Catha's Seat

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Days 33 to 41: the final 9 solo days - in pictures

I must start by apologising that this blog has been somewhat neglected recently. The trip has been somewhat packed and I have been finding it difficult to upload posts on my mobile phone application! We are now sitting in an internet cafe in Skopje, Macedonia so I will attempt to provide a snappy pictorial update covering the last solo part of the trip from Milan to Ploce.

Week off with Eliza around Italy - here she is enjoying the Vaporetto ride in Venice
Lucio's back! and also my friend Nadia in an international meet up - small world!
Many thanks to Marse, Eline and Baby MJ for a great stay in Milan.

I met Alex outside Lidl. He had just finished his masters in Physics in Germany and set off through Austria. He had the most loaded up bike I have ever seen with all his photography equipment and all he needed for continuous wild camping!

A swim in Lago di Garda - it was actually quite warm!

The master bike builder "Zanella". With  bumbling Italian I asked to see his workshop. He showed me his electric tricycle prototype!

My first Couch Surfing experience was amazing. With Massimiliano and Didem we talked for 7 Hours straight. They met through couch surfing in Istanbul, where Didem is from. They showed me their photos of the mouthwatering sights of Istanbul - I can't wait. Thanks to them both to opening my eyes to the world of Couch Surfing.

Scott taking a ride in Trieste

3 Countries in 3 Hours makes you hungry - Italy, Slovenia and Croatia! Sticker collection on the helmet building up!

Grounded in Rijeka by the Bora winds I took a trip up the Croatian Riviera

Finally, some other bikers going my way - I'm not the only crazy one! They are taking a year off to cycle and climb the world. 

Arriving on the Island of Pag is like landing on the Moon.

And now I have a two legged travelling companion. Alex and I reunited after our pioneering (!) trip in 2005 (see first blog post). Standing in front of the Mostar Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Alex has named his bike Sur Wallace (Sur after "Surly" the bike brand)!

Monday, 29 October 2012

Technical interlude: wheels!

As the costal roads are closed for everything except cars due to the high winds known as the Bora, I am marooned today in Rijeka, Croatia. To pass the time I was flicking back through my photos.

This one was taken on day one at the Gold Team campsite. As I mentioned before Hil Bob (HB) and I get fanatical about two wheeled objects at our Bike Club sessions. Just before leaving, HB helped me build the wheels for Scott. We had both learnt how to build wheels by watching a chap at Brick Lane Bikes the year before, and for me this was only wheel number 3. 

HB laced the front wheel and I laced the back. So far (touch wood) both wheels have been fine and true. The back had a small wobble after the streets of Milan, which was easily fixed. Long may their sturdiness continue!

Those hoops get the Hil Bob seal of approval.

Days 19 to 22: The Alps - part 2

Taking the advice from ground control I pushed south along Lago Maggiore. As luck would have it though, I bumped into a campsite. It was open but with very few signs of life. I finally found someone official - "parlo inglese o te desco" I asked. The answer was a flat "parle solo Italiano!". I had hoped either English or German would get me somewhere in other countries but oh well. Right then - time for hand gestures! When setting up I took a huge schlug of whisky from my flask - first accommodation wobble sorted and I had achieved my lakeside camping fantasy. A lonely dinner was preceded by an extreme pothole in the road which took out my front tyre. No puncture repair kit so I had to walk back to the tent and spend my nightcap time fixing it.

View of Lago Maggiore from the campsite.
Unfortunately the vision of waking to a crystal clear view over the lake was not realised. I decided to make my way straight to Milan in the thick fog and past increasingly industrial scenery. I was somewhat of a novelty on the road. There were plenty of cyclists but not many people using it as a form of transport - it seemed the Milanese way to cycle was as fast as possible, in lycra, on a fancy racer or to have just come off a mountain on something with full suspension.

