Sunday, 30 December 2012

le depart

On our last night Magali invites us to join her group in a night-time walk in the snow to a farmhouse for supper.  The moon is almost full and the light in the woods is incredible - the villages across the valley seem quite near.  There has not been much fresh snow and at night it is frozen and has become crunchy underfoot.  As we climb up the hillside the sound of snow-shoes is deafening.  We eat a hearty meal at the farm - even Jean-Baptiste looks replete - before returning at around midnight.  

We have asked Jean-Baptiste if he can take us to Briancon in his car, over the Col de Lautaret which is just over 2000m to catch a train out of the mountains.  There is snow falling when we leave and we begin to wonder about the wisdom of taking this route as we start to climb to the pass.  The road is covered in snow but there is traffic in both directions.  Over the pass on the way down to Briancon the road becomes quite indistinct.  We just edge the tarmac and as Jean-Baptiste corrects the steering we suddenly enter into a slow-motion spin across the road.  There's nothing we can do.  The car turns almost 360 degrees and the back end hits the wall of snow on the inside of the road.  I say the inside - on the other side is the drop into the valley.  The bikes on the back of the car push the back window in.  Horrible.  I have to confess that at this point I was also wondering if the bikes could possibly have survived but they have.  Fortunately the road was empty when we danced across it.  Jean-Baptiste seems very phlegmatic. We are appalled that we have drawn him out on such a foul day only for this to happen.

We get to Briancon, unload the bikes - they have a couple of dented racks but seem okay - and quickly get our tickets.  The train is sitting on the track.  The snow is still falling and we know that Jean-Baptiste has yet to drive home back over the pass, with a dent in his car and no back window - the cost of doing us a favour.  We feel lousy about the situation but we can't undo it.  We say our goodbyes and the train is soon heading southwards out of the mountains and out of the snow.

Thursday, 27 December 2012


We've been unpacked at Magali and Jean-Baptiste's for nearly a month so it's been a time to sort out things, replace some items, clean them or make repairs.  It's easy to forget that all of this stuff will have to go inside our panniers and back on the bikes.
I had asked Father Christmas for a Kindle (179gm) but all I got was a bookmark (4gm).  Gayle has finally finished Little Dorritt, which we've carried all the way from home.  Now it's my turn to read it.

not so little at 400 gm

What is even more alarming than the weight of our books is the weight of our food supplies.  We are hardly in the wastelands of the Sahara here, but for some reason we have accumulated 1kg of chocolate alone.  I refuse to let Gayle see my coffee stash.

My mum will be pleased to learn that we finally washed our down jackets for the first time since we bought them in 2001.  They are now twice the size they were and won't squeeze into the panniers so easily.   And Xavier next door offered to wash our sleeping bags in their old industrial machine which they use for all their accomodation laundry.  He tells me they have 50 beds.  The village only has about 40 residents!  In return I lend a hand in moving some furniture with him.  All of a sudden our stuff is smelling much more sweetly.

And Gayle now has a bike helmet to replace the one she left behind at a bus shelter in Norway. So the only thing we don't have for the next stage of our journey is a device to keep wild boar away from our tent in Corsica.  Apparently they have a nose for chocolate..........

Friday, 21 December 2012

joyeux noel

After a snowfall some of the neighbours in the village appear with their shovels and brooms to clear the paths around their houses.  At first we think they are slightly obsessed but we soon realise the advantage of doing it before it compacts and freezes.  The snowploughs pass back and forth along the roads to keep them open. All the locals have winter tyres, and they're needed sometimes for the steep roads.  The landscape is draped in white layers - it's hard to distinguish the mountain tops when the sky is white too.

"I'm sure Gayle's here somewhere"

On a couple of days we accompany Magali on her guided walks.  The snow is fresh and dry and oh-so soft you would just sink right in if you didn't wear raquettes (snow shoes).  On both days we walk with Helene from Toulon and Marco and Rosy from Milano.  Magali breaks trail and leads us through woods, along barely defined tracks, down steep slopes and winding paths.  On our first day she points out to us tracks of some of the animals that live in these mountains and then we see chamois and deer, a rabbit bouncing off into the woods.  Everywhere is silenced by the blanket of snow - all we can hear is the gentle crunch of dry snow underfoot.

One Saturday night we are invited to the village hall for their Christmas party.  There are a few young families in Clavans with their children and hogging the seats around the room are the older folk.  We are all in thick sweaters or fleeces.  The mayor says a few words and then we are invited to help ourselves to drinks and vol-au-vents.  Our conversational French is a little rusty but Gayle thinks that it's getting better as we drink more wine.  What she doesn't realise is that she's actually speaking English with a French accent.  But it's fine - the folk we speak to understand us and we understand them.  Soon pastries and sweets are being passed around followed by the cheese.  Everyone seems fairly merry and the event reminds me of the ceilidh scene in Local Hero.  We take our leave before we're left with the local boozers.

In such a small community it obviously helps to get along with the neighbours.  There's a mixture of locals and incomers and it seems it can take a while to become a fully-fledged member of the village.  Jean-Baptiste describes how some of the older people can't yet use tu when they address him, as he is still a new arrival in their eyes (he's lived here just over a year).  But equally they don't want to use vous when they address him as this is too respectful and of course, he would use vous to address them as elders.  This linguistic and social difficulty is therefore overcome either by addressing him in the third person (e.g. if Magali is present they might say "Would he like a cup of coffee?") or using passive sentences ( e.g. "This wood might be useful for starting fires" instead of "You might find this wood useful for.....").  Jean-Baptiste is not offended - he knows these are good people.  We do have a laugh about Xavier and Mairie-Odile who run a guesthouse with quite a lot of self-catering accomodation.  Indeed, it seems they own a third of the village property.  He is always out and about fixing this or doing that and she is always complaining that she doesn't know where he is.  If you appear at their door in the evening there's a fair chance that Xavier might invite you in for an aperitif, as without a guest it seems his wife does not approve of these tipples.

