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.