I had a tense lunch as I couldn't see Scott and the centre of Saronno was eerily empty. I wolfed my plate down and rushed back. Feeling awful I paused on a bench. I put on "Coco Rosie", a band that Jan (Lucio's flatmate) had recommended. He had described it as having some Romanian folk influences, so I naively thought it would be quite jolly and uplifting. Not so, and I sunk further! (good music though). I then saw something you would never see in the UK: Over the road there was a relatively attractive young woman looking like she was waiting for someone. A tidy but slightly sleazy man lounged past, so slowly it was like his next appointment in life wasn't until 2013. He stopped just beyond the girl, at a distance, and turned to face her. They talked in this stand off, the body language somewhat closed. He would lift his head casually in acknowledgement every so often. They both took out their phones, he gave her a number and it looked like she missed called him. Had he just made a successful pass? In England you would expect anyone to need to be at least 4 pints down to attempt a move like that! He walked on afterwards in the same cool manner and when out of sight, suddenly, from the sidelines, another contender rushed in and sat on the top of the bench, feet on the seat. I think this was the person she had been waiting for. Perhaps he had been watching, and they joked about it animatedly. Another gent joined them - it was like watching a modern version of a Shakespeare play!

Milan is effervescent but very challenging on a Scott! Buses, cars, honking, trams, people, double/triple parking, tram lines, roadworks, cobbled and ever changing road surface. I would have been better on a mountain bike!

I arrived early. Eline, who is 6 months pregnant with baby MJ, helped me get Scott in the tiny 50s style lift up to the 8th floor. Her and Marcelo (Marse) have a glorious view over Milan and the mountains to the north from their snug but comfy flat. Eline had Yorkshire tea with milk available - I felt my life blood rushing back!

Eline, Baby MJ and Scott on the 8th  Floor
We ate out at the best pizzeria in their area, which happens to be run by Eygptians. Marcelo had a Falafel filled Calzone! Now, Italians are relatively stubborn about their cuisine, and of course they have good reason for that. What's interesting though is that apparently very few other food culture restaurants survive in their country without serving mainly Italian fayre. Sushi however, seems to be a hit, and other than that there are kebab joints (serving pizza as well) and some Chinese places dedicated generally to expats. What a contrast to London where last New Years my friend Adam formed a group of eaters (food club) on a mission to encounter restaurants from as many countries as possible within the Big Smoke already disregarding the standard Indian, Chinese, Thai, Sushi etc that we are all used to!

Members of food club tucking into Bulgarian food on my brief return to London. A taste of what is (hopefully) to come!
In the morning we breakfasted like Italians: Cappuccino and Brioche (note that, confusingly a brioche is a croissant usually filled with cream, chocolate or jam). The Barristas had that cheeky Italian charm and obviously enjoyed their work.

Time for Scott to be pampered. Marse and I visited the local bike shop to check the wobble on the bottom bracket, which was met with an "it's ok" shrug. Then it was off to the power shower! Suds, rinse and even shine...with his glow back Scott settled in on the 8th floor balcony for a great view and a well earned week off!

Scott gets his bathtime on, with Marse

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Days 19 to 22: The Alps

Meeting people on my brief return to London made me feel a little fraudulent - why travel all that way to get a train back 2 weeks in! Anyway, re-loaded with more packets of Sainsburys couscous I sped through France back to Lausanne.
My first taste of the Italy to come was courtesy of Lucio's pasta. It reminded me of when he had invited us over to Caledonian Road during university for spaghetti amatriciana - just quickly knocked up dishes to him but delicious! I had no problem in devouring a double portion!

Lucio and his lovely flatmates Jan and Linda

I had been looking forward to day 19, a chance to slice through the Valais on relatively flat ground in the shadow of the alps, passing close to the big ski resorts; Chamonix, Verbier etc. Unfortunately most of the morning was misty and rainy so I couldn't even see the impression of mountains. The good news was that finally I had the wind behind me. Once again though, juggling main roads and off piste cycle paths left me with a puncture and I ended up sticking to the tarmac option, which left me in a brief spot of bother with the police through a busy road tunnel. They waved me on though and I ended up getting to the campsite just too late to enjoy the thermal baths. The sun had come out in the afternoon now revealling the challenge that lay ahead the next day; the Simplon Pass.

The sun after the storm in the Valais.

