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.
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.
pear 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.
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.
Monday, April 26, 2010
Saturday, April 10, 2010
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.
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.
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.