Day 1 - Split to Pakoštane, Croatia - 61 miles & 968 metres climbed
So it felt like a pending examination. I had some butterflies about the upcoming distance, the hilly terrain, narrow roads (and impatient traffic), sweltering heat, weight on the bike (with luggage) and a slightly dodgy right knee. I’ve been here before but had some anxiety about the journey home before I started.
This had a lot to do with a 6 mile 400 metre climb shortly after leaving the apartment on a narrow mountain pass and wondering whether Croatia losing the World Cup Final had a bearing on how they’d drive the next morning. After a wonderful time on holiday in Croatia (and too briefly in Herzegovina) I left Anna and Sophie (wife and youngest daughter) in Kaštel Lukšić to the west of Split to pedal home. The route is simply heading north. Up through Croatia and then into Slovenia. After this there is the small matter of the Austrian Alps to overcome before the relative flat of Southern Germany before I push onto France. I think it may be around 1,500 miles before I walk through my home front door.
Having toured before, whether through Europe or the USA, you think you know what to carry, how far to ride each day and how your body will react. However the first hill is the acid test: I have a relatively lightweight bike with 28mm tyres on 32 spoke rims but the kind of weight on the back wheel that beggars belief. I know everything will get lighter as the days go by including me! As I’m carrying all the camping clobber I added a 33 tooth gear to the rear cassette - I hope I can go low enough.
I like to push on, frankly travelling is always better than arriving. When cycling in new countries then predicting the impact of the terrain, heat and other aspects of your environment such as traffic, campsites, availability of water is the unknown. It’s the risk and yet the exciting part. I’ll be self contained and plan to camp as many nights I can. I’ve pored across maps and accommodation websites to plan it all but I know I’ll deviate as I get underway and new/other opportunities or challenges present themselves. The route will be my own and whilst I plan to camp then I won’t be wild/stealth camping. I need a daily shower!
So back to that hill. It was terrible! Grinding up at 4 mph whilst large trucks nearly stall as they arrive at your rear wheel on a 9% gradient. Trying to keep the bike moving in a straight line at this speed is a challenge I’ve faced many times. However despite leaving at just after 7 am I hit the hill in 27°C. At the top a mild euphoria gripped me knowing that it was over. There I immediately discovered two young German lads en route from Bonn to Greece. If you look at the first one’s rear pannier the red box: it contains McVitie’s Digestive biscuits. I’m also carrying a packet. Cycle tourers of the world unite!
They’d only been on the road for 5 kilometres that day and were wild camping. It’s illegal in Croatia but I suspect the Police were otherwise engaged last night.
So I still climbed after this first epic mountain but not as steeply. On my eventual descent into Šibenik I came across a very bedraggled Korean who’d been pushing his bike after despairing at the climbing. I had some the glad tidings to pass on to him: it was frankly a very long descent to the coast after he topped out on his current climb (and then completely flat to Split). He’d started in Venice and was headed to Istanbul. Respect, but I worry....
I was too early for lunch when I arrived in Šibenek and asked for oatmeal at a cafe. It was mainly yoghurt with fruit. Delicious but not appropriate fuel. From here it was along the Adriatic coast until Pakoštane. I have to admit that the heat did frazzle me and even after drinking two litres of water then I had no urge to visit the loo. (I was on the brink of getting severe cramp and so I just kept drinking at the tent).
Pakoštane is a small resort with some cafes, a beach and several campsites just along the shoreline. For 200 kuna I got a pitch after being rejected at two other sites. I was expecting this price and it is about three times what I expect to pay in Austria, Germany and France. For this I got a stony pitch with lots of bits off the trees on the ground. I obviously didn’t need electricity and begrudgingly my landlady waived the 1€ for the intermittent wi-fi.
Pakoštane is a small resort with some cafes, a beach and several campsites just along the shoreline. For 200 kuna (c$30) I got a pitch after being rejected at two other sites. I was expecting this price and it is about three times what I expect to pay in Austria, Germany and France. For this I got a stony pitch with lots of bits off the trees on the ground. I obviously didn’t need electricity and begrudgingly my landlady waived the 1€ for the intermittent wi-fi.
