The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, April 26, 2010

12 days to go... Tandeming through the Iron Curtain

We should be sailing into view of the white cliffs in 12 days. It's been a long time away, but the weather has been fine for the last week and the landmarks keep ticking along. Suddenly we were half way across Europe having made it to Budapest, then we were through the line of the Iron Curtain, then we waved goodbye to the Danube. Soon we will be heading across the Rhine, into Belgium and then we'll be looking out across the English Channel for the first time in around 600 days. Our heads are full of everything from impatience, to jittery excitement to confusion. But the simplicity of cycling home is keeping us going; everyday we pack up our panniers, hop on the bike and keep heading another 100km or so closer to our end goal.

But the last 4 weeks haven't been all that easy. Hol and I have had to re-learn how to love the tandem. We had looked forward to getting back on Carlos for months, but after 3 weeks of steep hills leaving Turkey, breaking bike bits, horrendous roads in Romania and wet weather in Hungary we still hadn't hit our stride. It was partly due to a 'so near yet so far' feeling as we inched across the map, but we had also forgotten how poorly suited one's ass is to perching on a wedge of metal and leather for 5 hours a day. I am glad to say that as we sit munching on cake in Schwabing Hall in Southern Germany we have once again hit the rhythm and life is good.

I think our initial troubles were in part due to the fact that Hol and I have different approaches to riding the bike. I feel that a laden Carlos is the size and weight of a small car and should therefore be on the road. Hol feels that as there are bike lanes criss-crossing Europe in a finely woven web we should be on those. The first weeks were full of repeated grumbles as the bike paths along the Danube turned into unpaved levées and you felt like you were spelling your name out riding through people's back gardens and on narrow pavements. I favoured racking up the miles on busy roads, Hol liked the more loopy, leisurely approach. This led to alternate moments of frosty silence from the front or back of the bike. As we come to a halt on the edge of a rutted forest track Hol will pipe up with something positive about the nice clean air, birdsong or spring blossom. In the same way, as we are passed by the fifth large articulated lorry in as many minutes caking us in filth I will shout into the wind about how great it is to leap across the map. The frustrated one simply lets out a sigh just audible enough for the other to take it on board.

However, after a wonderful day off in Budapest staying with a family friend from Devon we found our bike chi again. The roads in the West are quieter, better surfaced and the bike paths resisted the temptation to disappear down rabbit holes and farm tracks. We also started camping again. It was like the old days in the States as we followed the Danube around the 'Golden Bend' and West into Austria. We had imagined there to be a clear shift in the roads as we crossed the line of the old Iron Curtain, but the suddenness of change was even more than we could have expected. Austria has to be the most ludicrously bike friendly country in the world. In fact it got kind of creepy how organised everything was.

Small towns were immaculate to the point of almost being sinister; where was the local village drunk, the awkward goth teenagers, the crappy charity shop in the middle of town? It was too fixed and controlled. I don't want to be down on Austria as it was a beautiful country with a huge amount going for it, but people were so serious, smiles scarce. People don't go for a stroll, they go 'Nordic walking'. This is simply walking with ski poles. We chortled when we saw the first people doing it, we were concerned when we saw a group of students being taught how to do it(?), we despaired when we found paved 'Nordic walking' trails through the countryside. Everything had been laid out for efficient convenience to the extent that we managed to cycle all the way through Vienna without riding on a single road as specialist tracks, populated by nothing more dangerous than a rogue unicyclist, let us float through the capital. These people seemed to have everything sorted, but yet nobody was smiling... at all.

