Friday, May 30, 2014

Day 21: to Haute Clocher (France; 55k; 1167k total)

The last supper with Katy and Ed was comic: turning the wrong way out of the campsite we trudged along an endless road past a closed supermarket and ended up at a ring road McDonalds. Katy is an ethical eater and a vegetarian - McDs in France doesn't even sell a veggie burger. But it does sell beer and after a couple of those her dinner of salad, chips and ice cream seemed bearable. (Ed and I eat almost anything, of course). The experience was enlivened by a) more free wifi, and b) a pair of drug dealers getting discretely arrested.

Breakfast this morning - our final final meal together- was a lot more exciting. The reopened supermarket had a great bakery and we scoffed shocking amounts of fresh croissants and pain au chocolat etc. When in France...

Then we went our separate ways. Today for me was a lovely 35k along scenic peaceful canals, bookended by 10k hilly slogs on slightly too busy roads. This resulted in a rather shorter than expected day, due to a very effective shortcut, but I find myself pretty tired despite all, so am happy to have one.

The canals were amazing, much of it was nature reserve of various kinds and I saw just a handful of cyclists, a handful of fishermen and a handful of boaters all day. About twenty locks though, it must be a very effortful stretch to go through by boat. Where there wasn't wetland there was very old beech forest, with villages from the Middle Ages (says the tourist info signs).

One kilometre from my hotel, a funny sight: 25 Norwegians in a field!

My hotel is another convent - not apparently functioning as one but peaceful and with a super garden. A bed and an en suite feel very luxurious after a whole week of camping!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Day 20: to Roth, France (64k; 1112 total).

Yet another lovely day with good weather, good cycling, and good company.

Today was Ascension Day, a public holiday in both Germany and France. As a result the cycle paths were humming with cyclists (+/- children and dogs in trailers), runners, walkers, in-line skaters, people in wheelchairs and all other imaginable forms of human-powered transport, including a guy speeding along on a thing that looked like a bike but was operated by a sort of step machine.

Mid-morning we found ourselves in the most apocalyptic scene, with huge derelict machine works all around, half grown over with lush vegetation. We stopped for a coke at the new 'weirdest stop' spot - in the middle of this disaster zone an Italian restaurant with a plant-filled conservatory and immaculately tended garden. And a bunch of middle age German cyclists who solemnly lit up and ordered beers. 

We pushed on for lunch in Saarbrucken, a large city at the end of this stretch of industrial wasteland. Ed and Katy bought tomorrow's train tickets and we cycled straight through the completely closed (for the holiday) shopping centre. We ended up at random in the most fantastic pizza and pasta place, with wifi (almost unheard of here) and where you could watch the pasta being made. 

Post lunch was a short ride but felt a bit hard, we were perhaps all in a bit of a carb-daze, but the scenery improved dramatically as we headed out of town, with beer gardens, parks and pretty canals. At some unmarked point we crossed into France and celebrated with wine/beer/Orangina in Sarreguemines which was pretty, at least along the riverside.

Our location tonight is a very large and completely deserted camping park in Roth, which is apparently famous for hosting a triathlon. I asked if we could swim in the lake and got a long and complex explanation which I'm going to interpret as 'I'll pretend you didn't ask me that'. Despite that it's a relief to be speaking French, where I can hardly remember any words but at least have a reasonable idea of what's going on.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Day 19: to Siersburg (63k; 1048 total).

A very satisfying day all round, and in which I broke through the 1000km mark.

Today we left the Moselle river and picked up the Saar, a much smaller river heading southeast towards France. Still lots of cyclists but mostly of the retired-on-holiday-and-electric-bikes variety.

The cycling today was quite different and on occasions absolutely perfect, with a bit of a Scottish loch feel. (I am reminded of Ewan McGregor in The Long Way Round, who whenever he is somewhere beautiful immediately says 'oh it reminds me of Scotland!'). There was a bit of up and down, mostly up as the river climbed, leading to some large locks. There was also a fair bit of nice off-road along gritty tracks. I am requested to note that we saw a red squirrel. And a lot of giant orange slugs.

Had a nice lunch stop in a pizza restaurant in Metlach, a quiet town where every shop was the factory outlet of a homeware store. I ordered vegetable soufflé and got a delicious pasta bake. Another triumph for the translation app! Also had mildly stressful ice cream stop in Merzig which was a dump of a town, and where we went round the same roundabout repeatedly. We did establish that Kaufland (a very large supermarket) really does not sell either of the two types of gas cannister I can use. We are in fact now out of gas, sadly, and currently have no plan for getting more.

Not that this matters as tonight we have found a beautiful peaceful campsite with a good looking restaurant and only friendly Dutch campers for company. The sun is shining, we have a bottle of chilled Reisling, and all is very well in my world.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Day 18: to Luxembourg and back! (85k) (985 total).