Clavans le Bas

Before we know it, the days have flown by and Christmas is upon us.  The ski resort is filling up with holidaymakers and Magali's work gets busier.  Meanwhile Jean-Baptiste is starting work at the Alpe d'Huez ski resort.  The winter season is high season for most of the workers in this area.  It seems nearly everyone has some job linked to the ski resorts.  An exception are Francine and Pierre who are shepherds.  It's their holiday at the moment but soon they'll be moving around to shear sheep in the valleys.  We are thinking about our next steps on this journey and the route to Tunisia from here.  Despite the good time we've had here we know that after Christmas we must move on.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

chinese poker

A game for all ages.  For 3-4 players with one pack or up to 8 players with two packs. The aim of the game is to be first to discard all of your cards.  Each player is dealt 13 cards.

2 is high, 3 is low.  The suit priority is (highest first) Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds.  Therefore, the highest-value card is the 2 of spades.

The game is played in a series of hands.  The first hand is begun by the player with the lowest value card - the 3 of diamonds, or if this is not held by anyone, the 3 of clubs, or the next highest the 3 of hearts etc.  Each successive player must better the cards played or pass.  If everyone passes then the hand is won by the last to have played.  The player who wins a hand then opens the next hand.

The number of cards played in each hand is determined by the opener.  They can play one card, two cards of a kind e.g. 10-10, three cards of a kind e.g. Q-Q-Q, or five cards according to these values, starting with the lowest value: a run e.g. 5-6-7-8-9 (n.b. a run can cross over at the end e.g. Q-K-A-2-3); a flush i.e. 5 cards of the same suit; a full house i.e. two of a kind and three of a kind n.b. only the three cards count in terms of value; four of a kind and one other(only the four count in terms of value); a running flush i.e. a run all of the same suit.

So, if the opener begins with a pair of threes, say the 3 of diamonds and the 3 of hearts, it must be followed by a better pair.  This could be the 3 of clubs and the 3 of spades (because the spade trumps the rest), or any other pair. In effect, if the cards are of the same value, the suit determines which is the higher.

If someone plays a 5 card run, it can be bettered by a run with a higher card in the run e.g. K-A-2-3-4 beats 10-J-Q-K-A. Any kind of flush beats a run, a hearts flush beats a clubs flush, a full house beats any flush, a full house K-K-K 8-8 beats one of 10-10-10 A-A etc. etc.

A player can pass on one turn and then rejoin if the hand has continued round to them again.

This all might sound complicated, but the game is fairly simple to play. 

(with thanks to David)

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

ecole de ski

When Magali returns with her van she has to begin her winter's work as a Mountain Leader, taking people for snow-shoe hikes in the surrounding countryside.  She works from the nearest ski resort, Les Deux Alpes, which is just on the other side of the main valley.  On our first visit it feels like Bright Lights Big City.  A collection of hotels, chalets, ski schools, shops and restaurants, with a few administrative buildings tossed in, the resort sits on a col between two slopes.  The main ski pistes are high above out of sight and there are numerous ski-lifts running up the slopes.  It's an eye-opener for us.  Why is everyone walking like a gangsta rapper?  Ahhh, ski boots.

Our kind hosts insist on getting us onto skis.  Gayle is excited.  I'm terrified.  They have all the spare gear we need including helmets. Magali very patiently demonstrates some basic skills: how to carry the skis, how to put them on, how to plough, how to stop, how to walk like a gansta rapper.  At one point she whizzes off uphill and we have to follow.  I am reminded of one of Gayle's swimming lessons when I was trying to learn.  She uttered the words "You just do this" and then swam off in a crawl leaving no wake. 
keeping the peace in Les Deux Alpes
We start off on the mildest slope you can imagine.  I soon discover that I have a flare for skiing backwards - I'm a natural.  Unfortunately, I seem to have difficulty going forwards.  Gayle can stop when she wants.  I can only stop when the laws of physics allow it.  But this is dull stuff for Magali and Jean-Baptiste.  Soon we are on the nursery slopes where there's a free ski-tow to drag you up to what looks to me like the top of a cliff.  I take the steel pole which will drag me to the top but somehow my skis go in opposite directions, one gets tangled in some orange netting and before I can do anything about it I'm on my arse with one ski on and one ski off.  Everyone in the queue for the tow has to wait while the operator steps out to help me up.  I cannot extricate my ski from the netting and I sense panic setting in.  The man is calm and relaxed, helps me reattach my ski and guides me back to the start.  Now Mag and Jean-Baptiste are starting to get some Value For Money.

Okay, I'm standing upright, but how do I go forward?

da-da-dee da-da-dum
Of course it is natural and healthy to have a certain amount of fear in some situations.   Such an instinct can determine survival.  This weighs on my mind as I look down the sharpest incline of snow imaginable.  We're supposed to go down there??  Magali and Jean-Baptiste are the sweetest people you could ever wish to meet.  Surely it can't be dangerous.  They urge us on.  I seem to veer, literally, from immobilty to hurtling at breakneck speed until, in an attempt to turn gracefully, I end up doing a 'Uey', facing uphill and sliding backwards until I fall on my face.  Learning to fall over is an integral part of learning to ski.  My problem seems to be getting beyond the falling over bit.  Gayle meanwhile waltzes around me whilst humming the theme from 'Ski Sunday'.  Her powder blue helmet makes her look like a UN peacekeeper, I reflect, whilst struggling to my feet and brushing the snow from my face.

We continue on the nursery slopes, zig-zagging down and being towed back up.  Eventually I almost get the hang of it.  I can zig.  I can zag.  Look Ma, no hands! Suddenly I'm going about 50 miles an hour towards a child as tall as my knees.  I have to go to ground before disaster happens.  What's that sound? Ahh, Gayle's humming that tune as she passes.

how do you stop again?

Sunday, 16 December 2012


We are being met by Magali and Jean-Baptiste back at the train station. We go in mufti.  Anyone who has been faithfully following our blog will remember that Magali and Jean-Baptiste are the 2 French cyclists we met in Lithuania. We spent a great week together cycling in Poland and now we are meeting again. Magali is off to Paris to see family and collect her van so it's a quick hello, goodbye.  Jean-Baptiste loads our bikes onto the car and we head off into the hills.  Did I say hills?  We drive past the turn-off for Alpe d'Huez, famed for being a stage finish in the Tour de France.  Magali and Jean Baptiste live on the other side of the mountain in a village called Clavans En Haut Oisans.  There is snow on all the mountains around us.  As the car winds up the valley I am wondering how cold it can get - it was already pretty chilly in Grenoble.  The scenery is stunning - steep-sided valleys and immense peaks crowned in snow on all sides.  The valleys are covered in trees and small villages are dotted around, perched on ledges and small ridges jutting outwards.  