We pedaled onward through one immaculately tended, but eerily sterile, village after another, past ancient castles, vineyards and all the time criss-crossing the Danube as it slowly narrowed as we neared the source. Before we knew it we were entering Germany. I had been wondering about spending time in Germany and had to confess to not being sure if I would like it. I can't trace this feeling, but am sure it is deeply wrapped up in the historical relationship with the UK. However, the shift as we crossed the border near Passau was almost comic. Everyone was suddenly waving and smiling at us. Maybe they were all grinning at the sight of the scowling Nordic walkers on the other side of the river, maybe it was that everywhere here has large beer gardens and sausage stands. On our first night in Germany our gap toothed campsite owner insisted we tried his local most (scrumpy), before giving us a blanket off the antique tractor to keep us warm and waved us on the way the next morning after offering to help with everything he could. And since then we have just had an incredible time going across Southern Germany. The landscape is stunning, the history of the towns and cities is mind boggling and the overwhelming impression is that the Germans are the closest race to the British we have seen on the whole trip.

They love nothing more than sitting in a pub garden in the sun eating sausages from a BBQ and drinking large quantities of beer. They choose to shun suncream resulting in extremely sunburnt faces on the first warm day of the year. They love whizzing around on motorbikes, cars and anything with wheels, wings or on water at the weekend. It is a version of what a certain type of person strives to make England; efficient, better tended and cleaner. All the roads are smooth, well sign-posted and all the towns are well planned without being deserted like Austria. There is also the added bonus of people wandering around in an extraordinary mix of what I can only really call 'Euro-style'; hugely suspect mullets, exceptionally dodgy tracksuits, occasional huge moustaches and some far too tight t-shirts. Sitting in the sun at the Schwalbisch Hall festival knocking back a few beers yesterday was eerily like being home, but maybe with more mixed ages in the pub from toddlers to Grandparents. I wonder if it is just having been away for so long that makes this land seem so similar to home.

We have around another 4 days before getting out of Germany and into Luxembourg and Belgium. Having had a bike stolen in Belgium in the past I will most likely be sleeping with the tandem as a pillow. The thought of being this close to the finish and something going wrong is a horrible one, but each day at a time, and before we know it it will be time to stop...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Going home, going home, going home, going home...

If we told you about our 1,400km from Istanbul to Novi Sad in Serbia 48 hours ago it would be a different tale. The last two weeks have been one of ups and downs; Glorious spring sunshine alternating with freezing, rainy headwinds; smooth and quiet then pot holed, truck filled roads; quaint villages full of humble rural life and depressingly deserted, boarded up industrial towns.

For the first week I couldn't shake the stuck record of, 'We're going home, we're going home, we're going home, we're going home, we're going home' from my mind. We cycled through lands that felt impenetrable through language and cultural barriers. In Turkey people looked at us curiously, shrugged, smiled then gave us a welcome cup of chai before getting back to their tasks. In Bulgaria people gawped in utter confusion for so long that there was no time to see their reaction once they had processed what they were seeing. In Romania we whizzed through ancient villages getting heckled by gangs of boozing men in guttural tones that weren't clearly positive or negative. One man seemed simply to bark at us. In Serbia on the other hand, reactions to the tandem have been more finely tuned.

Yesterday we had been cycling for 1,300 km and 12 days without a day off. We had pegged Novi Sad as our day off destination and had a nice steady route planned to get us here, avoiding the apparently doomful traffic of Belgrade. We were therefore a bit tetchy and tired when we pedaled into Pancevo yesterday only for there to be no room at the inn. Our choices were another 115km to Novi Sad or traffic misery into Belgrade. We decided to slump down in the main square to eat some sugar and make a plan. Little did we know a plan was already descending upon us.

'Hey hey, cyclist, cyclist', a man in a full length black leather coat, flip down mp3 fitted shades and grey curly barnet taps Nick on the shoulder.

'Me, me cyclist, come come see', We get ushered to one side of the square, reluctantly heaving the tandem when really we just want to collapse and not have to deal with any suspicious looking men in long coats. 'See, look, me... Stockholm, Regensburg, Athens, Tulcea.' Our weary faces lift as the man shows us a board of photos of his cycling trips. This isn't just any oddball, this is a cycling oddball, which means we can relax.