The tourists are mainly Germans. Add a few Dutch, Italians, Poles and Slovenians and you have a very strange mix for a Brit to be consorting with! English was not as widely spoken as further down the coast and my German extends to “zwei beire bitten”. Yes, I accept my ignorance but frankly who doesn’t speak English nowadays if they’re in the tourist business abroad?
I thought I'd cool off and let my legs enjoy some cold water. I went in the sea at the bottom of the site. I really cannot remember how long ago it was that I actually last went in the sea. I discovered it was salty. So my advice is keep it away from your mouth and eyes (no please don’t thank me).
What unfolded next was literally biblical but I’ll save that for Day 2.
Day 2 - Pakoštane to Karlobag, Croatia - 75 miles & 915 metres climbed
I tried to confirm the BBC weather report (that there would be thunder and lightning that night and the following morning) with a local. The site manager said that it might rain the following afternoon. What did she know as at about 10.30pm an electric storm started (and lasted 90 minutes).
Yes, we’ve all seen or experienced thunder and lightning but this was new to me. Torrential rain, lightning such that I could have read a book and thunder worse than being in the mosh pit of a Motörhead concert. My little tent nearly took flight as I was buffeted. Fortunately I’d try to ‘seal down the hatches’ before attempting sleep before the storm. And I may have got damp but not wet, as moisture abounded. On one side the caravan had his awning trashed and on the other the camper moved furniture, a tent and two children (into a car he went to fetch from off the site) during the storm. This was irritating given that I was beside this operation in a little tent. Given the weather then the noises and shouts were similar to how I imagine it was on The Titanic.
The next morning I awoke to noisy Germans slamming car doors at 6.30am (don’t they teach this lot any manners at school?) and I eventually got up to survey my property. The main issue was mud and tree debris on the tent along with most things being sodden that were outward facing. So I started cleaning by mainly hosing stuff down away from the pitch. I needed a surface that was not earth and stones.
At just before 10am I hit the road. I saw a Post Office and much to my amazement remembered that I had postcards to post (this task had been delegated by the departing Anna a day or two before). Now the postal service and its outlets appear to be a social club rather than business and I queued patiently whilst various souls unloaded their tribulations to the post mistress. None of these issues had anything to do with posting anything. Eventually fearing that my continued presence would require shaving kit I just abandoned the task and got pedalling. (Fear not I did eventually find a P.O. and did the deed later).
The first task was to head east to find another coastline to ride up. This took me through an agricultural landscape with fruit trees and some vines. Also to be found, in the shade, in these small villagers were very elderly men sat wearing singlets ‘shooting the breeze’. If I had been closer and spoken Croatian then I am sure I’d have heard them saying that France’s Anton Griezmann’s gazelle like leap over an outstretched limb (that he never touched) and his subsequent tumble like a sack of potatoes falling from the moon had brought into question whether his mother was married at the time of his birth. (This gymnastic misdemeanour took place in the first half of the World Cup Final and the free kick led to France’s opening goal).
I cycled through one shelled town that had a monument to fallen Croatians during the 1993 war. Islam Grčki was original the final frontier of the old Ottoman Empire and more recently came to be a Serbian enclave. (There was no religious influence that I could see). Here the Serbs and Croats fought and several buildings still remained in ruins and abandoned. It was not typical of this part of the country.
(This is a monument to Croats who died in the local conflict in this area)
I’m still fascinated that Croatians might have been threatened (or worse) by Serbia but would you shell and shoot long term local neighbours? I imagine prior to this bloody conflict some men worked together, their kids went to the same schools and the women shopped at the same shops...
I stopped at Posedarje for a pizza and coke after declining the opportunity to make a bungee jump. From here I pedalled up the coast road. It was hot yet the road was quite kind, albeit up and down. I cycled past resorts and campsites but in time the coast line became jagged and rocky. The road builders struggled to build anything passable on the low coast line to construct a road. This meant the road went up and then down quite severely. I was a hot and weary traveller at this time.