It begins to snow soon after we arrive and doesn't look like stopping.  A plush carpet of white lies everywhere. We can measure the snowfall by the depth of the snow on the roofs and in the garden.  The fresh snow brings a hush all around, but the village is hardly awash with noise.  There are about 40 inhabitants in Clavans Le Bas.  We take a walk with Jean-Baptiste up to Clavans Le Haut just further up the valley where perhaps another 60 live.  Some of the houses are closed up - family houses only visited in the summer, or rented accomodation.  The valley used to have terraced fields but these have been given up to the trees.  Now the only farming is during the summer when sheep from below are brought up to the grassy plateaux and slopes above.  In fact the word 'alpe' originally referred to high pasture, but as the word has become synonymous with the mountains, alpage now refers to these grazing areas.

We are very happy to be staying here in this remote village.  Suddenly we are no longer in motion.  We have the chance to sleep, eat, rest, consider our further travels and reflect on our journey to this point.  We both need this and we're grateful for Magali and Jean-Baptiste's hospitality.  But we ain't half glad of them tights we bought in Decathlon - it's absolutely freezing when the sky is clear. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

les anglais sont arrives

Grenoble train station.  We've got the bikes onto the platform and loaded up, only to discover that there are stairs to the exit.  But hey, we're in a civilised country and there's a small lift.  While we wait for it to come a member of staff calls out to us.  She is telling us to use the ramp on the side of the stairs instead of taking the lift.  We ignore her and Gayle gets her bike inside and descends.  The woman shouts at me again, pointing at the stairs.  I point at my heavily loaded bike and give my best Gallic shrug.  The lift can't return soon enough.  She strides up to me and gives me an earful.  I smile and shrug gormlessly.  She asks me if I understand French. Non. Are you English? Oui.  She tuts, rolls her eyes and walks away defeated.  I take the lift.  In the station foyer Gayle goes to use the toilet.  When she come out there's a man waiting for her demanding payment for the use thereof.  Gayle replies in English that she has no money. The man gets angry, in French.  Gayle gets angry, in English and strides off.  Attention Grenoble, les bloody anglais are here.
John displaying his francophile tendencies
We are staying with Albane and Benoit and their son Yourn.  We are undoubtedly going against the spirit of Warm Showers by only cycling from the station to their appartment, but they understand in this weather.  We turn out to be their first guests and more bizarrely we have already met - in China in 2010.  Gayle realised this after they had agreed to host us.  They had done a long cycle tour in 2010 and Gayle remembered an evening in Chengdu when we were taken out for a meal by Sim, the owner of Sim's Cosy Garden Guesthouse, along with about seven other cyclists all staying at the guesthouse.  Benoit and Albane were there that evening with Albane's brother.  So it is very nice to meet them again and meet their new son.
a subtle comment on the position of immigrants in French society or just another silly name for a kebab shop?

We come across the city Museum of the Resistance.  This part of the country was governed by the Vichy state during the war and many locals formed small unconnected groups determined to resist.  When Italy surrendered the German army arrived in the region and cracked down hard on the groups.  The museum is an interesting account of these times.  At the very end of the exhibition is a plea not to let extremists take over again and a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
"to pray when we like if we are religious. to write how we like if we are poets."

St.Bruno's square
Albane takes us to some of the markets in the city - there's the farmer's market with stalls full of local produce (cheese, vegetables, meats, bread and more cheese) and then the allsorts market in St Bruno's with cheap clothes, shoes, cookware, jewellery, perfume, etc.  Gayle eyes a cast-iron casserole.  But will it fit in the pannier? Worried about the cold weather, I buy a Nepalese chullu.  We do some 'bike shopping' and Gayle finally replaces her lost helmet and we get some leggings (tights?) for cold weather cycling.  These turn out to be inspired purchases......... 

Monday, 26 November 2012


We have camped in among the long grasses on the Austrian shore of Bodensee (or Lake Konstanz if you're Swiss) by a boat mooring.  I get up, put the water on to boil and go to perform my ablutions.  From very close by there are two sudden gunshots.  I sprawl on the ground.  Surely they don't shoot people for wild camping??  Gayle seems unperturbed.  We had heard ducks last night.  There are voices in the grass and the splash of waders.  I dust myself off and get on with brewing up.

When we cycle over a little wooden bridge into Switzerland we are greeted by a local map of bike paths.  We set off towards Zurich with the plan to stay with Warm Showers hosts along the way.  The day is foggy and cold but the cycling keeps us warm.  The route goes up and down and up again.  At one point we have to push.  By lunchtime we realise there's no way we'll get to Pamela's (our host to be).  We e-mail her to apologise and at the end of the day find a nice little spot to camp in some woods.  We then spend an hour or so trying to cook without scaring the runners and walkers who pass close by in the dark.  In the morning there are more passersby, but at least they can see our bikes.  In daylight we don't look suspicious. We ride on to Zurich sticking to minor roads that all turn out to have a bike path alongside.  
Zurich Old Town
This makes for easy riding and we arrive mid-afternoon in the financial heart of Switzerland.  As we push our bikes along one of the many pedestrianised streets a man starts chatting to us.  Where are you going? To Japan. In that case you need to take the next left, he replies without missing a beat.  We are then accosted by a woman we have never met.  Are you English? Are you Gayle and John?  This is a bit freaky.  She introduces herself as Pamela - the woman who was willing to host us the previous night.  Pure chance, we finally meet.  She tells us her daughter was most upset we didn't arrive, as she'd been practising her English all day.