Arriving in Brig the next morning for a pre climb breakfast, the ski resort smell was present in the air; a mixture of log fires, dry cold and ski wax! It was gorgeous out; clear and sunny. I hadn't even shaken off the outskirts of town before it got tough, having chosen to start on the less busy road. I wound past a cable car, which was unfortunately not in operation! I rationed myself to half mile stretches with a 2 minute break to catch my breath and survey the view; a tip I had picked up about breaking down big tasks in the papers at the weekend.This worked like a dream, so much better than the climb in the black forest, and soon I had a grand view back down the valley. When I joined the main simplon pass route it had plenty of lorries but wasn't as steep. From here though I'll let the pictures do the talking.

2 minute rest break

Damned cable car not in use

Big bridge avoids down and up

A longer distance is preferable to a steep pitch!
Scott having a 2 mintue rest break
Total gridlock!
View from a tunnel
More success
View from success stop

What a feeling, highest altitude of the trip and a perfect mountain restaurant with a good view into the pass. The Spaghetti Bolognese was presented by a Swiss Italian, rather than Swiss German, and it was perfect. The Simplon pass route was apparently instructed to be built by Napoleon to form a quick passage between France and Italy but while I gorged it was the Swiss army that were moving in! Tanks and military vehicles rolled past and I was to find on my descent, a massive barracks set into the landscape.

Oh Dear!
Swiss army barracks
Napoleon related museum

Bongiorno Italia!

First glimpses of Italy

Before embarking on the downhill (downmountain!) I was confronted with a sign that showed a lorry with wheels (I assume brakes) in flames! If only I had a helmet cam, 35mph weaving down, through open sided tunnels, around hairpins.... exhilarating!

The border crossing into Italy was another stark change of vibe. Old buildings left in ruin and lived in houses left to decay gracefully. A brightly coloured bouquet of flowers on a seemingly unloved home showed the warmth inside.

I got to my original destination, Domodossola, early. A bustling cafe culture in the main piazza was tempting but I decided to push on to Lago Mergozzo / Maggiore to attempt my dream lakeside camping experience. About 5 miles out from my destination, and without any trigger, my left knee developed a strong pain and I couldn't put any weight on it. I struggled to get in and out of the clip in pedals at stops. Things looked up as I reached lakeside at Mergozzo - pizza and relaxing by the lake entered my mind's eye. Now just to get set up at one of the multiple campsite options! No.1 closed, No.2 closed, No.3 closed ... do I go on and try the next lot or back to the hotel I had passed. I called ground control (dad) and we decided on a cheap hotel further on the next day's route.

Lago Mergozzo

I had better leave it there for the moment as I am burning the midnight oil before setting off on 8 days straight through Italy, Slovenia and Croatia to hopefully meet Alex in Ploce.I will finish this off when I find some WiFi en route.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Days 11 to 14: The headwind struggle ending the first chapter

Video: Oktoberfest in Zürich

Another busy day off started day 11 - emails, blogging, reorganising. Luckily I had some meetings booked in: I met Alex for lunch, a friend from Imperial College Big Band. He had many a good story of my final destination having been there twice - I can't wait!

After a brief spell of shopping for a fondue kit for Dad to give Tom and Karen as a wedding present, Karen joined me for a short boat trip. It was perfect on the lake; serene, sunny and still., except for the dogfight of gulls behind the boat, which was created by kids throwing McDonald's fries off the back in an attempt to achieve a mid air refuelling opportunity for the birds!

Gull dogfight on lake Zürich
In the evening we met up with Chris, a friend of Yean's (Yean was one of the day 1 gold team). Chris and Yean cycled with a few others the other way to me, from Zürich to London. The ETH student bar was the place to be, with the cheapest beer in town and a sublime hillside view over Zürich. I was ecstatic to hear my efforts and blog has inspired their team to try and plan another trip.

Back on the bike for day 12 and I wasn't particularly keen to pedal again such was the comfort offered by Tom and Karen - many thanks to you both. Anyway, onwards was the order of the day. I hadn't expected what the centre of Switzerland was going to be like.

Zürich with Tom and Karen
For a place proud of their railways there are a lot of roads, and lorries. Heavy industry and a nuclear power station greeted me west of Zürich. The towns weren't sleek or charming and I was generally in the way of normal daily business, rather than being the order of business in Switzerland's more tourist friendly areas. Closer to Biel the cycle paths returned to the side of the roads and I had my afternoon coffee (and a generous sized Linsetorte) outside the magnificent Cathedral of the pretty, cobbled, pedestrian centre of Solothurn.