I’d research a campsite in Lukovo Sugarje but when I got to this hamlet I could find nothing. Even worse was descending on the road high above the coast to find the only way of getting back was by pushing. It was getting late but apart from wild camping then I had no options other than to push on to the next big town 13 miles further north. Light was falling and even the traffic and motorcycles seemed to stop.
I got to Karlobag at after 7 pm and it was quite a lively place. This was mainly due to it being a ferry port to one of the islands. I was bounced at one hotel and so I asked for advice of where I might stay? I was directed to the still open Tourist Information who suggested an apartment. Even better was that the young staff rang up the apartment and agreed the price (€50 or 370 Kuna). This overcame any language challenges.
So I met the landlady by the petrol station and her English was as awful as my German. However, her daughter was at hand with fabulous English (at this point I remembered my Favourite Youngest Daughter’s advice to speak English normally rather than enunciate every syllable slowly in such a way that I might use when conversing with a simpleton). Actually she worked in Austria, in a bank, but was back in Croatia with her husband and children for a holiday. Best of all was her delivery of an ice cold litre of water.
Anyway I showered and then descended into town for some dinner. A happy end to the day.
Day 3 & 4 - Karlobag to Crikvenica, Croatia (61 miles and 1069m) then Postanja, Slovenia (64 miles & 1697 metres climbed)
It was such a beautiful day as I saddled up and pedalled up and out of Karlobag. First I needed to buy some fruit and specifically bananas. They're great for energy. At the start of each day I think through what I’d like to eat and a thing I never expected to ever say would have been that I would have been delighted to find a Subway. Just to get a simple sandwich and some crisps (chips) would have been fine.
(Anna’s perfect ‘campsite' and my accommodation for the night)
The ride along the coast had yesterday been up and down but the traffic was light and some of the views dramatic. The views continued to delight but the climb was all up and the type and volume of traffic changed; became fast and furious. Small ferry stations (that connected the islands) were shipping cars, camper vans, trucks and motor cycles across. I think that because the vehicles had to wait for boarding, wait to cross the water and then wait to disembark it came to resemble the start of a Formula 1 GP when they eventually got off. On the single track road cars jockeyed for position to overtake and motorcycles just did it! I was caught up in all this.
I lost count of the number of stretches where a car would pop out behind a camper van/ bus/ truck and overtake. The only problem was that I was only 50 yards away on the other side of the narrow road. As they squeezed by at Mach 4 I would either indicate that they were mental by pointing at my temple or use another well known English hand gesture that suggested that they liked sex (by themselves). Senj came and I found a restaurant down a side alley out of the glaring sun and had a glorious lunch.
Back on the road then as we got further north and nearer to my campsite at Crikvenica trucks became very common. These trucks were mainly articulated (semi - trailer), which made space tight. I’ve said before that professional drivers do have brains and courtesy ordinarily and whilst they may kill you it won’t be through negligence! On one stretch the traffic halted behind a recovery vehicle and behind that was a crumpled 3 Series BMW and some other hot hatch. All the result of this race track mentality.
You may wonder about my communication with home? I usually speak with Anna everyday and then there is WhatsApp and text. However, I am also tagged and via ‘Find Friends’ (on our iPhones) Anna always know where I am.
By 5pm I was torched by the heat and pulled into a targeted campsite. The tent went up but I needed a hammer/mallet to put the tent pegs into the ground. I found a bunch of other Croatian campers chatting and started with the winning line of “Do you speak English?” A chap there couldn’t have been more helpful and he found another ‘resident’ with the said device. I have to say that the Croats were always kind, helpful and courteous, if not driving, and I never felt in danger during my time there. Also whilst I never tested this then I didn’t think that any theft or crime was likely.
So down to the sea to bathe my legs - the sea wasn’t very cold! Later I had some spaghetti and hit the sack.