We are staying with Alice and Daniele in Zurich.  We had met at a beach place in Malaysia back in 2009.  Now back in the Real World they have a lively young daughter in Lea to keep them busy.  We have a good rest with them,  are introduced to raclette, the national dish, and also are invited to their pre-emptive Christmas dinner with friends because they'll be away in warmer sunnier climes at Christmas time.  We have a great time and everyone comfortably speaks English for our benefit - something that we are in danger of taking for granted on our way across Europe.
the mountains appear across Lake Zurich
Zurich is another bike-friendly city and the old town streets are a nice place to wander.  We have been feeling a little tired with the cycling - probably because of the colder weather and the long nights in the tent - and we have a restorative day or two doing very little.  We are also contemplating our onward journey.  As the weather is becoming harsher we feel less inclined to cycle and camp.  Alice finds us some discounted train fares to help us on our way to Lausanne from where we can cycle easily to Geneva in two days.  Once again we are saying goodbye to friends who have generously sheltered and fed us and let us into their lives.  I'm not sure we can ever express our appreciation enough to all of our friends.
our orchard campsite along Lake Geneva
The day we arrive in Geneva it's raining.  We are staying a couple of nights with Jorn, our Warm Showers host, and for the whole time we are in Geneva it doesn't stop raining.  Okay, November's not a good time to visit, we know this, so we make the most of it with recommendations from Jorn.  We wonder what he thinks of us when we explain that we're not true cyclists.  It seems to us that he is, but when he describes his tour of the Nordic countries, Russia and the Baltic Sea coastline, despite being proud at managing 950 km a week he also acknowledges that by cycling so far so quickly one also loses out on the travel experience.  This has occurred to us when we met cyclists in Norway hurtling up to Nordkapp.  There's a danger of only thinking about how far you will ride in a day, of watching the clock, counting the kilometres.  It starts to become a job. On this journey we have sometimes thought we were going too fast.  We are ready for a break.  Jorn asks us what we do when we go so slowly on our travels.  We pause for a moment.  How to explain that doing nothing can also be important?  To throw away the clock, be free of time.  Oh, er, are we getting all new-age hippy???

The forecast is not good for the next few days so we don't hesitate to catch another train - into France to Grenoble.  We have been invited to stay with our new cycling friends Magali and Jean-Baptiste in the mountains.  The offer is irresistible.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

bavarian peaks

We climb out of the mist around Munich and into the sunshine and blue skies above.  The road rises and dips in and out of valleys, down to a lake and then up through a village twinned with Windermere - a little reminder of Blighty for us.  Everywhere is tranquil but there are plenty of people out in the countryside walking, running, making the most of the good weather.  We meet an old man on his bike out from the city on a day ride.  He wants to chat and show us the bike path that will keep us off the busy main road ahead.  He tells us that soon we will see the Alps.  A bit later on there they are - stretching majestically across the horizon.  When we stop for our lunch at a viewpoint a few people stop to talk. We enjoy these little encounters even though our language ability doesn't stretch to anything meaningful. This is in noticeable contrast to eastern Europe, where people seemed more reserved.  The difference here is that we don't look like foreigners - everyone assumes we're German. It must be the panniers. We don't really look German, do we?

We awake the next day to a heavy frost.  Everything is crispy and white, our water bottles are frozen solid. It's beautiful to awake in our tent, toasty warm, and experience this. We have camped next to a tiny runway - we thought it must be a flying club when we arrived in the dusk last night - but it turns out to be a large military base.  This dawns on us at 5.10 in the morning when the reveille is sounded from a huge tower hidden in the trees about 10 metres from our heads.

Our journey ends at Andrea and Martin's house after another sunny day's cycling.  They live at the top of a mountain - or at least this is how it feels as we pedal uphill at the end of the day.  When we arrive they are busy working on the new house they have been building since the summer.  It's built from wood from their own land and they have evidently been putting a lot of hours into the construction - they are not far from completing it.  As the weather remains good Andrea is keen to take us up one of the mountains that their house looks out to.  It's a great view - the Alps spread from east to west.  We soon find ourselves on a knife-edge ridgetop looking out and over to Switzerland.  Andrea knows these mountains well and she too is a keen ski-tourer, like Eveline in Austria.  I can't imagine skiing up and down these mountain slopes - every ridge and peak looks so dramatic.  The next day we take a shorter hike and visit some of Andrea's friends living in one of the valleys beneath these mountains.  Their house is a big old wooden affair, part barn, part house, maybe three hundred years old?  Dotted around the countryside are lots of these wonderful traditional houses and Andrea and Martin have decided to cover their new house in wooden shingles in a style we see as we get closer to Switzerland.

We first met Andrea when she was cycling in western China in 2009 with Gerhard.  We then met up again in Myanmar a few months later. It was after talking with her that we got more confident about the idea of cycle-touring - she was so enthusiastic and gave us the advice that, if we were tired or didn't want to backtrack on our bikes, that we shouldn't hesitate in taking a bus or a train i.e. that the bikes shouldn't get in the way of exploring places.  They were some of the few cyclists we met who seemed more like travellers on bikes rather than just cyclists and this attitude appealed to us enormously.

We head off towards the Bodensee on a bike route that Andrea recommends to us - along an old railway line that saves us a lot of unnecessary ups and downs.  We are still blessed with sunshine despite the chill in the air.  We've eaten really well the past few days and we feel good rolling towards Switzerland.

Saturday, 17 November 2012


We're trying to outrun winter as we cross Europe - but we're typically slow, so to speed matters up we take a train across Austria from Vienna to Salzburg.  The train is new and sleek and we can just roll our bikes aboard.  The train leaves us just inside the German border.  It's wet and windy but settles down as we begin our ride west across rolling countryside towards Munich.  The farmland all looks so neat and tidy.  Tractors are out ploughing the land, spreading muck, turning the soil.  The villages all look neat and tidy too - but of course: we are in Germany.  There are bike routes in many directions but we choose to stick to the small roads and these are easy to follow.  As we pass through hamlets people smile and say hello.  If we stop for a break we are asked if it's not too cold for touring.  It is a bit chilly but the ups are keeping us warm and the downs are okay if we zip up.  We'd forgotten the joy of the freewheel - cruising downhill into the next valley with the views across to the next hills we will cross.  At the end of the day we stop at a restaurant to ask for water.  The staff are intrigued as to what we will do with 7 litres of water.  They ask where will camp tonight.  I give them the best shrug I can muster and smile.  We don't know, but we'll find somewhere and we'll be fine.
Sure enough there's a corner of a field by some woods, out of sight of the road.
a sign to warm every cyclist's heart
The next day we continue along the minor road and it leads us all the way into Munich.  We know we've reached the city when we find a bike path alongside the road.  There are bike paths every which way.  One leads us to Jenny and Chris' flat in the city centre.  We met in Turkey walking the Lycian Way back in 2007.  Chris had twisted his ankle.  We all decided to take a break at a quiet little beach place and it took a huge effort to eventually move on.  It's great to catch up with them again and to meet their young son Simon.   We are not staying long so Chris gives us some directions to some of the main sights in the city.  He jokingly refers to one of the grand open squares as the 'Hitler Platz' much to Jenny's horror.  It's the kind of place you could imagine a Nazi rally being held, full of grand Teutonic buildings.  Unfortunately for Munich the city cannot escape all of its past.  However, if there's one European country that might have recognised and come to terms with its actions from that era, then it is probably Germany.  
the Big Sur...prise