Despite being squeezed between a main road, a railway line and a river, we all slept well. Given this, and the considerable attractions of a) not having to pack up and b) cycling without panniers, we decided to leave our tents where they are, and take a little side trip to Luxembourg. 

Luxembourg is in fact only 5k away, where the Moselle starts to form the border between it and Germany. We rode down the Luxembourg side, which was rather disappointing in that it was mostly cycle path immediately adjacent to busy road. We lunched in the 'picturesque town' of Remich which was also rather underwhelming. Katy felt she got the full French experience by getting a ham omelette when she ordered cheese (Katy is veggie). 

After lunch we cycled on down the river to Schengen which is tiny and famous for the agreement but also, fittingly, is the three-way border between France, Germany and Luxembourg. Then we crossed the river back into Germany and cycled home down lovely off-road tracks.

The day was notable for two things. One, Horace heroically saved me from a too-fast Luxembourgian driver (he clipped Horace's bar end with his wing mirror, which had no effect on me, and he did stop to apologise). Second, delicious black forest gateau in the weirdest cake stop yet, a darkened tearoom reminiscent of 1898, when the establishment was in fact established. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Day 17: to Konz (85k; 900 total)

When I woke at dawn after a lovely sleep there was neither a helicopter nor any rain to be heard. When I woke again at 7 there were both. Oh well. Watching the helicopter as we breakfasted on coffee and croissants was fascinating. Spraying the vineyards with fungicide every ten days seems like a never-ending job: the hillsides are enormous and steep and the helicopter gets in very close - and then has to land frequently to take on more spray. Rather him than me.

Back on the road, we had quite a long day, in part because we got caught in an absolute monsoon-like downpour in the middle of a vineyard just after lunch. By the time we reached shelter (ie a bus shelter) the roads were streams and it was raining so hard each drop splashed back up. The mud was very red as well so the water running down the roads was an impressive colour. Luckily all our waterproof stuff seems to be doing the job just fine. And Horace is obviously a wet-weather soul: immediately after today's drenching the clunking stopped and, miraculously, the cycle computer started working again. What a contrary bike he is.

Notably fewer cyclists around on a showery weekday, and far fewer with dogs. Taking your dog for a cycle seems a common Sunday pursuit around here - yesterday we saw everything from small dogs in baskets to a labrador in one of those kids trailers with his head sticking out the top!

Second to last stop of the day was in Trier which is a large historic (Roman etc) town. We needed tourist info and some food but such a large town is a bit overwhelming late in the day. In tourist info we managed to buy the next cycle map but they could tell us nothing useful about the next town (10k away!). However we did successfully find more camping gas earlier today so on the whole we're ahead.

We had planned to stay at a site a little way out of Konz but, in trying to find a supermarket, found a perfectly decent one right by the town itself. While it has a busier road nearby it won on sheer convenience. 

Tomorrow we either leave the Moselle for the Saar (a river heading directly south) or, excitingly, may head into Luxembourg for a day. To be debated once we are all showered and fed and onto a second bottle of wine, perhaps!

Day 16: to Wehlen (80k) (815 total)

Minus my computer I need to start a tally of total distance. 80k today felt good, it was warm but not roasting and such beautiful countryside, lots of off-road paths and ever more steep vineyards on each side.

Ed bought a spoke from a man first thing and fixed his wheel which has been fine. Horace was grindy for much of the day but recovered at the end. Katy has slight sun allergy but it recuperating now. We all had a brief (in my case very brief) swim in the Moselle when we got to the campsite tonight. It is very peaceful and has a wonderful vineyard view. We have been warned that there will be a helicopter hovering tomorrow at 6am to spray fungicide... Unless it rains. Here's hoping for helicopters!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Day 15: to Cochem (40k)

A very satisfying day, though somewhat curtailed in the cycling stakes by mechanical disaster.

We woke up to rain but it cleared by the time we got up and organised with sweet bread and Nutella and hazelnut coffee for breakfast. All was going well as we cycled merrily through the vineyards... And then a loud twang and Ed broke a spoke. Apparently he does have the tools to mend it, but has no spare spoke. So we wheeled him to the nearest station and popped him on the train to Cochem, a larger town which our guidebook promised has three cycle shops. Well, it does but they all close at lunchtime on a Saturday, and Ed missed them by minutes. One is open briefly tomorrow, so we very much hope they will be persuaded to fix it then. 

Katy and I cycled on in a massive headwind to meet him in Cochem. It is a lovely, if somewhat touristy town. The hordes (including Dutch motorbike hordes) are apparently drawn by the ridiculously picturesque castle, a very old town, vineyards, and a mustard mill (?!). We had a lazy Mexican lunch with delicious Riesling, and then found a small campsite a little off the main drag. We wandered up to the castle which has spectacular views over the gorge, and through the town for a bit. Back at the campsite we got a little further in our exploration of weizenbeer, cooked up some veggies and couscous for supper, and then had a quick stop at the bar, which featured a darts match, and a very cute cocker spaniel pup. 

