Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Bosnia, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Fun.

Greetings from Kotor, Montenegro.
Things have been pretty much either way, way down or way, way up since the last update. There have been some very negative days indeed; bored of the surroundings, bored of the riding, bored of my own company, but their memory has been overwritten since Saturday evening when a string of very, very good days began.

Riding into Dubrovnik feeling pretty crummy and planning to hole up in a hostel or hotel on my own for a couple of nights and think through my options, I was overtaken (as I endlessly am, by everyone) by a loaded up motorbike with British number plates. We exchanged a wave and that was that, but further up the road he'd pulled over and I stopped for a chat. We exchanged numbers to arrange to meet up for a drink in the city but when I eventually arrived he passed me again, still looking for the hostel. There began a very odd pairing or cyclist following motorcyclist! On riding up to the hostel we passed a girl with a backpack who was to become the 3rd member of Team Dubrovnik. We ate together that night and spent the day in the old city on Sunday, completely transforming my entire experience. So thank you to Andy and Joste, I hope we can do the same again in another city.

And now here in Kotor I've spent the past day and evening with even more lovely, interesting people, including a couple who have driven here from South Africa and are on their way to Norway! Their Land Rover looked very cosy but I think the motorbike is the way to travel for me... (see below)

On to Albania tomorrow or, if it's raining, the day after.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Split - A Gem

Croatia is redeemed! Split is a great city and I've had a great day, partly because I had a lie-in and acted like a lazy slob eating biscuits and watching TV, but mainly because of these people's crazy idea back in the 7th century or so to hide inside this old Roman palace and turn it into their home. We've all probably strolled around a Roman ruin or other old building that has been preserved as a monument and struggled to appreciate its significance or, well, been bored. When you combine that historic place with a modern, functioning neighbourhood (and shopping - there must be at least 20 shoe shops) it suddenly becomes far more interesting as a place. The contrast between 3000 year old Roman architecture and tacky souvenirs is a bit distasteful but otherwise it's a phenomenal place and fully deserves its UNESCO title.

All around modern buildings have been butted up against the original palace walls, and the myriad alleyways and arches just beg to be followed and each nook and window looked in. Coming across an underwear shop or supermarket is a bit incongruous but somehow it just works.

You can't help but picture the Romans strolling across these very stones in their sandals and togas (I believe that's historically correct).

My enjoyment is definitely so much greater for losing the burden of the bike and all my stuff and strolling around with only a backpack, taking time to sit down and read and not stand out of the crowd is really great. My thoughts about the way the trip is going to go are definitely shifting (again, stay tuned!)

At last, a British newspaper! Reading the paper is great for perspective and to feel a part of the world again. Cake good too.

Right now I can smell nothing but my shoes and the receptionist is spraying air freshener so I think I will go and put my sandals back on before venturing into any more enclosed spaces. Hopefully I can be forgiven my disgustingness given the context?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Photo Update from Split

I don't think it's worth me going back to the week I missed out in detail so I'll just do it in photos instead. Unfortunately the photography has fallen a bit by the wayside with this silly 'ride, ride, further, faster' mindset so despite having 2 cameras - one waterproof Lumix mounted on my handlebars and a better Nikon D80 to hand in my bar bag - I've missed opportunities and rushed shots I should've taken time over. I'm not the best photographer anyway, which is why I'm looking forward to my best buddy James Oaten joining me on the road to capture some of this trip (and me!) properly. Obviously shots that include me either involve static shots taken by strangers or are awkward arm's length or precariously balanced self-timer affairs so there aren't many, and the scenery only shots are never all that interesting so bear with me while I find the right angle to record this all. So much of the essence of the trip comes in a fleeting glimpse, a soaring bird of prey, a smell or a smile or wave and can't be recorded.

This was quite a pivotal moment for me - arriving at this campsite on lago d'Iseo in Italy after a short ride along beautiful, winding roads bordered right at each edge by mountain and lake, being passed by 100s of other cyclists (including Matteo who I rode with for an hour or so - good luck on your ride to Israel!), stopping in a small town with no need to press on and just enjoying the scenery and my lunch, I wasn't happy. I was here in this stunning setting with nothing to do but relax and enjoy and it was one of the loneliest moments of my life! How ridiculous is that! It didn't help that it was a Sunday, my absolute favourite day back home, and I was thinking of my family getting together for a Sunday roast and playing rockets with my nephew Alex, but even so I seriously questioned why I was doing this trip alone and without anyone to share such scenes with (as yet unresolved, stay tuned..)
This one from yesterday just demonstrates how pared down my life has become and how easily pleased I now am. Knowing that I had orange juice, chocolate spread and a newspaper made riding 50 miles before lunch so much more bearable - this is one aspect that has lived up to expectations and I love the important role small things now play. That's Sibenik, Croatia in the background.