Found outside Zürich: they weren't even slightly interested in my tales!
I aimed for a campsite just before Biel that turned out to be quite rural and up a bloody great hill! There was also a swimming pool adjacent and the only signs of life sat on the patio; two older gentlemen and a middle aged woman dressed much younger than she was. Communication was slow at the start as they seemed surprised. The oldest gent who turned out to be the owner,  appeared to want my bike off the patio and then continued with some strange questions; are you alone, do you have your own tent? He encouraged me to set up camp and come back to register. I felt uneasy with the questioning and cursed myself for not checking the price. When I returned to the clubhouse type building the three had gone. I knocked on the only door with light behind it - the lady of the campsite answered rather than her husband, and she had her granddaughter in tow. The lady must have been in her 80s so the tour of the facilities was at a very slow pace, and I was filling the small talk. I registered and she asked if I needed a drink from their empty bar. I requested a bottle of beer to accompany my al fresco dinner plans however, she got out a glass and sat me down. We had a great conversation for an hour or so; she and her husband had built the campsite over 40 years ago and she lamented it was becoming difficult to manage in their old age. Their children had married partners from all corners of the world but she still echoed the reluctance to immigration held by the Swiss generally. They are particularly objected to the "Frantierés"; people that live cheaply over the border in France but come in to earn a Swiss wage. She didn't seem overtly right wing in our other conversations around other social and energy concerns so I assumed it must be the hereditary Swiss fear of being invaded - they build nuclear bunkers with new buildings, every man completes military service and has his own gun. 

Campsite up a bloody great hill!

It was out of season now but the campsite had permanent residents. I encountered Dan while I was cleaning my teeth. He had an unkempt look of someone from a financially comfortable upbringing now "slumming it". He had a bun bag slung diagonally across his chest and a towel on his shoulder. It turned out he was an orphan and his foster parents had brought him up in Switzerland but now lived in Missouri. The conversation started in German but when he found out I was English it was obvious he wanted to switch. His vocabulary had many Americanisms slung in along with a forced Jamaican lilt owed to his love of reggae and dancehall. He explained he had given up his flat and possessions to live a simple life on the campsite. Someone with no time for it, gave him a mobile home after he had borrowed a friend's campervan for a year. He had asked himself "what do I really need?". A very difficult question I started pondering myself! Among environmentalists it's a challenge, as everyone has their opinion on what's necessary; do you travel or stay put, should you eat meat, is your living space too big. Unfortunately the only way to really eliminate your environmental footprint is not to be here in the first place, which is a somewhat inconvenient conclusion. You have to have something to live for! I started writing down general categories for what fulfills people, for example work, achievement, good food, love, sport, community etc. I left it there for the moment!

I saw Dan in the morning at another teeth cleaning session. He looked at me with his disheveled out of bed look, long hair all over and said rhetorically "do you think I will scare anyone" and followed it with "oh, you too, I guess!". I thought how Dan's goals were very similar to mine - simplifying life in order to find some time to think. Back at tent someone had left a box of super berry juice by the door. I assumed the old lady. From a nervous start at this stop I ended on a true heart warmer.

But that was the best it would get on that final push to Lausanne, a supposedly easy 60 mile day. No sooner had I got to the bottom of the bloody great hill and the heavens opened! The headwind picked up a near gale and I couldn't pedal above 8mph even on the flat. Unsympathetic lorries roared past, sucking me in to the vacuum they left behind.

The final 15miles were the hardest yet. I was worried if I stayed on the road, tired as I was, I would be squashed by a Lorry. I took myself off on to the more scenic but much less direct cycle route. After five minutes a sign showed 6% upwards incline for 6km. Wind, rain and gravity against me I shouted and swore at nobody, and eventually I was defeated - I got off and pushed. Many hillcrests gave hope but the barrier between me and Lausanne kept on for ever. 

Every up though........ And what a downhill it was, at 30mph for 3 miles or so. The city is pretty hilly, they say that locals have the best bums around due to this!