I do really hope Ed's bike is fixable tomorrow but in the meantime, Cochem has proved a pretty nice place to be stranded!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Day 14: to Winningen

Companions again, hurrah!

Katy and Ed were due in to Koblenz at lunchtime, leaving me a rather wet morning free. I passed it looking around the enormous warren that is the Ehrenbreitstein fortress. Apart from the structure itself, highlights included the rehearsal of a French orchestra, a Ukrainian photo exhibition, and a museum of local industrial power, including a display on our good friends Boehringer Ingelheim. My favourite exhibit, for sheer weirdness value, was a video of a group of handicapped kids dressed up as Indians and re-enacting Indian burial rites. As the commentary was only in German I have no possible explanation for this oddity.

I met Katy and Ed at the station and Ed impressively transformed two bags into two bikes in, well, less than two hours anyway. We set off... As far as the promenade where we settled in for an excellent late lunch. Then we left the Rhine, crossed the Moselle, and then really set off.

I have bust my bike computer so distance estimates are going to get a lot sketchier. My estimate for today is 20k: 15 along the Moselle and 5 buggering around in Koblenz including the frankly rather scary road down from the fortress. Sad about the computer but no real clue what has gone wrong. 

At Winningen, the biggest town for a while, we stopped to try and locate some food for supper. The Spar - the only shop - was unfortunately shut so we gave up cycling and camped instead. The campground is large and busy, but beautiful, on a peninsula sticking out into the river. The Moselle valley is much steeper than the the Rhine, with impressively walled terraces of vines on both sides.

Having failed to locate a shop we dined deliciously but somewhat incongruously in a Greek restaurant. I still know more Greek than German.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Day 13: to Koblenz (39k)

So here's the thing: often the only thing I can find to eat for breakfast here is cake (!).

Another hot and lazy day after a deliciously warm night under canvas. My destination is Koblenz, an ancient and surprisingly large town at the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle where I am to meet Katy and Ed tomorrow.

I casually booked a night in the youth hostel, thinking 'oh it's in a fortress, that's cool'. When I got into town I realised the fortress has a very imposing position a good few hundred feet vertically above the river. Gulp. Then I saw the cable car. Which takes bikes. Hurrah for laziness, that's 6 euros well spent.  

It certainly has the best view of any youth hostel I've been in, with the two rivers meeting at a famous landmark ('German corner'), umpteen enormous river cruiser boats, train lines everywhere, and the old town including statuesque monuments and palaces opposite. The whole town was apparently massively spruced up for a garden festival 3 years ago, which resulted in the aforementioned cable car. As told to me by a nice local with whom I just had a beer. He takes the cable car home from work every day apparently, 

The 'inside a fortress' thing is also rather unique. As in, there's a huge fortress all over the hill, that is in a perfect state of modern preservation, and the youth hostel is in one wing of it. In other wings, a restaurant, museum, wedding venue... Tis a strange place! 

Half way through writing this the weather has started to break. There were definitely some raindrops on the canvas last night but not enough to really count come morning. We are sadly overdue some cooler and wetter weather. It has also driven in a group of perhaps twenty 11-yr olds who (unlike me) seem to have got here purely by cycling.

Day 12: to Bad Breisig (67km)

awoke happy to be off, though sad to leave the hostel of endless-free-cappuccinos.

First hitch: my panniers didn't fit on the new rack, and I had to remove the sideways guard thingies to get them on. Second hitch: my gears are still grumpy from time to time, though better than they were - weirdly for a while they work perfectly then for a while they don't. Ah well maybe Horace and I just need to learn to live with this imperfection.

Cycling the actual Rhine river path, for the first time, is fantastic. For one thing, it's hard to get lost... For another, there are clearly quite a lot of other long-distance cyclists on it, so I think the chances of bumping into similar folks is getting higher. Finally, the river is a mecca for cafés and beer gardens so I think it's going to be easy to stay happily fed and watered.

I stopped for lunch in one such Biergarten in the middle of Bonn, where alcohol-free wheat beer (here called weizenbeer) was the cheapest liquid on the menu. Now that's civilised! My offline translater app seems just as, ahem, effective in German as in Spanish. I ordered bean soup which, according to my app, came with bread and arch support.

The cycling was easy and pleasant, and basically consisted of off-road paved paths across meadows and along the promenades of towns. I took it slowly, partly to try and rest my knee, but also because I felt lazy and was enjoying the scenery. The biggest hazards today were willow fluff and aphids, both of which were everywhere, coating everything, and sticking to my slightly sweaty legs and arms.

The Rhine river route is signposted from time to time but funnily enough the most consistent signposting has been the scallop shell! Yes this too must be part of the Camino network (here signposted Jakobsweg or Pilgerweg). 

