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...

1 comment:

Hans & Charlot said...

Home by now? Congratulations and a deeeeeeeep bow :-) Love from Holland, Charlot and Hans.