Busy campsites on the coast possess children. (Anyone would think that they deserved a holiday by the seaside!) They make a noise running around and shouting late into the night whilst mother and father take that next glass of wine safe in the knowledge the campsite is sealed. This was noisy for a tired man trying attempting to fall asleep. Added to that was a distant cafe bar with a singer who murdered most covers of 1980’s American chart classics. Stevie Wonder would have sought litigation but in fairness Donna Summer would have maybe been less upset.
I’ve stopped mentioning other tourers. They are simply far too many to mention. They are mostly heading south to Greece. With this heat have you lost your minds? Personally I would like to visit Albania but not in July or August. Olly and Aaron, from Cornwall, two millennials got to the site at around 7.30pm. That is pushing it on a campsite on this busy coast. They had tales of a hellish ride from Slovenia to Croatia - not what I wanted to hear as I was doing the reverse trip the next day. They had wild camped in Slovenia for three nights, I think a shower and some restaurant food held a great attraction to them.
The next day saw me follow Google Maps and my Garmin route to Rijeka. It was convoluted and I’d done 400 metres by the time I cycled through this unattractive port. For the sake of completeness I thought I’d cycle through the pedestrian precinct with its shops and restaurants.
Here I discovered ‘Mecca’: my first McDonalds for hundreds of miles! I locked up the bike and took a photo.
To the right you can see an old boy. As I’m locking the bike up to facilitate a quick entry to the temple he kicks off in Croatian about something. Two younger guys nearby looked similarly nonplussed. They translated that by leaving my bike there I was undermining his access and egress. Pillock. He wasn’t even a customer but just taking a breather on a free seat! Being the nice guy I am (occasionally) I moved the bike and went in search of a McChicken meal.
On my return he’d left - no doubt his minders in white coats armed with a syringe had tracked him down and had shoved him into the back of a van sedated. However, no seats remained and so Ian gave up his seat and I got talking my him and Marko.
Ian’s parents spent six years in Australia and hence the name. Both chaps worked in a nursery (tomato plants not children) and they’d got up at 3.30 am to start a 230 km bike ride. Beyond epic. I had an interesting chat with Marko about why Croatia hadn’t joined the Euro. He wasn’t keen as he observed then all it did was put up prices. Eventually the boys had to go and so did I.
I then had to ride up 500 metres to a town call Viškovo. In the heat and with unspeakable gradients I did quite a lot of pushing. This hill was unreal and I’ve cycled enough to have some perspective. After this climb I still had another 100 metres upwards before the Slovenia border presented itself.
Suddenly it seemed that the parched Croatia I had known was becoming greener and more lush.
As always there were war memorials. This one is to the soldiers who lost their lives fighting ‘fascists’.
A few drops of rain fell as I was struggling up the last bit and just as I’m looking forward to a great photo opportunity at the border torrential rain fell (with thunder). Why always me? All I could do was take cover as rain bounced back up off the road for 30 minutes. However, no photos.
Despite ending with hail the sun quickly came out and I descended into my second country of the trip, Slovenia. The main thing I know about the country, apart from previously being part of Yugoslavia, was that the long suffering Melania Trump is a native. She certainly knows how to lay on a welcome!
Hills to climb were splendid easy gradients and all the buildings had an Austrian appearance with lots of small holdings. Industry also was evident with this chipboard mill. (Forgive me but chipboard and me go a long way back and seeing a plant is still a pleasure).
What a difference, all green and alpine scenery. I pushed onto a previously researched campsite within a delightful setting. I got there at well after 7.30 pm, it looked like that laundry would have to wait!
Day 5 - Postojna to Kranj, Slovenia - 55 miles & 391 metres climbed
So let’s call her ‘Heidi’. She owned the campsite and didn’t take plastic for payment. No problem: she’d drive me to an ATM in the morning and I could get some Euros. The short drive proved illuminating for her conversation. She was a 50 something ‘blousy’ blond half German and half Austrian. She’d come to Slovenia 32 years ago on the arm of her new Slovenian husband. Her language skills, including swearing proficiently in English were learned in various places including Estonia.