I am feeling a bit crippled, language-wise. It makes it all a bit more 'experimental'. But I guess over time the most crucial words will sink in.

My second night of camping tonight, and it's definitely going to be a warmer experience: currently forecast not to drop below 17 degrees! I'm in a campground up a tiny steep valley called the Rheineck. As seems to be the way, 95% of the campers look to be long-term guests in static caravans, but there are actually two other cyclocampers present (albeit at the very far end from me). The campsite also has a washing machine and tumble dryer so that has made me a happy camper! 

Popped into town for a pizza and beer and now heading for an early night. The loudest thing here is birdsong. Perfect!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Day 11: in Cologne

A really roasting day - and thus a good one to be stationary. Despite vague intentions to do top tourism sites in fact I have done very little except laze around in parks, cafés etc. I seem to feel a bit twitchy whenever I stop like this. But I am feeling much better after two large beers this evening in a lakeside beer garden (where the waiter gave me his phone number!). The park is absolutely covered with people barbecuing and sitting around listening to music. It looks like a festival but is in fact just a regular sunny Tuesday evening.

Cologne is a town of a million, of whom 100,000 are students and it has a really nice laid back vibe. Moreover my bike has been returned with a new rack and with gears realigned. The heatwave is supposedly on its way out, with potential thunderstorms arising.  Tomorrow will be my first day of actual Rhine cycling! And all being well I am planning some warmer weather camping.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Day 10: to Cologne (75k)

A hot and rather tiring day. Today's ride was straight across country to Cologne in order to finally touch base with the Rhine. I had preconceptions that this would be a fairly uninteresting but necessary day of cycling and my prejudice was bolstered within a few K of setting off. Immediately after crossing the German border the cycle paths degenerated to English style, ie often there but annoyingly narrow, covered in garbage, bumps, parked cars etc and with a tendency to end without warning. The day's cycling was unexpectedly redeemed however by a couple of lovely paths where I had long car-less stretches across the countryside and saw only rabbits.

At a place called Julich I turned alongside a strange forested hill structure which I thought might be some kind of fortification - Julich has a long history of being fought over, from Romans to Napoleon to WW2 where it was trashed by several months of fighting. The hill went on for many kilometres however... And the power of google now tells me that it is in fact the world's largest artificial hill caused by open cast mining of lignite. So there you go.

From my point of view (ie whilst circumnavigating the bottom of it) it was a lovely peaceful stretch of easy dirt path through bright green cornfields and (modern) windmills.

I planned a lunch stop in Elsdorf, a town which I thought might be worth a visit since it had been being signposted as a destination on cycle routes for the previous 25k. Not so - it consisted of a tiny, dead main street and the whole place stank of drains. I grabbed a consolatory ice cream and pushed on.

A very long straight (Roman?) road which I took for about 20k delivered me into the centre of Cologne and eventually right to my hostel doorstep. The hostel is an amazing place - it has sort of bunks that are actually double bed-sized pods equipped with anything you could need. It's in an area called the 'Belgian quarter' which, I gather from the street life, is where the hipsters live. In fact Cologne in general is dripping with hipsters and in the heat  they make for great people-watching!

The bad news of the day is that my bike is suffering a bit from the after-effects of yesterday and several of the gears are slipping quite badly. I'd been debating living with this until the end of the week when I will meet up with technically competent friends who could help me fix it. However, it turns out my pannier-paranoia was well-founded and one of the arms has now broken on my rack. Since I'm hoping it'll need to take me at least another two or three thousand kilometres I thought I'd probably better get this fixed sooner rather than later. Apparently racks aren't solderable (or more likely, aren't worth soldering) but a local bike shop (..hipster) has promised to fix me a new rack and realign my gears by tomorrow evening for 50 euros. So lucky Horace is going to enjoy 24 hrs of R&R too!


Peaceful paths through the corn

Fountains and folks enjoying the sun next to Cologne university

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Days 8 & 9: to Valkenburg (~15k) & Kerkrade (~20k)

An unbelievably fun weekend with Khanum. Great to have such excellent company and fantastic sunshine!

Friday night we went for traditional (awful, deep-fried) Dutch food on a sunny terrace, followed by a quick trip through a Haunted House at the funfair, and then some higher grade tapas and people-watching in the centre of town.

Saturday morning we had a decadent hotel breakfast at the perfect table overlooking the river, and then spent the morning pottering around Maastricht. It is a most charming place with many and varied styles of old buildings, endless squares, Roman town walls with turrets and riverfront walkways. It doesn't feel, to me, at all Dutch - more like a little piece of France or indeed Switzerland (what it reminds me most of is Basel).