Munich might be the driving force behind the German economy these days as all the famous car manufacturers are based here.  There is certainly the impression of wealth about the city.  On our wander around we also check out 'The Wave' after Jenny and Chris' tip off.  This is a wave created accidentally by a small water channel flowing through one of the city's lovely parks.  The wave attracts surfers all the year round and it's quite bizarre but great entertainment to watch surfers practice on a 'static wave'.  It's a cold day and rather weird to watch a man walk off down the street at the end of his lunchtime surf in his wetsuit, board under his arm.
hearty fare

Of course Chris and Jenny cannot let us leave Munich without a visit to a beer hall.  The one we visit is next to one of Germany's oldest breweries and it's packed to the rafters with locals.  Well, at least until the large group of Chinese businessmen turn up.  Here we can indulge in typical Bavarian food - I go for the plate of meat, whilst Gayle opts for the spaetzle.  At some point a couple of fellas appear with tuba and cornet to knock out a few classic ompah-pah tunes.  The Chinese look a bit bemused when all the Germans launch into a big sing-along.  We couldn't have wished for a better Bavarian night.  

Fed, watered and rested, and all the better for catching up with our friends, we cycle off along a bike path and out of the city towards Switzerland.  At lights we stop next to a cyclist with two large panniers packed to the gills.  He asks us where we're going. Japan! We smile.  And you?  Oh, I've just been doing my shopping - I'm on my way to work, he replies.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

czech interlude

Jurek meets us off the bus in Prague and immediately takes us for coffee in one of the city's grand cafes.  He lives a fifteen-minute walk across the river from the city centre in a quieter neighbourhood overlooking the city.  The Czechs are known for their fondness of beer - and down Jurek's street are about half a dozen bars.  The street is a short one.  

Kafka in Prague
Our bohemian experience continues at the Traveller's Meeting that night.  When Jurek returned to his country after a year or so of travelling he wanted to meet like-minded Czechs and through local forums got a monthly meeting set up.  Totally informal, in a different venue each month, come along and chat, meet people.  Oh yes, drink some beer.  The pub Jurek has found is suitably grungy, with two enormous hounds lying in front of the bar - not my idea of promoting beer sales but it doesn't seem to put the punters off. We have a great evening chatting to a lot of well-spoken Czechs.  (I mean in English, of course.) Oh yes, and drinking beer.  We even get the offer of a guided tour from Luci.  Jurek intorduces us as two English friends who are cycling to Japan.  And which way did we come to Prague?  Well, er, actually, we got the bus from Vienna.......

The city is used to tourists.  When we wander around it wears its Tourist Overcoat quite well, looking a bit worn, but still clean and respectable. We're astounded by the numbers of visitors around but we only have to step off the main routes to suddenly be in a quiet street.  Jurek shows us some of the more unusual sights and tells us of his plans to set up an educational charity for children in developing countries.  He wants to ensure that every penny of donations goes directly to the beneficiaries.  He has quit his full-time job so he can dedicate some time to this project.  In the meantime he also hopes to work as a consultant advising and helping small firms negotiate better terms with their banks.  He's been working in the banking sector for several years and knows the game.  As an aside he also points out a more cost effective way for us to use our bank account while we're travelling.  Thank you kindly, Jurek.
Luci has a hard act to follow, but she's game and does a fair impersonation of a tour guide while we do the wide-eyed tourist bit.  The Infinite Book Tunnel in the National Library foyer is inviting - we want to jump in.

Inevitably we end our sight-seeing with another good beer...........

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


We walked in the cold air.   Freezing breath on a window pane, lying and waiting.  The man in the dark in a picture frame, so mystic and soulful. A voice reaching out in a piercing cry - it stays with you until the feeling has gone - only you and I.  It means nothing to me. This means nothing to me.
Oh Vienna.
The Hundertwasser museum

Gayle is humming along as I strum my zither.  Oh Vienna.  Habsburg palaces.  Ornamental gardens.  Oh Vienna.  The Big Wheel at the Prater (just as it was in The Third Man.)  Oh Vienna.  Gustav Klimt and Hundertwasser.  Oh Vienna.  A city famed for coffee and cake in its cafes.  We do what every other tourist on a budget probably does in Vienna and go for a kebab.  It's one of the best I've had outside of Turkey.

Stefan greets us when we arrive with a huge beatific smile.  After a while we realise he's always smiling.  The first and last time we saw him was in a lodge in the Helambu region of Nepal in 2009.  He had set off walking from Kathmandu and was heading in the opposite direction to us, but we spent the evening chatting.  He had met a local guide along the way with whom he is still in touch with.  In fact, he's returned to Nepal several times since and his appartment feels like a Nepalese oasis in the desert of Viennese architecture.  Incense, nepali folk songs, prayer flags and Buddhas.  Stefan's a real hippy.  A very happy one we think.  I'm not a huge fan of Facebook - but Gayle uses it to stay in touch with folk and Stefan wrote to her whilst we were in Slovakia inviting us to come and stay.