Lucio introduces Lausanne: home of the best posteriors in Christendom 

My host, Lucio, and I went into town to meet my friend Ant who had popped over from Geneva. Coincidentally, Ant  revealled he had just handed in his notice and was planning to go off travelling!

The chapter ended with a communal breakfast with Lucio and his flatmates and a sunny stroll along the lake. What a great way to start the day - sat around a set breakfast table with lively conversation and food - something I seldom do on a weekday, but one of the things I live for; enjoying food with people!

After all that effort it was back to London for the weekend on the train, to see Radiohead though!

Apparently Radiohead played here once upon a time! Avenches, Switzerland
I should point out, briefly, that I am somewhat behind with blog posts. At the time of writing I am on a week off with Eliza in Italy. Please do however, look out for the next exciting installment, coming very shortly, which will cover my trip over the Alps into Italy- This will bring us back up to date before the cycling resumes next week! 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Days 6 to 10: Through my home away from home

During my third year at University I studied and completed my Masters thesis in Freiburg. I loved living in Germany; the people, the quality of life, the beer and being on a constant adventure! What an apt part of the world to re-live on a bike.

Luckily my German speaking had fallen back into place and while I was staying with Bastian and Karin we seldom reverted to English. I had planned so much into day 6; much like when I was at work, I also thought on the bike... "just imagine how much I can get done with a day off". I was overloaded, and after 4 hours of emailing and blogging there was very little time to get a look around Wiesbaden. The major event of the day was "pimping my ride" with some fancy German dynamo lights - they switch on automatically in the dark and the back light stays on when you stop! 

We had a great evening eating Tapas with Bastian and Karin's friends and doing a quick mini tour of Wiesbaden; the old casino and the hot spa fountain. Many thanks to Bastian and Karin for the fantastic stay and for putting up with my frantic bike building before dinner!

Some shots with Bastian and Karin
The ride between Wiesbaden and Landau through the wine region was one of the best days yet and my furthest distance at almost 100 miles. Gently rolling hills I found were more satisfactory than the flat - the downs allow you to take a rest and survey your surroundings. And pleasant views were in store; fields of vines, strange vine picking tractors that straddled their prey and quaint villages of colourful beamed houses oozing with floral decoration all accompanied by a scent of rotting grapes. I stopped in a pretty, but quiet town. The only place open was a butchers that was offering Warm Fleischkäse; a bit like meatloaf. Behind the butcher however I saw a small cafe - I was ushered around into a courtyard with hanging grapes that turned out to be part of a wine producers. Sitting underneath a canopy of vines I spent an idyllic half hour having my coffee and Fleischkäse whilst sampling the "Neuwein" - New Wine.

My idyllic half hour

The Courtyard 

Another view of the Courtyard

The day wasn't without its challenges though and having taken the most direct roads to munch the most miles I ended up carering towards an Autobahn being hollered at by passing drivers. The hint was the blue sign showing a singular white car at the entrance - automotive vehichles only please! While this one was my mistake I never really felt comfortable on roads in Germany. Cars hung behind and gave an unusually wide berth when passing, and many honked. I asked numerous natives what the rules were and the answer was always the same - you can cycle on any road, except on the Autobahn. There are cycle paths for bikes, on the road however, the car is king.

Landau was a surprisingly lovely University town that showed that you were now coming into southern Europe - every other place was a bar/cafe spilling onto the street with people relaxing with an late afternoon beverage. I ended up pushing on further and over the French border to a municipal campsite. It was all locked up when I arrived, however, in a lucky turn of events the major of the town, as I later found out, was hanging out behind the gates and let me in. Unlike the border with Holland you could tell when you crossed from Germany to France. The cars changed from BMWs to renaults, the buildings and streets left slightly more to the effects of nature. I looked forward to breakfasting on patisserie!