We had a sunny pre-lunch of cherry pie and coffee and then picked up our bikes and headed off on the short ride to Valkenburg. Navigating in my usual casual style we started down a potentially-closed bike path, only to be rescued by a kind gentleman who insisted the path was really dangerous (correctly: they were digging up the motorway) and instructed us to follow him instead. He put us on the right track, and then warned us about the very steep hills between Maastricht and Valkenburg. Secretly I poo-pooed this... But he was right! Poor Khanum had dodgy gears and was suffering a bit. The hills were made up for however by a drinks stop in a really odd but picturesque village where endless streams of young men, mostly on cycles, continuously passed through.

It wasn't until this evening that we worked it out: far from being the quiet historical town we thought, Valkenburg is actually stag- and hen-party central. We spent the most fun evening imaginable sitting in a restaurant terrace watching the hordes parade up and down the main street in their finest. In truth, some of these gangs may just have been cycle clubs out for a weekend's hill training. But presumably the ones dressed up as gnomes, spongebob squarepants etc were stags. I should think there were 20 separate stag/hen parties, all walking up and down about 200m of street, and mingling amusingly with families, older hiking types, and young couples away for a romantic mini break. At 10pm half the restaurants suddenly stacked up their tables and turned into bars / discos / karaoke clubs. What a weird, but fantastic, place.

Away from the top notch people-watching, Valkenburg is a very old and beautiful town dominated by a ruined castle. It is set at the bottom of a massive hill and has a little river at the bottom, which we were staying on. Sunday dawned even brighter and, based on a quick tripadvisor search / what is free with the Museumkaart, we hurried off to the most bizarre sounding tourist attraction. Well, it did not disappoint! 

In essence, in 1912 a very rich local decided to buy up some 2000 yr old mines (caves) and turn them into an exact replica of Rome's catacombs. Complete with frescos, fresco-damage and ancient graffiti. I think they said there is 15km of them. 

We were given a candle and accompanied by a massively enthusiastic volunteer guide and a Dutch/English history student. I don't think I can fully do justice to the amusement value of being taught about early Christian adoption of traditional Pagan Roman art by a Dutch atheist in a 100-yr old replica of an ancient burial chamber. 

After that sadly Khanum's freedom needed to come to an end, especially because due to rail replacement bus issues it is going to take her hours and hours to get home. So we parted at the station and I headed back uphill (luckily a much gentler one) and away from Valkenburg. 

The journey was easy but unfortunately due to some poor gear control going up a hill my bike started to make a really nasty noise. There were tons of super speedy cyclists around but I was too intimidated to ask for help and thought I would carry on to my hotel and take it from there. Well I am proud to say that I *think* (dangerously!) that I have both found and remedied the problem. And without getting any oil on anything in my sparking white room. I'd boast about what it was but of course knowing nothing about how my bike works I can't describe it at all. 

My location tonight is a funny town that seems to be split by the Dutch-German border. I am still (just) on the Dutch side which is called Kerkade, and am staying in the most stunning old abbey. I picked it simply for being vaguely in the right direction and almost as cheap a room as I could find, but it is really beautiful and currently full of wedding guests. They managed not to look too askance at an oily cyclist and, contrary to what Khanum says about Dutch dress codes, are definitely not wearing jeans to the wedding.

Tomorrow Germany - my 4th country. All being well, I am hoping to finally meet the Rhine tomorrow, at Cologne where I am booked into a rather glamorous-looking hostel for two nights. I have a lot of time to get to my next friend-rendezvous on Friday, so thought a day's touristing in Cologne wouldn't go amiss while this warm weather holds. Plus I really need to do some washing!
Khanum in Maastricht admiring the walls

Maastricht at night

Beautiful countryside in this hilly corner of Holland

Looking back at Valkenburg from above

My abbey, for the night

Friday, May 16, 2014

Day 7: to Maastricht via Belgium (~90k)

A perfect day!

Isn't Belgium a wonderful place? For starters the sun has been fully shining... Well actually it was shining in Holland when I woke up, for that matter. Despite the 'school party' (which turned out to be 30 or so youngsters doing sports at a vocational college), I slept wonderfully with two duvets to make up for the previous night. 

It's been a day of amazingly beautiful off-road cycle routes. I have finally got to grips with the Dutch/Belgian system of cycling by following signs from point to point. (And also worked out that google maps can work without internet at least some of the time). As such I spent most of the day following fantastic paths along canals. I saw very few cars, though a good few cyclists, average age 60 I should think.

I've never been to Belgium before but this bit seemed lovely, and quite different from the Netherlands (at least in architecture). 

With fewer map-reading stops I happily put in 50k before lunch where I finally made it to a 'fietscafe' (bike friendly cafe) on the outskirts of Neeroeteren. Not actually sure what qualifies it thus, but this seemed to be attached to a sports centre and I sat outside in the sunny, wind-sheltered terrace with full view of my bike and two old ladies eating the most enormous strawberry-covered cakes while their dogs woofed at all who passed. An odd spot but very pleasant!

Crossed back into the Netherlands shortly after, after a lovely stint along the Maas river. Needless to say border formalities (or indeed, border signposts) don't exist, the crossing back was a free two minutes on a roro ferry.