Autumn in Vienna
While we have the chance we leave our bikes with Stefan and take a bus to Prague.  On our last evening in Vienna he takes me with him and his dad to a Rapid Vienna match.  Who're they playing?  Gayle asks.  Oh, Stefan replies, just some farmers.  The home team have a very vocal support at one end of the stadium - non-stop singing and chanting egged on by a man with a megaphone.  Before kick-off flags are rolled out, flares are lit.  I'd forgotten what it feels like - the buzz, the expectation, the hope.  Within five minutes the Farmers are 1- nil up.  The crowd sing louder.  It's not quite end-to-end stuff, more like side-to-side.  Rapid don't look confident.  Half-time and there's some discussion in the stands about the state of play.  I'd forgotten what it feels like - the moans, the dissatisfaction, the hope.  It's the hope that gets me every time.  Second-half starts like the first with a goal from the Farmers.  The crowd get angry. After singing for an hour the fans at the noisy end finally chant 'Goodbye' to Rapid and collectively turn their backs on the team and depart.  I've never seen this before.  The stadium feels quiet afterwards. Final result: Rapid 0 Farmers 2.  Stefan and his dad seem quite stoical - a reaction I recognise well as a Man City fan. Oh Vienna.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

the hills are alive...

The ride to Eveline's is long but a good one.  The sun is out, the birds are singing, the way is easy to find.  There's still plenty of autumn colour in the trees.  People greet us as we pass by.   In the bakery they smile politely at our awful German.  We eat up the pastries as we eat up the kilometres.  We are glowing with the joys of life - the freedom of the road.  As the sun begins to dip downwards we pass through vineyards, row after row pointing towards the mountains appearing in the west.  Out in the meadows it seems even the cows are smiling.  Gayle is grinning to herself as she listens to something on her iPod - but for me the hills are alive with the sound of music.  Even after 100 kilometres of cycling when my chain snaps I only have to push for 100 metres more.  A perfect day.

We are entering a new phase of our journey across Europe as we are now in parts of of the continent where we have friends - all of them fellow travellers we got to know on our last journey.  Eveline we met in Kyrgyzstan in 2008, in a small village homestay.  After a few days we went our separate days.  Perhaps a week later we trekked into the mountains south of Bishkek where Eveline found us one morning having a lie-in in our tent.  We trekked together back to the capital.  And now here we are in Austria, knocking at her door.

In our four days stay with Eveline and her partner, Johann, we find ourselves engaged in all kinds of activities.  On our first day, in foggy weather we go for a short walk and soon find ourselves clinging onto ladders - a beginner's via ferrata in a narrow limestone gorge.  On one evening we visit a local Heurige, a temporary 'bistro' opened up by one of the nearby vineyards where we can sample the wines and some locally produced food.  Each vineyard takes it in turn to open up for a week, so some insider knowledge is required to know which one is open (a laurel wreath is hung up outside to signify opening).  If this all seems a bit of obscure publicity it apparently works.  The place is full when we visit.  

On the Saturday the sun comes out for our walk up the Rax-Semmering mountain.  One mountain hut is open, serving food and beer and hot wine.  There are lots of people out and about making the most of the good weather. The snow we had in Slovakia is also evident here - coating the mountain tops as far as the eye can see.  It's glorious.  Eveline comes here with her friends for ski-touring i.e. skiing away from the prepared slopes.  As we walk up through the pine forest and up above the trees they point out vertiginous slopes that they will frequent when the real snow comes in winter.  On our way home we detour to look at the elaborately engineered railway which climbs through the mountains to connect Vienna with Italy.  The collection of tunnels and viaducts, some of them double, are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  In the evening we gather at Rosie's with some other friends to wine and dine and see someone's slideshow of a trip to Costa Rica and Panama and then a film of Gerda's trekking in Uganda.  

On another day we visit the school where Eveline teaches in Berndorf.  Berndorf is known for its cutlery factory (during the war it produced munitions and the town was subsequently bombed).  The local mayor and patron had houses, a church and a school built for the workers at the factory, around the start of the 20th century.  It reminds us of Saltaire in West Yorkshire.  The school buildings are quite special - each classroom has been designed in a style from a certain place and time in history.  The detail is impressive, even down to the door handles.

We are eating well - typical hearty Austrian food - too well.  Eveline feeds us great fresh food and as committed cyclists we do not know when to stop eating.   I start to think that if I stay in Austria much longer I may have a heart attack.  But after three busy days we must say farewell and set off northwards to Vienna.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

the blue danube

We couch surf in Bratislava.  In completing the standard statement 'I would like to couch surf with you because.....' Gayle writes that we really enjoy meeting local people who can tell us more about the place we are visiting.  Our host sends us his address and happily makes no reference to this.  Eros Ferrari turns out be a very cool engineer working in Bratislava.  Italian engineer.  I think the clue is in his name.  He tells us that no-one really understands the concept of Couch Surfing in Italy.  "What? You let a stranger into your house? C'mon!"  It's probably not so different to Britain.  He thinks that to be into couchsurfing you have to be cool.  I guess he's right.  Dominica, a smart young Slovak woman is also staying with Eros.  There's an odd pause in the conversation when I ask her what she does. "I'm a manager, a regular manager."  "What do you manage?" "Oh, I manage sex shops".  A few things cross my mind but I can't bring myself to double-check "Did you say six shops?"  She continues to explain that she's in town to do some training and also be a mystery shopper.  I clam up.  I suddenly feel quite English.  I don't feel particularly cool.

Slovaks start smoking early
We wander around the old town and go in search of the Blue Church - an art nouveau confection.  The wind is bitterly cold but there are still a few groups of tourists knocking around.  In the evening Eros kindly takes us out to a typical Slovakian pub called 'The Slovakian Pub'.  There will be a holiday on Thursday - All Souls Day - and he's looking forward to a long weekend at home in Modena.  Meanwhile we cycle westwards along the big river and on into Austria.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

in the hills

It's still raining in the morning.  It continues unbroken for 24 hours.  We find a pension above the old town of Banska Stiavnica and set up the Chinese Laundry - everything dirty gets washed, and everything wet gets hung up to dry.  Within an hour of arriving our room looks like a disaster zone.  We then wander down to the old town for a look around.  It's Saturday, it's just after midday.  The bike shop is already closed.  We walk the streets but it's a foul day and we soon surrender.  Hmmm - so the glorious sunny Autumn is really over, in case we ever doubted it.  
Sunday afternoon

Sunday is dry so we try again.  There are a few more people around but it still feels a bit empty.  We resolve to take a train to Bratislava - we suddenly don't have the stomach for the ride across the plain to the capital. 