This was the mountain I inadvertently scheduled into my route, not realising until I got to the bottom of it - I just thought the squiggly line on the map looked interesting - the Pian delle Fugazze. It was about 1200 metres, easy compared to the Simplon Pass a few days earlier, and far more enjoyable with almost no traffic and great views. I'm still amazed by the tiny villages up in the mountains and the people that live in them and spent a lot of time wondering what it must be like to be so remote.

These are my last couple of night's wild camps, both at the side of the road behind dry stone walls and trees, both in the rain but both a lot warmer than the previous wild camps. The darker one was pretty remote, between the sea and the mountains, and the second one turned out to be just outside a town and was a last-minute find. Both have been followed by a night indoors, first a youth hostel in Zadar and tonight a hotel in Split, and the 2 best and most appreciated beds and showers imaginable. Leaving a hotel in the morning feels as though you're leaving normality and civilisation behind in some way whereas leaving after packing up a wild camp feels like returning to it. I will certainly appreciate not being woken up at 1am tonight by the sound of howling - I must Google whether there are wolves in Croatia...

I may see if I can put some more interesting ones up tomorrow (seeing as I negotiated free internet here as well as a discount : ) ) but right now I'm off for pizza.

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Mediterranean as it Once Was...

If you have a car, TV, fridge (or any white goods), sofa, bricks or tiles, or basically anything that exists in the world that you don't want, it seems Croatia is the place to chuck it off the side of the road, maybe into the sea, maybe someone's garden, or maybe just into the bushes to rust for all of eternity, slowly releasing CFCs or leaking various chemicals into the otherwise untouched earth.

I've seen maybe 2 or 3 scenes that resemble Croatia's big marketing campaign (though in the rain they look less appealing) but the majority of the in-between has been dereliction and trash, with rocks and trees. That was the point of traveling in this way though - rather than just stepping off the plane or train in another beautiful city I'm seeing everything in between and getting a fairer overview of the country as it actually exists.
Unfortunately because of this I don't currently like Croatia much! There is still Split and Dubrovnic to redeem it though so I will withhold judgment for now.

After wild camping in the rain last night and 70 miles in the rain today I'm pretty tired and hungry so will sign off now on this Monday evening (22nd) to go and cook my dinner on the beach. As long as I don't look at the industrial units behind me that is at least a nice view. Zdravo, hvala and bok from Zadar.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Day 35 - Croatia on a Sunday

Breakfast in Italy, lunch in Slovenia, dinner in Croatia. That was day 34. I'm currently in Rijeka on the Adriatic coast in Croatia about to start heading south (there's actually been very little Riding East on this trip so far).

So today is 5 weeks in and 12 days (today will be the 13th) without a day off the bike. That can mostly be explained by my mental state and the psychology of continually moving forwards. The next place I get to that has the right vibe I will book 2 nights in a hotel and leave the bike alone, aside from to give it a much-needed clean and check over and see how close that weld is to failing!

The day-to-day of riding and everything that it entails is fine done solo - I feel confident and capable - but stopping in a nice place for a coffee or a day off definitely feels like the difficult part when I'm doing this on my own. I have an attempt at a video diary which I will upload as soon as I find a faster computer which hopefully does a better job at explaining things as I'm somewhat lacking in inspiration at the moment.

My route over the next few days\weeks is along the coast to Dubrovnik via Split and then through Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and into Albania, the capital of Tirane being my new end-of-stage target. I've seen some pretty spectacular photos from this area so hopefully the reality will live up to it.

As I keep saying, a more detailed rounding-up will come when I can force myself to chill out for a bit longer, and more photos and video soon.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

First Charitable Donation

Just a very quick one from Lake Garda. A full update to follow as soon as something happens other than cycling along a lake.