Back in the Netherlands I followed the magic numbers for a much lengthier than planned, but very picturesque, dawdle through small villages and over, along and around a confusing set of canals and rivers.

Finally made it into central Maastricht where I am staying in the Crowne Plaza. I know this seems a bit decadent but in my defence, it was the only option. Khanum is coming out for a much-needed weekend off from the kids, and as we only decided this a few days ago everything was already very booked up. So I decided to splurge some of my last remaining airmiles (thanks Camcog!) on a room for tonight. I have to say I was a bit apprehensive rocking up to a four star hotel with a cycle but of course, this being Holland, it was completely fine. In fact the concierge told me to take it right into the hotel and they had a meeting room to leave it in. Brilliant!

So now I am taking advantage of all possible hotel luxuries (A bath! Hurrah! And a bathrobe! And biscuits!) and awaiting the lovely Khanum and her bike, who are due in to the station at any moment.
Sunny canals and happy cows

A tough second international border crossing of the day...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Day 6: to Valkenswaard (83k)

Well, my night was peaceful but bloody cold. My sleeping bag is rated down to zero degrees but I'm never convinced this means 'keeps you snug down to zero', more like 'keeps you alive down to zero when you're wearing every thing you own' (I pretty much was). Looking at the weather report it was probably about 3 or 4 degrees last night... So yes, a chilly night and not super comfy as a result. Bring on the more southerly climes! I'm happy to have road tested the new tent and stove without disaster, but I do hope it warms up before Katy and Ed come out for a week's camping! Forecast is looking good, but then it feels like it's been one day away from good weather for quite a while now! 

Some early morning porridge soon saw me right however and I packed up and set off into slightly threatening-looking weather. 

A few K down the road I was admiring some lovely Norwegians (any relative to Molly, I wonder) and was accosted by a nice man determined to help me find my way. In the end I named a town I 'wanted to go to' just to cooperate. He did confirm the existence of a ferry however and it turned out to be free which was nice. Such a civilised country.

Had morning coffee and a panini in the patchy sunshine in the centre of Drunen, where I happily took advantage of the internet as well as the refreshments at Baker Bart's place. 

The next section was absolutely beautiful, through a birch-forested national park with separate walking, cycling, mountain biking and horse tracks. Saw some other cycles but no cars, and even the cafés advertise themselves as 'cycle-friendly'. A most relaxing section. 

In general there was much less getting-lost today, with the exception of one major warp in the space-time continuum which had me doing three sides of a square. One minute I was bowling merrily along a fast road following cycle route signs to Middelbeers, the next the road disintegrated into dirt and then sand (remember that Vic?). It seemed to be a private estate of some kind, very beautiful but a somewhat annoying detour. I wonder if perhaps Dutch kids think it's as funny to swing fingerpost signs around as we used to...

One reason I was grumpy about that detour was because my knees and shoulders were feeling a bit jolted around after a very high proportion of my route today had some form of brick/cobble/set surface. Perfectly cycleable but definitely more wearing on the joints, plus it increases my pannier-paranoia - whenever they jolt on a rough-set set I worry something is breaking. So a lumpy dirt track was not welcome.

This part of the Netherlands is horse central. As well as two sets of Norwegians I also saw Shires, more Haflingers, and an unbelievable number of fat Shetlands. I don't know if breeding Shetlands is a Dutch speciality, or if they're all just people's pets. Maybe the latter given that I have seen a lot of weird pets in people's gardens, including lots of goats, several pairs of bambi-like deer, and a group of llama. Any idea what the collective noun for a group of llama is?

Today's destination is Valkeswaard, a town I picked as being vaguely on route and because I wanted to try out a Dutch youth hostel. On first impressions it seems good - I am the first in to a large dorm and there is a nice bar etc. It's in a very peaceful location but I have been warned there's a large school party in tonight - from the looks of it a group of early teens from the Philippines or similar, which seems a bit random. Right now a warm clean bed seems pretty nice regardless!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Day 5: to Bruchem (88km)

My mum's birthday, and my first 'real' day, in the getting-lost and hoping-for-somewhere-to-stay sense. 

Set off in sunshine but had a couple of good heavy showers. The part out of Amstelveen was easier than expected thanks to Khanum's clear instructions ('so you go left, left, and then left').  All went smoothly for an hour or so. Then the losts, the showers, and the roadworks started.

The cycle paths are assiduously signposted at least 90% of the time. The other 10% you can either follow your nose, try and work out which of the two options at a t-junction qualifies as 'straight on'... Or chance it and correct as necessary.

Today I had only a 1:300000 Netherlands-wide map (!) because I've changed route, and am currently heading south in the Netherlands rather than east to the Rhine, so I can rendezvous with Khanum this weekend. So I suppose it should be no surprise that a fair bit of navigational vagueness occurred.

