine was good and the food absolutely amazing. Claudia made me try some of the dodgier realms of Austrian cuisine (pig lard anyone?) but it was all just delicious (possibly excluding the lard). Maybe I'm not ready to become vegetarian just yet.

A sad thing happened though - we saw an air ambulance flying low overhead and then a few minutes later the people with whom we were sharing a table got the phone call you always dread. They left as soon as they could, but it was quite a lot later before the helicopter took off again, presumably meaning that there was no longer any urgency for the patient. 

Claudia has been a brilliant host and is very entertaining company. I see lots of similarities with Uschi - I bet they fought like mad when they were kids! It was really great to see some of how the Viennese live, as well as the lovely city itself.

Today is yet another public holiday, and she was off early to the stables. She used to race her own horse when younger and now has a youngster in training whose second race is next weekend. I had been warned to get going early too as Turkey's president is in Vienna today and large demos are planned to shut the centre. The holiday did make the cycle back in a fair bit easier (as did knowing where I was going). I eventually made it out over all the multitude of bridges via the nudist section of Vienna. Those guys have impressive tans already!

The majority of the ride to Bratislava was along a long straight dyke. Luckily the cycling conditions weren't bad and I was very content bowling along in a straight line for 16k. This ended with a fantastic bridge crossing, taking me right up into the treetops for a couple of km across a wetland nature reserve and then the Danube itself.

I lunched on the river at Hainburg, a Roman town and technically still Austria, though you wouldn't think so from the language the waiter and I were speaking.

Then goodbye to Austria which I have really loved (despite the lack of smoking ban). The Austrians seem to me to enjoy a general lack of 'German-like' rules, eg dogs are allowed in almost all restaurants (Claudia told me in a very posh one near her if you tell them when you book that you're bringing your dog they prepare a special meal for it!)

So who else didn't know that Vienna and Bratislava were a short day's cycle apart? As we drove on the motorway last night there was a set of exit signs showing Slovenia and Italy this way, Slovakia and Hungary that way, Vienna straight on. Lovely. I also didn't know that Slovakia is now Schengen (and Euro) so no formalities at all at the border.

Bratislava is like a European capital in miniature. The old town is cute and heaving with the river-cruise masses, and there is a definite air of a town on the way up. I am staying in a nice hostel where a very kind young man insisted on carrying a loaded Horace up an enormous flight of stairs so he could sleep safely on the balcony (and so the young man could look manly in front of his girlfriend, I suspect!).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Day 40: in Vienna

Well what a lovely place Vienna is!

For one thing, it's a surprisingly stress-free capital (..on foot). The highlight was watching the morning training session of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. The well-trained Lippizaners are always a joy to watch, but the training of nervous youngsters was very interesting. The riders have a very quiet way with the horses. They are worked pretty hard with each rider doing multiple half-hour sessions. 

Apart from horses, I spent a happy hour in a brilliant travel / map shop, and am now a) 38 euros the poorer, and b) fully equipped to tackle the mountains of the Czech Republic. And then head north. Possession of detailed maps is clearly not actually going to help me get up the hills, but there is a comfort in being able to pick a route, and to know where the next sleeping place is!

After lunch I headed to Schloss Schonbrunn which was the emperor's summer residence. It's really enormous - you get the impression it and its park were designed to be impressive and a display of power, rather than beautiful, comfortable, elegant etc. I'd still prefer Chatsworth, if anyone were asking.

Horsing around 

The cathedral, reflected in a modern neighbour

The Schloss (and from its folly above)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Day 39: to Vienna (68; 2536)

Two fascinating facts about Zwentendorf to start the day: in the 1970s Austria's only nuclear power plant was built here - but never used, and on Sunday it celebrated its 1000-yr birthday. Seems unlucky to miss a 1000-yr anniversary by one day... A bit like cycling all the way to Athens only to find your friends are not at home ;-)
(Ruth gets credit for that wisecrack)

Interesting camping neighbour last night: an elderly German chap with a large Canadian canoe. The campsite was a couple of hundred yards from the water and even though he had a set of wheels on it, it must be quite an effort to haul, being a large boat with plenty of contents. He says he does 10 kmh a lot of the time but only 5 when he nears the many hydro stations (he is travelling with the current of course). On the other side a nice German girl who told me she celebrated two weeks of cycling last night with a bed, a meal and a beer! Unfortunately a fair few mossies around for the first time (and no wind) so that limited the socialising somewhat.

Ironically because I had only a short distance to make, my legs felt full of vim today. I stopped in the very attractive main square of Tulln for some wifi and coffee, and generally took it easy all day.

The next stretch of cycling looked more like Belize than Austria: the Danube was a perfect pale jade, the sky a perfect blue and the only noise came from birds in the thick forest on both shores. Magic. I could have kept cycling that forever.

The route into Vienna was also surprisingly green and pleasant, though somewhat lacking in signage. In fact Vienna is quite good for cycling, with lots of paths etc. My only complaint is cycles aren't allowed in parks, of which there are many very large and lovely ones - therefore blocking the cycle route in all directions!

In fact I spent a couple of sunny hours this afternoon reading in the main park. I've been getting such enjoyment from the Kindle on this trip. Basically I downloaded about 80 free books - perhaps half modern trash, and half off-copyright classics. This rather random selection contains some absolute treasures - yesterday I read a Jane Austen novella called Lady Susan which was hilarious. Now I'm on Elizabeth Gaskell. 

I'm staying tonight with Uschi's sister Claudia, who was volunteered for this by Uschi when I saw her in Basel. All I know of Claudia is she has a dog and a racehorse. I like her already!