A big thank you is due to Mr Lawrence Neill who many of you will know from www.thetristore.com in Eastbourne - my friend and former (and possibly future) employer - for his donation made to World Bicycle Relief through Riding East.
See the info and click on the link to the right hand side to learn more or to make a donation yourself. Similar to the 'buy a goat\sheep\pig' idea, through WBR you can donate a bicycle to an individual or community - they're bought locally and mechanics are trained to maintain them locally - and the owner can get to work, school, a water source, shop, etc. in a lot less time and carry a whole load more stuff back with them (far more than I've got!) It sounds simple but in terms of empowerment it is vital. Think how often you jump in your car (or on your bike, hopefully) to pop to the shops and then imagine living 10 or 20 miles further away and having to walk there, AND still do the rest of the stuff you have to do with your day.

Hopefully a few more donations might come about and a few more people might receive a simple, life changing gift. Drop me a message or leave a comment if you do so I can thank you.

So, for kicking things off, cheers Loz.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Days 23 - 27, The First Real Challenges

My plan is working so far - get the problems to arise in the comfortable, familiar 'West' and then when they happen again in the scary, dangerous 'East' I'll be well equipped to deal with them.

As if leaving Geneva wasn't hard enough (I won't gush about it again), I was battling a freezing cold headwind almost the whole way. I think the photos speak for themselves...

A miserable day ended in comfort staying at the very last minute with a lovely old couple in the Rhone valley, but on loading my bike the next morning surrounded by huge mountains and with a big day ahead of me one of my bigger fears came true - the bike frame had broken. In the true spirit of life on the road within 1 hour and 3 miles of that discovery I was riding a newly welded bike and eating a pain au chocolat feeling very pleased with myself. My thanks are due to Monsieur de Gol and Franck at the Toyota garage in Saint Maurice, as well as Nadine at the Office de Tourisme and my hosts for the night for their assistance.

With only a half day to ride I made it to within 15 miles of the bottom of the Simplon Pass. With a rare spare couple of hours I was looking forward to some relaxing - checking the bike out before storing it for the night (I get quite glad to get it out of my sight in the evening) I noticed the rear wheel was a bit wobbly, then discovered the broken spoke. So my next 2 hours were spent replacing that which involved removing the tyre and the cassette (the gears on the back, quite complicated without the proper tools) and truing the wheel without a truing stand. Both fixes seem to be holding up to the potholed Italian roads so far.

The following day was The Big One - crossing the mountains into Italy via one of the only open passes, Simplon at 2005 metres. With only my legs to get 130 kg (bike, luggage and me) up and over I knew it would be a hard day, and it was. There was a very peculiar moment of realisation, despair and then aceptance when I looked at the sign saying 22 km to go, followed by my speed of 4\5 mph and calculating a minimum of about 3 hours till the top. In the end it was 3.5 hours with a few fuel stops and then lunch in minus a lot surrounded by many feet of snow. The mountain was a nice compact metaphor for the trip though (clearly my mind had plenty of time to wander as I crawled up..) - apprehension, followed by pain and suffering and wondering why, followed by a sense of achievement I couldn't get anywhere else.
To make it even sweeter I passed my first 1000 miles just over the top...

(Photo idea stolen from Nicolai Bangsgaard of www.worldtravellers.dk)

I needed 6 layers for the 20 km descent into Italy and was still cold!
My first Italian town was Domodossola after 54 miles and 2005 metres of climbing. I was missing France and Switzerland and their already familiar patisseries and brands and signs already - it's funny how you become so attuned to the small things and just crossing an imaginary line (patrolled by bored, cold men in uniforms) can make you suddenly feel alien again.

Suddenly it was all worth it as I was down to 3 layers and cruising along the shore of Lake Maggiore in a positively sweltering 12 degrees C. Lunch was good and a ridiculous contrast to the previous day's spot!

And now I'm in Como, about to leave the youth 'ostello' where I stayed last night (cheap accomodation at last) to ride along the edge of the lake and on towards Garda. The sun is shining, should be a good day.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Days 17-22 - I.Love.Geneva and Italy Awaits

My final day in the city has arrived, but I'm still here. I just couldn't resist one more day with these people and this place.
These people being Leandra and Laura, from Zurich but studying International Relations at university in Geneva, my amazing hosts for the past 6 days. Every moment of my being here hints back to the serendipitous nature of life and I think of the moment Leandra walked in to The Tri Store back in Eastbourne on orders from her Mum to buy a bike helmet. It is thanks to that chain of events and my obvious charm that I am sitting here writing this, and in the bigger picture that I was able to cope with the thought of leaving home to cycle around the world at all. I owe them both so much and I hope I can repay them somehow, someday (I don't consider fixing their bikes quite equal to the friendship, conversation, housing, guiding, feeding with wonderful food and cake and general caring I've received!) Thank you both so much, you are great and will be sorely missed : )