When the first rain came I sheltered for a while in a subway, eating Nutella sandwiches. I soon got bored and so got kitted up with the new and, I'm pleased to report, entirely waterproof waterproof. After a good wetting I stopped for a coffee in Breukelen (namesake of the New York borough). Can confirm it is both smaller and more picturesque than its American cousin. Caffeined up I was ready to face Utrecht, which is quite a large city. Minus any real game plan, and with multiple sets of roadwork diversions making a mockery of the signposting, I nonetheless made it through in reasonable style. 

South of Utrecht was more rural, though still in that distinctly Dutch style of suburbia where you never seem more than a few minutes from houses, but also never far from a field. I guess it's just how you have to build in a country this densely populated, and on the whole they manage it with flair. A lot better than Bedfordshire does, anyway. There are amazing looking castles and manors all over the place - the most spectacular castle I saw today was merrily playing a very loud and complex hour chime from its clock, and appeared to now be a business school. 

I took a ferry across the river Lek at Culemborg, an old and very cute town. The landscape around here is dominated by the rivers, and the main produce appears to be soft fruit (although Haflingers, Shetlands and pet lambs are also in abundance). A fair bit of bird life - herons etc - and I got a cracking close-up view of a jay in full colour who was sitting on a fence watching me.

Late afternoon I crossed the Waal, an even bigger river containing serious-looking barges, courtesy of a bridge which had four lanes of thundering traffic but - of course - a separate two-lane bike bridge alongside. This really is the land of bikes and cyclists frequently have priority over all other traffic at roundabouts etc. People also think it completely reasonable that you're cycling everywhere. I love the Netherlands for that alone.

I was feeling a bit apprehensive about my first camping night, and arrived at my 'if I'm feeling fit' campsite destination to find no one around at reception. A nice neighbour pointed me to the local bakery-cum-Spar and by the time I got back I found someone to show me to a tent space. So now my tent is up, nothing seems too out of place, and though there will be enough breeze and showers to test it, I don't think there should be anything worse. Doesn't look like the bar is open (still low season?) so it's a sausage roll and fresh buns with buns for tea. Unfortunately I seem to have picked up a bit of a cold from Khanum but hopefully there will be enough sleep tonight to drive that off.

Days 3-5, in Amstelveen

Awesome few days with the Dutch-Kiwi connections in Amstelveen. Friday night was enlivened by Eurovision, or more precisely by a Cambridge-Holland live vote-off with Ruth and Alastair. The wonders of the internet. The remainder of the weekend was miserable weather so we pottered around at home with the boys. Sunday was Mother's Day - lucky Khanum got a lie-in and breakfast in bed and I did too! You don't get that kind of service in the hostels...

On Monday I was planning to go into Amsterdam to see about a more waterproof waterproof. Instead as we went to pick Sam up from nursery my phone slid out of my pocket into an innocuous-looking flat surface, and the screen shattered completely. After a tip-off from the locals we found a repair shop at the local mall. They told me it would be 89 euros and I gasped and said no. Having googled the alternatives I hastily went back and had them do it. As I was waiting a guy came in and asked how much it would be to repair his phone screen. When they told him 89 he gasped and said no... He'll be back.

So that was unfortunate. While I could probably live without phone contact it would bother me to live without a camera and t'internet. On the positive side, while at that mall I found a great new breathable waterproof on sale for 40E, marked down from 100. So maybe that offsets the phone annoyance. (Though I notice on later photos that my camera has indeed been cracked by the fall.)

Happy to use the excuse of a guest, Khanum and Alle Meije hit up their local teenage babysitter and took me out one night to their local eatery, which is the most amazing Japanese restaurant. Eating out is quite expensive here (everything is) but this is all you can sushi etc for 25E and it was really top quality. An odd thing to find just down the street in quite a suburban area but an excellent local to have.

Yesterday K had daytime appointments so I took the tram into Amsterdam and, armed with her annual museum pass, took on the two biggest museums and the two oldest churches in a day. As someone who is largely stuff-free at the moment it was funny to see so much Beautiful Stuff in the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseums. The old church had amusing / rude carved choir stalls; the new church (also v old) was exhibiting the world press photographer of the year awards. All in all a lovely day.

The weather has been improving gradually and today has dawned bright and breezy. I'm about to bid a fond farewell to the Wink household and head off. With few maps and sleeping plans the next 24 hours are about to get tougher! But what a nice day for it.


K tests out her Mother's Day presents


Sadly cracked camera - can you guess where I am?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Day 2: Hook of Holland to Amstelveen (80k)

So the ferry was amazing! Well, in fact the only part I really saw was my cabin, but that was because it was so great... Comfy bed, fairly roomy room, and the best shower. As a result, instead of going for a beer and/or watch the lights of England fade into the distance, I think I fell asleep before we had even pushed off. And slept through till 6.30 (Dutch time) when I was awoken with 'Don't worry be happy' through the loudspeakers. I must have been very deep asleep, it was a very disorientated awakening! 