Her family disapproved of her marrying beneath the family status and cut her adrift. It seemed she’d found her way subsequently. The drive included me getting some Euros but she was mainly en route to get bread for the campers’ breakfasts. We left at 7.50am prompt. Despite being her home then she despaired at many aspects of life in Slovenia. The Government were ineffective, the police let most things go unless they really had to intervene, the mentality of the people was always of living in an ‘occupied country’ and following other’s rules.
On this point she cited that Slovenia’s recent history was mostly as a colony of the Austrian Hungarian Empire who controlled it for all the 19th Century followed by a merge with Serbia and Croatia after WW1. Then came Tito and Yugoslavia after WW2. Now it was the European Union. On this point she said that the Euro had, in effect, raised prices but wages had remained the same. She said how could a qualified, say, teacher live on €1,000/ month? The Eurozone crisis always hurts the weakest and the smaller countries were badly affected. With only a population of 2 million then how could Slovenia have a meaningful influence in Brussels?
I have to say that that prices I experienced for food, accommodation etc were similar to the more prosperous West. Also it seemed ironic that this integration opened the door for German business. Lidl, OBI and other high street retailers were enjoying new markets where the € made trading easy.
In fact she said the main benefit of the EU was movement around Europe. However with some Schengen nations carrying out checks at some borders then that wasn’t as welcoming. So ‘Heidi’ had previously run a riding school and claimed that business fell off as the middle classes couldn’t now afford the lessons. She’d just opened a campsite and excellent bar and restaurant: clearly foreign tourists had less financial constraints and she’d identified a lack of competition for miles.
Maybe her story isn’t the complete truth but it is one of the pleasures of a trip that you get into these conversations. Richard from Uppsala (near Sweden) was cycling home. A Swede, who installed suspended ceilings for a living, appeared by his hippy look and lightweight touring approach to like to wander. He’d spent several months in the Far East including Thailand. He was now heading directly North via Germany and Poland.
I took an idyllic spot to camp but it was near a railway line that kept up a steady flow of goods trains during the night. After paying I departed to the nearest town to try and get the chain on the bike replaced. I load too much weight onto the drive train (luggage, me and bewilderingly steep climbs) and the chain had stretched so badly that finding a gear was a bit like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. I could not contemplate further climbing with this state of affairs. I found a shop in Postojna and wheeled the bike, with luggage, into the shop. I felt that doing this would indicate ‘I was on the road’ and it needed doing now. (In York bike remedials needed booking in some time in advance: I had places to go)
This was completed and I also said goodbye to the couple of tourers from the Basque Country that I’d been talking to. She had a very guttural accent and I didn’t understand what she said when I asked where she came from. Eventually I got it. “Oh Spain” I said. A look of thunder came across her face “No, Basque”. Point taken.
The countryside was rolling and the agriculture seemed to be small holdings. I was getting used to seeing coniferous trees again. The buildings all looked Alpine and flower boxes spilled over with colourful blooms. I was still staggered that in such a short distance from Croatia the terrain, architecture and climate could change so quickly.
So I cycled into Ljubljana and from a long way out a conurbation became evident. A quarter of the country’s population lives in or around the capital. The city has a communist look, unlike the rural areas, with many square and drab concrete tower blocks for residential accommodation. Graffiti is dreadful and evident all around the city. The reintroduction of beheading for such activity will stop it, I believe - something should be done.
On the way into the centre and all around the country the State has invested in cycle paths. It is at a high level and to complement this there are rental bikes placed handily at 'stations' around the city. I'm very ambivalent, as a tourer, about cycle paths. They undoubtedly encourage urban cycling and improve the fitness of those who use them. They can reduce motor congestion and pollution. However they are often indirect, very 'stop start', badly maintained and impose a route on you that you may not want to take!
The very centre is busy and attractive with all the major European retail chains there. Tourism abounds and I heard many North American voices on the streets. Low cost airlines ferry Brits here and I had previously heard complimentary things. I suspect I never got to the heart of its charm but I’d maintain it would take some extraction. After a look around I pedalled on to the North. The plan was to find a campsite before ascension into the Alps the next day.