I have had such a fantastic time here and I feel at home after just 5 days. It is thrilling to think back to Wednesday when I entered the city a complete stranger, lost and with no idea where to go, and contrast that with the last few days of exploring and knowing exactly where I am - the same places and people look completely different and the city takes on a whole new persona. I realise more than ever that to get a fair impression of a place it is really necessary to spend a few days there but I'm not yet sure how to make that and forward progression/money stretching go hand-in-hand. A valuable lesson to remember for the rest of the places I will pass through.

Speaking of which, the onwards route from here following breakfast and my 9am Tuesday departure will be along the eastern border of Lake Geneva, crossing back into France and then back again into Switzerland (I think the 5th border crossing between the 2 countries in 3 days of riding!). I'll be crossing the 2008 metre Simplon Pass on Wednesday, snow permitting, and coasting downhill into Italy where I will head for lakes Maggiore, Como and Garda before skirting north of the main spaghetti road cities for the sea at Trieste - about 550 miles, probably between 8 days and 2 weeks depending on scenery, weather and tiredness, and as I'll be trying to make camping my primary accommodation, probably my next update.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Rounding-Up 'Leg 1'

So here I am in Geneva, my long held vision of the end of the beginning and the beginning of the rest. Psychologically this 'beacon' has been invaluable as a blockade between home and the rest of the world. As some of you will have heard me say, I was only ever riding to Geneva and then seeing what happened from there.

So since Day 11 in Luxembourg... It's hard to know what to report that has been interesting in the worth reading about on the internet sense. Most of it is interesting to me in some way as I pass through it, though undoubtedly the grey, wet, industrial nature of the parts of northern Europe I've seen don't lend themselves well to documentation. Day 11 did see my first signs of emotion and a sense of being overwhelmed at the prospect - after a lonesome breakfast surrounded by couples and groups of friends I realised just how much I was missing home, my parents, my family, my friends, safety, security, purpose. But this pleased me in a way (not only because I'd made it 11 days since leaving without feeling upset!) as it cemented in my mind just how important these things are. I'd never have appreciated everything I have properly from back home.

The day continued in a similarly shaky fashion. Metz was wet, the campsite was closed, I couldn't find anywhere to wild camp so I stayed in a Formule 1 (like a stripped down version of a Travelodge, if that's possible). But in amongst that pretty dull set of events I was invited in by two complete strangers for a cup of tea in their caravan and given use of their maps and GPS - something so simple can have such a profound effect on my day doing this, so thank you John and Sue!
I have now honed my buffet breakfast skills so that when I do pay for a hotel I eat enough breakfast for a small family and somehow end up with a week's worth of jam and honey in my pockets.

After the expense of the hotel in Luxembourg, knowing that I can camp or find a cheap (€30) hotel meant I was far more relaxed about heading off with no set place to spend the night. The next day towards Nancy was really wet and really cold but I was following the Moselle river so the scenery was improved. However, tired + cold and wet + hungry + Lidl =

The night of Day 12 was spent above a bar in an old town called Toul, and I awoke to the first sun and beautiful blue sky of mainland Europe. Day 13 saw a change in terrain and things got greener, views more expansive and countryside and roads far nicer to ride. I'd spent the previous few days with tired legs toiling up hills at 5 mph wondering why I'm not doing this on a motorbike as originally planned, but the numerous brief interactions with people out on the road - in this case mostly elderly rural French folk commenting on how windy it was - made me glad to be accessible. That is the whole point after all. It was very windy though, something was brewing. With talk of a storm I passed through a forest with camping potential and opted for another hotel in Monthereux-sur-Saone as there was lots of flooding and the river was high and fast. My cooking skills are coming along and I rustled up a lovely cajun chicken and rice dish which was almost literally inhaled. The shutters were closed in readiness for the impending battering...