By the time I rode off the ferry it was raining lightly and it basically did that all day, plus or minus a little bit of heavier rain and the odd fleeting moment of dry. Because of the constant wetness I'm afraid no photos exist, so words will have to suffice.

It was a really lovely ride, despite the weather. The first part was straight up the coast, most of which is the North Sea cycle route.  So I can just about tick that off my wish list! After Scheveningen (the Hague's beach resort) there was a lovely remote section of nature reserve where I was cycling through a landscape of foresty sand dunes and met more rabbits than people (Ruth's parents named their house after this, I believe). 

Late morning I stopped for coffee at a seaside resort called Katswijk and dripped all over the floor of a classy but empty cafe as 'I would walk 500 miles..' played. (Nope, that was the last trip). 

From there on I had to concentrate a little more on the map-reading, which had this far been based mostly on 'keep the sea on your left'. Between my fairly feeble map, and great Dutch cycle route signage I successfully made it to Amstelveen via a lot of very beautiful and empty canalside paths. Holland really is a cyclists paradise and in sunnier weather it would have been just idyllic.

Today provided a great opportunity for trying out my wet-weather gear. Conclusions as follows. My panniers and new RainLegs (front-only over-knee waterproof trousers) both get top marks. My new Sealskin socks are definitely waterproof but after many hours of rain the water worked its way in the elastic at the top - but due to the excellent waterproofing, not back out the bottom. Hmm. The pocket of my jacket had the same problem with pooling water inside. In fact the lowest marks of the day go to my jacket, which it seems isn't waterproof at the zip. So unless a drought is suddenly forecast I think I'd better investigate a Dutch sports shop before cycling on..

I'm staying with my friends Khanum and Alle Meije in their beautiful house in Amstelveen, the next town over from Amsterdam. Last time I was here it was completely gutted and awaiting builders so it's amazing to see it finished (and a reminder of how pokey English town housing is in comparison). I'm planning to stay a few days and then head off across Holland in the middle of the week. Khanum and family may even join me for a day at the weekend - let's hope the weather bucks up by then!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Day 1: Cambridge to Harwich - 105 km

On the move again! 

I write this from Harwich seafront, where the sun is shining. In fact despite many pessimistic forecasts I've stayed dry all day. The most rain there's been was the two minutes I spent locking my bike up before heading into a riverside Essex pub to take shelter / have a rest.

Ah yes, 'locking my bike up'. This nearly didn't happen as it turns out I left my lock at the bike shop yesterday. Luckily Haverhill high street contains a bike/TV shop, and a kind security man held my bike while I ventured inside and bought a new lock. Horace also received his first compliment in Haverhill so all in all it served me well despite its low-brow reputation. (Horace is my bike.)

The Cambridgeshire / Essex border is surprisingly hilly. Plus I am very unfit, cycling-wise. Plus Horace is quite loaded right now (two back panniers, a tent, and a handlebar bag). Plus there was a lot of wind. What I'm getting at is: I am definitely a flatland-only kind of cyclist. 

My ride today went surprisingly well using the 'follow your nose and know the name of the next village' navigation technique. I hesitate to say this, but despite extremely inadequate (google) mapping I don't think I went wrong once. Though I suppose there's still the possibility between here and the ferry itself... I'm giving big thumbs up to the bar ends so thanks Duncan for that suggestion. Really helps ease my aching shoulders. Also thumbs up to the cycle computer which is fun and tells you your current speed etc as well as how far you've come. Clearly I will either lose this or have it stolen within a week!

So yes, increasingly hilly terrain and increasingly feeble legs. Both stopped at around Colchester, which I confess I ring-roaded. After Colchester was gorgeous - pretty, rural, big-sky country and I was relieved from navigation duty by the impeccably signposted national cycle route 51. Which I *think* is also the route I used to live on at Chesterton and work on at Bottisham. So that feels rather friendly.

Got into Harwich around 5.30 and did a loop of the super promenade. Either the middle-aged denizens of Harwich are very stylish people or there's been some kind of ceremony (funeral?) going on. My ferry doesn't leave till 11 or so, but I left home (actually Vic's home) early to beat the forecast worsening weather, and also to beat the pre-match jitters.

I am tempted to get fish and chips as my last English supper, but for the sake of somewhere warm to wait I think I'd better find a pub instead. Also, if it's a rough crossing, I might really regret fish and chips...

Later: lord help me, I'm in a 'Brewer's Fayre' - but it's warm, there is food, I can see my bike from my table, and there is wifi - so I am posting this now. Wish me a good night's sleep in a windowless cabin! And here's hoping my weather-luck holds. The forecast for Holland tomorrow is really awful... But there will be friendly faces (Khanum, Alle Meije and family) at the end of it!

Last views of England - the church not looking English at all! 

And a seaview of Horace, the handsome devil!