Monday morning
Monday dawns brightly.  Too brightly.  The reason for that white light creeping into our room is the snow.  It's snowing.  In October.  Good grief (or words to that effect).  The ride downhill for 25 kms is kind of interesting.  I have repaired my bike chain, but it's hardly put under any strain.  When we get to the train station we both look like snowmen, and have to brush the snow off everything, even out of my eyebrows.   With a few words we manage to purchase tickets for both ourselves and bicycles.  Then we join a crowd of men who have turned up for the station cafe's set lunch.  After a lousy start the day is looking up.

Ah, but such false optimism.  The train gets delayed nearly an hour.  When it comes we struggle to unload the bicycles in order to lift them into the baggage wagon.  We then have to shift our bags and get aboard before the train pulls out.  Once in our seats the train conductor turns up to check our tickets.  And then informs us in English (thankfully) that at the next station we will have to alight and take a bus to the subsequent station where we can then board another train to Bratislava.  Okay? Okay.  But what about the bikes? The bikes? Yes, the bikes.....The train stops short of the platform and everyone has to climb across the tracks to get to the buses.  We are of course last and there's almost a fight when the bus drivers all shake their heads at our bikes. Eventually one allows us to squeeze them into the hold.   Transfer to another station.  Repeat of loading bikes, getting to train, unloading bikes, lifting bikes into waggon, manhandling our panniers into a carriage. Good grief (or words to that effect).

Saturday, 27 October 2012

through the mountains

It's trying to rain when we wave farewell to my mum and dad and cycle southwestwards out of Krakow.  Soon we are pedalling up hills, the like of which we haven't seen for some time.  Lunch in a town with a UNESCO badge for the collection of chapels dotted around the hills, but we have no time to look around.  We climb up steep roads and follow ridges in the mist.  Then drop down into the next valley and repeat the process.  Finally we arrive in a small village as its getting dark where we spot a place to camp over the river.  Normally we would camp away from houses, but it's foggy and we're too tired to care.  In the clear morning light, the river has become a stream and we're a stone's throw from someone's back yard.

The day is looking better as we approach the road that takes us through the mountains to Slovakia.  We do battle for the last time with the crazed Polish drivers. (It was only when we reached Warsaw that I understand this nation's predilection for aggressive and fast driving - a learner car passed us from the 'Imola School of Motoring'. )  There follows a heated debate outside a shop as I try and fix the gears on my bike.  It is pointed out to me that I had a week in Krakow to do this and now, after an early start, I am delaying our journey over the border.  After some fruity verbal banter we continue our ride which now takes us up and up, through pine forest, to a pass with an old border post.  There are a couple of money changers, a closed hotel and not much else.  On the other side there are a couple of villages marked on our map but these turn out to be one long road of houses and shops.  As we coast along we can hear announcements being made from loudspeakers attached to the street lamps.  It's all a bit Soviet.  At the end of the day we are climbing again and looking for a camping spot.  There's a flat piece of ground tucked behind pine trees beside the road, but it's fenced in.  However, someone has been here before us and kindly cut a big hole in the fence around the back.  We unload and set up camp happily for our first night in Slovakia.

We're just getting used to this up/down/up/down landscape when we come down to a river in the morning and end up following it for the most of the day.  We see our first hrad - a castle stuck high on the face of a cliff over a river gorge, impregnable. After lunch we find ourselves on one of the main roads heading to Bratislava.  It's full of trucks and cars and is a tad too busy.  Thankfully someone is digging up the road further up and we end up cruising past our very first traffic jam - which goes on for miles in both directions.  This is our third day without sunshine or sight of blue sky and there's definitely a wintry look around.  It's not very inspiring. We stop cycling early, a headwind has tired us out, and we camp at the back of a large field in open view of the main road.

The next day is a tough one - we have a fair distance to go to reach Banska Stiavnica, starting and ending the day with climbs.  In between is a lovely descent and a stop off in Kremenica, a numismatist's delight.  While I'm humming "Are Friends Electric?" Gayle peeks in at the coin museum - the town prospered with gold mining and minting coins for the Hungarian rulers.  I've got "Cars" on my mind late afternoon when, with only a kilometre to go, and as we climb a steep stretch of road, my chain snaps.  We had been debating whether to take a hostel in Banska Stiavnica or camp - this seals it.  We camp below the road on a tiny ledge, mostly out of view.  As we nod off it starts to rain.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


the stained glass is in the art nouveau style
The only problem with spending a week with my mum and dad in Krakow is that Gayle gets to say, for the following week at least, "You sound just like your dad/mum*" (*delete where applicable).  Of course, at this stage in my life I already know who I take after but I think Gayle forgets.  We have a wonderful time with them, looking in churches (there's a lot of 'em), wandering the streets (there's a lot of 'em), feasting on Polish foods (there's a lot of it).  We have to re-socialize now that we are dining in polite company - on the first night out Gayle has to tug my elbow to stop me from licking my plate clean.

ice cream is still a Good Thing

Krakow old town has a large medieval square at it's heart, with a grand old market hall in the centre.  There's the requisite castle, the ancient university buildings and some large merchants' houses.  Maybe it's the time of year but it seems very tranquil, although there are plenty of people around.  Probably the fact that most of the centre is closed to traffic - less noise, less stress.  

Aside from wandering the streets of the old town there are other places to visit including the UNESCO-listed salt mine at Wieliczka and Auschwitz.  While the salt mine is a rather jolly outing Auschwitz is an inevitably depressing experience.  The labour camp is now a museum with information and exhibitions about life and death there.  After walking around we had neither the emotional or physical energy to visit Birkenau, which was the extermination camp built close by.  Walking around we were dismayed to keep crossing paths with some young Poles who made jokes and tittered their way around the exhibits - an immature response to the displays and information : the photographs of every inmate up to 1943, with dates showing that rarely did anyone survive there for longer than six months, or the room with a display case of only the hair shorn from the inmates, kept to be sold on.  The museum emphasises the way that Poland was treated by the occupying army - a programme of exploitation, starvation and mistreatment began immediately and educated Poles, community leaders, army officers, were all executed.  It is clear that Poland firmly lays the blame for what happened to the Jews and Roma and other victims on the Germans.  And here was another statistic: an estimated 3 million Poles died during the war.