Ten minutes and zero English later we are pushing Carlos into a small garage on the outskirts of town and being ushered into Dusan's one room pad next door. A map of all his cycling trips plasters one wall, Mount Olympus posters adorn the other and in pride of place sits an oil painting of his 20 year old Specialized 'Epic' racing bike. In between speakers that take up about half of the room and a table tennis score board lie stacks of books he's written about his cycling adventures. It's from this moment that we realise we have stumbled across another gem of a human being and roll with the brilliance of it. Before we know it we're collapsed on the bed-cum-sofa being taken at top speed and volume through his live music DVD collection: Pink Floyd Live in Pompei, ACDC in Munich, Roger Waters Super concert of The Wall in Berlin, Walter Trout (?), Jimmy Winter ('White Jimi Hendrix, albino man'). and last but not least, Jeff Wayne's War of the World's Live tour. Of course.

Before it gets too weird that we have no means to communicate other than the medium of Rock, his 21 year old son Niki arrives. His excellent English and long flowing locks suggested that he might have grown up watching a few too many of his Dad's DVDs.

'My father says you can stay here tonight, he must go and talk on the TV now and later he has to train the local table tennis team and then tonight he is out of town so you can have his bed.' Wow. Its more bizarre than we can ever have hoped for. But free, warm bed – brilliant. After missing a train into Belgrade we spend the afternoon with Niki exploring Pancevo and eating hamburgers twice the size of my head (the Serbs are incredible hamburger makers). After days of cycling through places and being desperate to ask questions its good to get an insider's view of this part of the world. Frustration with politics but an appreciation of things getting better and a definite intrigue at the future role of the EU comes over strongly. But most telling, for this soft mannered Serb, Canada, a paved cycling path and house in the mountains is the dream.

As we head off for a post burger beer a vision in white flashes across the road. Its Dusan on the aforementioned Epic in full white cycling gear (were the gloves with silver floral detailing made for women?) tearing through the streets of Pancevo as if it's a time trial track. Amazing! For the first time the tandem wasn't the most conspicuous thing on two wheels in Eastern Europe. After some exchanges in Serbian Nicki asks 'Er my Father is wondering if you would mind talking on local television with the tandem. Only if you are not too tired, no problem if you would rather not.' Our response was fairly positive. Its not every day you get the opportunity to feature on Serbian TV with your beloved tandem. An hour later we were parked in the middle of the town square being interviewed by an enthusiastic TV reporter asking such questions as 'Are you tired?', 'Why are you in Pancevo? Do you have enough money?' and 'Do you like White Snake?'

After all that excitement we get some much needed kip on the sofa before its back into action again at 7am with the return of Dusan. The TV is on at full volume with Jean Michel Jarre live in Houston blasting out and some cheese pies for breakfast. Nicki and the vision in white lycra ride with us half the way to Novi Sad, kindly, if a little dangerously, protecting us from trucks and giving us a slip stream (tricky with a fully loaded tandem and two tiny racers). Half way through the ride Nicki turns to me and says, 'Today you have made my father very happy, all his life he has been with women who do not like cycling. He always wants a women who likes cycling, who understands, and today he has seen you on the bike and so he knows they exist and this makes him very happy.' After a photo shoot in the middle of a puzzled looking Serbian village, we say our goodbyes and all wish each other the best of luck in the future. I have a feeling we might see those two rocking up in London one day in some phenomenal cycling gear with big grins.

Novi Sad was bombed extensively by NATO in 1999 to put pressure on Milosevic to end the Yugoslav regime, but has since reinvented itself into a youthful city full of cafes, restaurants and and drinking holes. Perfect for our day off and to top off the Serbian hospitality our hostel owner welcomed us with a massive grin and glass of beer, full of joy because tomorrow he gets to look after his lambs in the fields. There is a local speciality here called 'lescovacki voz' (Leskovac train). This is essentially a 'train' of meats brought to you throughout the evening. It would seem churlish not to try it... From here we head pretty much due North to Budapest, West to Vienna and then hit the straight line to London through Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. ETA into Hyde Park is 4 weeks time today on the 8th May, but as with all great adventures, you can never be too sure what might get in our way or speed us up en route.