View from my tent at the French municipal camping site

Day 8 was to my old home away from home. After scoffing my awaited croissant and chocolate eclair I passed back over the Rhein on a ferry to be greeted back on the roads of Germany with lines of training road cyclists. Another day of tossing between main roads and confusing cycle routes ensued but eventually I found myself coming into the north of Freiburg. I wasn't familiar with this side of town and started an uneasy feeling of now being an outsider. Unfortunately I had no-one to meet. I had tried contacting one of my old lab colleagues to no avail. Still though - my favourite brew, Feierling helles, tasted just as good, and even better with the achievement of the day. The hostel had all the signs of a great place, lots of people, standard smells of josticks and chick peas however, the staff put me on edge. I was made to apologise for not booking a room in advance on a busy Saturday which was followed by "sorry doesn't get you a room". I don't know if it was a joke but that comment followed by warnings to lock up my stuff and no bedsheets only served to reduce my comfort levels. I had hoped to meet people in the hostel to go out with but had no luck and I feasted alone on wurst and sauerkraut at Martinsbrau and went on a late night cycle tour of my old haunts. I love eating but, without people to talk to and break up the mouthfuls it is not as enjoyable. When I was living here in a single apartment most nights I would invite others over to share dinner or I would introduce groups regularly to traditional british curry! There was.going to be a lot of eating alone on this trip.
Three fine brews
There is a local saying in Freiburg that if you fall into the little streams that flow through the streets, called "Bächle", you should marry a local. I pushed Scott in but so far he hasn't found a ladybike - I guess we will have to go back!
Freiburg and Scott falling into the Bächle
The next morning was the big climb into the black forest 5,500ft in total. Sitting in a low gear it was slow but fine with Sunday cyclists around to spur me on. Then came the 14% incline sign first for 2km and then a further 7km. I have never sweat so much!

Ups and downs

After the second climb we reached the top, feldberg passhöhe at 1233m. Whilst having kaffee und kuchen in a mountain hut I discussed the trip and options for camping. They warned me it could snow at any time and the old gentlemen pointed to a stuffed animal with big teeth on the wall and, with a grin, said "the Fuchs are out" and I assume, hungry!
A mission control (dad) weather forecast suggested the weather would hold for camping. After visiting the Rothaus brewery, which is the official state producer, I came back to the mountain restaurant next to the campsite for possibly the largest Schnitzel I have ever consumed. It was a very local place though and one man stared at me all evening. He seemed like the big chief around - he had a large stomach, moustache, voice and presence. His wife was almost mute in his shadow. I had planned to stay warm inside and write in my journal but I couldn't wait to get out.

Video: These cows are part of the Baden Württemburg Gamelan Music Society - seen on the way out of Feldberg

Beer making equipment at Rothaus

 Day 10 and what was supposed to be an easy downhill into Zürich. The downhills were steeper than the previous uphills and although the adrenaline wanted me to release the brakes I was worried, from reading Mark Beaumont's book about cycling.the world, that putting too much lateral stress on the spokes.with the extra weight through the winding downhill bends could leave me rebuilding wheels!

Another frustrating cycle path went off perpendicular to the main road. I felt awful from the previous day's exertions and couldn't take any additional distance. With lorries roaring past I hugged the edge of the road where the surface tarmac dropped sharply around 10cm to the grass. I took a quick drink to try and wake myself up and in putting it back I veered off to the right and onto the grass. A desperate attempt to turn back left allowed my wheels to scrape against the tarmac kerb and I was over, in the middle of the road. Worried that a vehicle was behind I dived to the side with the bag that fell off. It was fine - cars hundreds of metres back hardly noticed. A wake up call.

My old friend the Rhein - the border with Switzerland
Into Zürich was tough navigation. I passed the airport where I sat and watched for a bit joking at a caption for a potential picture "there is another way of course". My friend Bojan put it best when explaining in an email to a friend in Sarajevo "nick doesn't like planes so he's decided to cycle to Istanbul!"

Luckily I got lost in the centre as asking the way made me realise that my mapping software had an evil plan to send me off to another Bergstrasse in a neighbouring town.
My cousin Tom was recently married to Karen in Nicaragua, where she is from and where they met. We had unfortunately missed their wedding and I had only met Karen once before. I had only seen Tom once in the last 4 or so years but arriving with them after a tough day felt very welcoming and comfortable - a good, family feeling.

This short chapter was closed with a fondue feast and a trip to the Zürich Oktoberfest in the giant hall of the main station (see video on next post....).