A counterbalance to all of this misery is the incredible klezmer concert we attended in one of the old synagogues in Kasimierz, which was the Jewish neighbourhood.  Four young Polish musicians, led by an accordionist, perform a collection of traditional and new  music.  It's loud, sad, raucous jazz.  Wonderful stuff.

Friday, 19 October 2012

tourist information

Gayle goes into the tourist information office in Krakow to get a cycle map and the low-down on the highlights. 

A visitor asks one of the staff "Could you tell me - is there a cafe at Auschwitz?"

Thursday, 18 October 2012

is the bear a catholic?

quite unsloth-like
In an attempt to judge cultural norms (as you do) we'd asked Daniel in Warsaw if it was okay to crack pope jokes in Poland.  "Depends which pope", Daniel shot back quickly with a wry smile.  On a sunny Sunday morning as we ride the country road into Krakow we pass through a few villages where Sunday Mass is taking place.  The large churches look full, although it's hard to tell if the fellas standing around the door can't get in because it's packed or whether they're just having a crafty fag. We stop for a break in the woods where there are a few cars parked by mushroom-pickers.  A woman looking rather worse for drink starts chatting to us.  We tell her we don't speak Polish and she gets even more garrulous.  She's still gabbling as we set off again and wave our goodbyes.  A few hours later as we ride one of the cycle paths into the city of Krakow we pass the same woman sat on a bench.  She looks as surprised as we do.

Our first two nights in Krakow we are generously hosted by Magda and Maciek, two other cyclists.  I say generous because Magda is due to give birth at the end of the year, they are about to move out of their studio flat and, er, it's a studio flat, which means we're sleeping in their lounge/bedroom.  It takes us a while to realise how much we are imposing on them - Maciek had suggested we leave any baggage on the bikes that we didn't need in the store room - and Gayle mistakenly thinks the wardrobe in the corner leads, CS Lewis-like, to another room.  However, they are so relaxed that we instantly feel like old friends.  They have toured the length and breadth of Italy, Corsica and Sardinia and for their honeymoon, Morocco and it's great to hear about their experiences.  Magda reflects that when they prepare more for a trip they lose some of the excitement that unpredictablity brings.

Our stop in Krakow is scheduled to include some bike maintenance and Magda helps us by translating for us at their local bike shop.    It occurred to me while cycling with Magali and Jean-Baptiste that Gayle was overdue a replacement chain, and rear cassette and chainrings.  She has cycled about 12,000 kilometres with the same set.  Needless to say it's much cheaper to replace here than back in Blighty.  It occurs to Maciek that they could be getting a discount at their local bike shop as they're always taking cycle tourists there for something or other.  
despite Magda and Maciek's best efforts I still screw up the photo

On the Monday evening they take us into the old town for our first glimpse of the sights, some Polish fast food and a natter over a beer in a sailor's pub (yes, a sailor's pub.)  We talk and talk and talk and talk and at one point I have to remind myself we're in Poland.  For the first few days we cycled in this country I smiled at everyone we passed in the villages and along the road.  The Poles are not naturally smiley people.  I only stopped smiling when I read in the guidebook that here people do not smile at strangers - it is considered stupid.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


"Are you writing this blog or what?"
"Yes, of course I am"
"But it's two months behind. When will it be up to date?"
"When I get a chance to use the netbook.  You're always using it."
"That's rubbish - you only have to ask.  You never want to use it."
"I have to be in the right mood.  I can't just type away like that."
"Well, get in the mood, because at this rate, no-one will read it if it's not updated."
"Okay, okay, I will, I will, I promise."

Monday, 15 October 2012


days - 103
kilometres - 5041

couches surfed - 20 nights
warm showers - 12 nights
spontaneous hospitality - 1 night
hostels/motels/cabins and campsites - 8 nights
wild camps - 62

new wheels - 4

flat tyres - 2
spot of bother - 1
rabid dogs - too many to count  
drunks - 2 on bikes
wrong turns - 3
ferries - 19

bus-stop meals - 32
jaffa cakes - 255
The Pasta Count: penne 48 fusilli 22 spaghetti 4 tortellini 2

Saturday, 13 October 2012

nie polski

I can't speak Polish but I tell an old lady who asks me in the supermarket that 'medium' means 'sredni'.  She looks delighted and puts the toothbrush in her basket.

Our journey to Krakow, where we're meeting my mum and dad, is via two or three places that appear in our guidebook.  The first is along the Vistula, a small touristy village called Kasimierz Dolny where we stay in the youth hostel.  We're there at the weekend and with good weather there's quite a few daytrippers and weekenders from Warsaw and Lublin.  The town had a large Jewish population before the war and down the road a memorial wall has been built from the headstones destroyed in the cemetery.  We head southeastwards through rolling farmland to Zamosc.  The old town here has been renovated and is rather pretty, if a little museum-like.  It's the low-season for tourists and the town is in a quiet corner of Poland.  

one mushroom you don't want to pick
Our direction now is westwards to Krakow through what turns out to be a rather dull landscape.  We're in farmland north of the Tatras and the villages seem to run into one another so that we find ourselves cycling along roads of houses and not much to see.  A lot of the houses look new and quite grand in places.  Often the old original wooden house has been left where it is, and the new house built beside it.  The camping gets tricky sometimes as there's always someone around, usually a farmer in his tractor, and we only find a spot when the sun has already set.  We have shied away from asking farmers if we can camp on their land - although I'm sure we could if we had to.

We arrive in Sandomierz after a foggy morning ride but the sun finally appears for the photos.  And then we head to Zalipie, famed for its painted houses.  We arrive mid-afternoon and ride around for quite a while, looking for these famous painted houses.  But it all looks rather like any other village.  We finally find a house painted with flowers and Gayle photographs it.  Then a minibus of Italians turn up and photograph it too.  They've been driving aroundlooking for these famed painted houses. Later we see the same house appear in any tourist blurb about the village.  Quality not quantity, I guess.