Good old Google gave me a site near Kranj. It was raining lightly and quite dingy so I decide to pursue. Located beside a river I checked in at Reception. The young guy took my €12 and explained where I could pitch my tent: basically anywhere.
So I cycled down and came across music. A man was bashing out quite delightful melodies on an accordion. I stopped to enjoy that for a moment and made a mental note to get as faraway from him as possible! This meant another field lower down.
I pitched the tent and then went in search of a hammer to bash in the tent pegs. As usual a kindly Dutch couple helped. On returning the tool the man said “Do you realise that there is nudism in this field?” Taken aback and being garrulous I rambled on about the time when I was 12 years old I had canoed down the Ardeche river in France. This involved paddling through a nudist colony. A potentially educational experience for a child, you’’ll agree. However, it had been disappointing because the type of people who were naked. They would have been best hiding their excess flesh and wrinkles.
As I’m concluding this anecdote it came to me (I’m slow but reliable, I know) that this man and his wife were looking at me stony faced. Quick as a Croatian post mistress I worked out that these two were ordinarily naked in the field during the day and possibly fell into my group of unlovelies.
Being evening, and chilly, there wasn’t much nudity but I did espy a woman washing up naked. I shall raise this idea with my wife when I next see her. The next morning an awful lot of female flesh waddled toward the recycling bins. I was worried she might get whiplash injuries.
As for the accordion man well he and his cohort made a dreadful row until midnight. The accordion was drowned out by men who sang with passion and the tunelessness of a football crowd. It was dreadful and inconsiderate.
Day 6 - Kranj, Slovenia to St Georgen im Gailtal, Austria - 69 miles & 1142 metres
The start was flat! I trundled through these small holdings watching as the villagers woke up, drove to work or sat in cafes sipping coffee. I cycled along the wide and beautiful Sava river. They could take their time, it was Saturday.
Soon I was past Kranj ruefully noting that all my Alpine routes were now side by side with flatter and more direct motorways. I started to climb and passed several cycle tourers freewheeling downhill on the other side of the road. Mine was a steady climb with occasional steep sections. All this was easier with some gears that now worked.
The temperature fell as I got higher and whilst never chilly it was the first time since I set off that I wasn’t being fried.
Up in the valley were some larger towns and Jesenice was one. A grubby and industrial town that had a large ironworks. This meant that movement of materials was by rail. Climbing past this was now about tourism and a dedicated cycle path that led up to the ski resort of Kranjska Gora. The views were now terrific with crystal clear rivers and steep backdrops of rock. I passed this monument that I think tells me about the murder of local partisans by the Slovenian fascists in WW2. An impactful tribute I think.
In my discussions with fellow tourer, Olly, in Croatia he talked of 18% climbs out of Austria into Slovenia and with a leaden heart I turned up the hill that advised such challenges lay ahead over 3 km. I bottled it after 100 metres and turned around. Plan B? Well there was another crossing further along that may be less steep. The only problem was that all signage indicated Italy was ahead but not Austria? However, I pushed on.
Lo and behold the Italian border came into view. Borders in the EU are sad derelict affairs with buildings that have literally fallen into disrepair. It would be better to remove these border buildings rather than let them rot. Rolling into Italy the road fell sharply.
I just thought that I would have to ascend again and like all cycle tourers dreaded descents as much as ascents because of the future implications. Eventually I fell into Tarvisio where I saw from on high a football match. I suspected this was a pre-season friendly because of all the substitutes, no crowd, black players and a proper referee. I climbed a little, went through another derelict border crossing and still kept falling. I was in Austria. Rejoice!
I planned to stop as soon as I could and identified a campsite. I found a supermarket and bought some ingredients to make an omelette including butter. It was hot and it would melt but I would be at the campsite shortly, wouldn’t I?
Despite the short distance I had the bill ‘presented’ for the easy border crossing and ground about 2 miles uphill at 8% whilst the butter in my rucksack was getting warmer. Eventually I pulled into a campsite full of the Dutch and handed across my €15.