The next morning didn't appear too bad but there was talk of 80 mph winds on the news and a walk down the street was almost enough to make me stay another day - it was a deserted Sunday and there was debris blowing everywhere. With 'dangereux' and 'bon courage' from the locals I set off, only to be confronted by Gendarmes
and Pompieres guarding a fallen tree blocking the road. With the help of 5 curious locals my bike
was lifted up and down the church stairs to get around the obstacle, only to discover the
Gendarme had directed me the wrong way, so back we came, hernia apiece! Out of the valley the wind did start to get scarily strong and when all 130 kg or so of bike and rider were blown round in a complete circle and gusted from one side of the road to the other I wondered how sensible an idea it was. I later saw on the news 47 people had died across France at the centre of the same storm.
My target for that day had been Besancon but I didn't expect to make it so set a more realistic one about 35 miles away. On arriving there at 3pm under amazing bright blue skies with bright white cumulus clouds scudding along at 100s of miles per hour I decided to put some music on, get my head down and ride on into the wind. Unfortunately I couldn't hear the music for the wind - at times it made an awful sound like a screaming, roaring wild cat - and I was crawling along on the flat at 8 mph 'full gas'. After the hardest day's cycling I've ever had I made it to Besancon in the dark and checked into the first hotel I saw - 70 miles in just under 7 hours of riding with 1800m of climbing. After feeling on the verge of collapse all it took was a can of Orangina, some biscuits and a seat in front of the winter Olympics and all was forgotten.

I had a day to spare to time my arrival with Leandra in Geneva for Wednesday so I had a fantastically relaxing day milling along at snail's pace, following the Doubs river out of fortified Besancon in the glorious (and warm) sunshine. The hills caught up with me by lunch though and I was onto my first proper mountain, hairpin climbs (rather than the horrible short, steep, rolling hills of the north) and loving it, despite being overtaken by a guy on an Orbea (my racing bike back home) and for a moment cursing my ox of a bike.

Wild camping was again scarce as this is ski resort territory (in reality I need no other option if I'm to find somewhere as there is always somwehere) so I collapsed into the sanctuary of another hotel. Now the Olympics are over I at least have one less reason to be lured..

Day 16 was another relaxing day in the mountains with no pressure. I entered Switzerland at Vallorbes and sat in the sun watching people going about their business, then, the worst part for me, cycled within feet of people snowboarding. How is it when I was snowboarding every day in France I looked longingly at the cyclists whilst sat on the chairlift?! I followed the Vallee de Joux and passed chalets with a lake to the front and a ski lift to the rear, amazing.
Crossing back into France there is a clear difference between the 2 countries right at the border in terms of the condition of the buildings and roads - France is definitely more rustic. Les Rousses in the Jura mountains was my target town and host to a stop on the Tour de France this year - I hope they resurface first or there'll be some broken wheels - as well as some of France's winter Olympic athletes. Unfortunately it turned out to be a rather large ski resort at the peak of the holidays so there was no accommodation anywhere - a blessing in disguise. Not only did I save myself some cash but I finally got to use my tent and test my sleeping bag a bit - toasty and warm even with 3 feet of snow on the ground..

I was right by a cross country ski track so made a swift exit in the morning before being disturbed. As a sign 100 m further up the road told me I'd just spent the night at the top of the Col de la Givrine, 1232 metres up. The downside of this being that it was, much to my surprise, all down hill from here to Geneva - I'd read the climb on the map the wrong way and thought I had to go UP the Cote de Nyon! - so after breakfast of baguette, jam, honey, coffee and orange juice overlooking Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) and the big mountains in the distance I spent the next hour shivering as I negotiated the bends and rolled the 10 miles all downhill to the lake shore.

I sat and ate and read at various points around the lake before embarking on finding my home from home in the city. Without a map. My bearings and a memory from Google Earth got me to within 50 metres but I do have to thank my support crew back home (my wonderful Mum!) for directing me the last bit.

I'm now relaxing for 4 days in wonderful company, seeing some of the city, enjoying a warm bed and great food and not riding my bike! I'll catch up on laundry, emails and photos and take it easy before setting off on Monday.

So now it's time to set another beacon to aim for to keep it nice and compartmentalised in my head - Trieste in the northern corner of Italy and the beginning of the Adriatic Coast and the Balkans.

Bananas eaten - 5
Beers drunk - 8
Miles to date - 854
Time in the saddle - 77 hours (no, my bum doesn't hurt : ) )

P.S. Here's the earlier wild camping spot Belgium as promised - it rained all night, cosy!