I think there is a good piece of university research in the offing as to why the Dutch like sitting on deck chairs in foreign fields during July and August. (One forty something Dutch neighbour on the site later told me they came here every year. They’d done that for 23 years. How much of the world have they missed?) I can confirm that I did seek and obtain a 'Dutch' hammer no loud music or nudity were involved in the transaction.
It started to rain and so my cooking was a rushed affair. I decided to hang my washing in the public washroom although I was doubtful they would dry at all (they didn’t).
I took cover at the bar with a beer and a map to plot one of the biggest cycling cock ups of my recent adventures. I will never forget it.
Days 7 & 8 - St Georgen im Gailtal to Mauterndorf - 56 miles & 1824 metres climbed. Plus ‘Rest Day'
Bernadette had probably had a long day but the decision to offer a room at €54 had paid off and a booking had been made. Frankly, this was a slow summer in Mauterndorf. Hotels here made their money during the skiing season from November to April. They were also trying to cover overheads by filing rooms. But where was he? The internet booking said he’d arrive between 7 and 8pm and as he’d asked separately about storing a bicycle he was leaving it late given the darkness.
At about 8.20pm she rang his mobile but no reply. She had wanted to close Reception early. It was Sunday for heaven’s sake!
In fact her guest was, at this point careering down a 15% gradient hill in heavy drizzle minding to be careful on the part of the road surface that was being scarified and was grooved as road upgrades continued. His main worry was the failing light and whether when he got off this wretched mountain there would be more climbing before the hotel?
The day had started in rain and I’d thought about staying on at this convenient site an extra day as one of my ‘rest days’. However, every piece of clothing was wet or damp and so was the tent. Maybe it would dry during the day but cycling on a Sunday usually guarantees lighter traffic to contend with and certainly a lot fewer, if any, trucks.
So packing my bags out of the rain, by the washroom, was completed and I was off and up! As I left the campsite I was overtaken by a Fraulein on a bike going up hill. Hers was an electric bike. These are commonplace in Austria (and Germany). As soon as the price really becomes affordable in the UK we’ll be as keen as these Teutons. They sell a million in Europe every year. Using Sat Nav and my map I embarked on a route that looked steep. In fact I had to push the bike up hill for about a mile.
This was a shock and maybe indicated what was to come. I rationalised that I was on an important road as traffic seemed to flow past me - always an indication that the route is passable. At one point a VW van passed and then came back down the road and the driver shouted something to me in German. I grunted back. I think he was alluding to the impossibility of pedalling a laden touring bike to the top. Either this or “cheer up mate, there’s a defibrillator at the summit”.
Pushing - ignominious? Well yes, on some tours you may never have to contemplate this but on occasion there is such a long stretch (over 50 metres) that it is as quick as cycling. You look for an easing of the gradient so that you can get back on because when the slope starts to become passable then you’ll go a lot faster astride. I must admit that on an day’s ride of 7+ hours I consider how much energy I will use up by manfully pumping away up an impossible hill. Is it worth this loss? Also I’m increasingly minded that the load this puts on the bike’s chain and gears is intolerable and ultimately the bike will mechanically start to fail. Pushing is a seldom event but it’s an option.
I did reach the summit and plummeted down and eventually came to Spittal where I ate a hot meal. I had a 32 mile climb left. It looked a persistent drag uphill but achievable; then would come a rest day. After having done 440 miles, mainly uphill, for 7 consecutive days the boy was due a day off.
Despite my struggles the scenery was amazing. The backdrop of the mountains, sun, clear air and wooded vistas are peerless. The forests look so vibrant and imperious. This is why the folk were out and about. Motorcycles are popular and I found myself sharing the road with many brutally powerful machines. Funnily enough (!) I didn’t see another cycle tourer all day.
After Spittal I cycled up hill following an old ‘A’ road that had now been replaced by a motorway that was constructed above it. There were a few settlements and when you did pass pedestrians then in the best Austrian tradition you were ignored with a lofty disdain. The fact that you were visiting their country and spending money in their economy seemed to be an inconvenience. The slope was reasonable and progress was made, albeit, slowly.
Eventually I came to Rennweg (1143m) and I was now within about 10 miles of the finish. Surely after all that climbing then I was due a pleasing descent for a beer? A sign said Katschberg 6km and I knew this was not good news. The Katschberg is a mountain peak (1641m) with a ski resort on it. My route research had notindicated that it was a ‘mother’ of an ascent at 15%. I was tired now and started to push the bike hoping that around the corner the gradient would decrease and I could get back on. At this point of pushing a man came down the hill on a unicycle. This poor picture is a result of me slowly finding my iPhone to capture this lunatic. He must be on his holiday from a circus but I did admire his panache.
Anyway the majority of these 6km I simply pushed. The bike was in effect about at my shoulder level on this gradient. I pushed and I pushed. (The next day I was crunching paracetamol to try and ease a back that refused to bend). Despite my optimism that I was nearing the summit I knew that there was some way to go as cars came past smelling of burning brake dust - always a tell tale sign of steep roads where the motorists had to sit on the brakes to cope with the twists and turns downwards.
Frankly, this is an extreme illustration of how these tours can go despite all the research and preparation. You just need the fitness and a determination to see the job through. However, I don’t expect much sympathy for having got into this spot of bother.
Anyway, Bernadette was glad that I got there at 8.45pm and efficiently administered the booking and then no doubt went home to put up her feet. I was really pleased with the room and came back down and immediately booked two nights before she left. I never book two nights immediately anywhere even though I plan to stay longer in the town. I like to know it ‘works’ before committing. I showered and went in search of food.
The next morning included a leisurely all inclusive breakfast. I was seriously hobbled after the pushing and couldn’t bend to tie a shoe lace! I dried the tent on the balcony: this shocked my neighbour who was also out on the balcony having a cigarette. (The shock was me in my ‘budgie smugglers’. How was I to know the balconies adjoined?) I did all my washing, re-arranged the jumbled panniers and then strode into town.
Bernadette had given me a free pass to the castle and to a ski lift up the mountain. Frankly, I’d had enough of mountains but was interested in the castle.
This served as a toll gate for travellers/merchants moving goods between the North and South. Apparently wine was the major item. Inevitably the toll went to the church. The Archbishop in Salzburg had his man installed managing and counting it all. The first construction was in 1250. The exhibits were all about the occupants and their lives. There was an audio guide that told you everything in great detail. I liked the fact that they had a clothes box for the kids to try on outfits and so provided something for everyone.
It fell into disrepair at various times during it’s life and early in the 20th Century a doctor bought it. The man in question served with Herman Goering's father during WW1. Anyway it became a bolt hole for Goering during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The doctor’s wife left it to him when she died in 1939. However, he never signed the land registry papers to confirm his ownership: he was too busy with genocide and the like. He never came back as he self administered poison in 1946 at the time of the Nuremberg trials.
After this I wondered around this beautiful town. It really is chocolate box pretty and tried to replace some lost waistline.
Typical in winter resorts during summer is the proliferation of Mountain Bikes. These zip up and down the slopes on trails. You’ll note that these bikes are electric to help those climbs. Great idea.
Then it was back to the hotel as I needed to clean the bike and try and get all the Croatian mud off the tent.
Later I fancied some authentic Austrian fayre:
Me: I’ll have the soup. What is it?
Ditzy Fraulein: Beef with noodles
Me: Thank you, I’ll have the soup and Wiener Schnitzel
DF: With rice or fries?
DF: The soup is only noodle and no beef
Me: No problem, that will be fine
DF: Here you go!
Me: Ah, that’s the Wiener Schnitzel. Where’s the soup?
DF: Ah, you’re right. Sorry I will take this back.
Me: No, don’t worry I’ll have it and you can bring the soup later.
DF: No, it is wrong. You must have the soup first.
DF: Here’s the soup!
(She was right this time but it was tepid. I ate it, life’s short)
DF: And here is the Schnitzel
(Again she was right but no rice just fries)
You can see my challenges over this last week.
Day 9 - Mauterndorf to Salzburg, Austria - 68 miles & 939 metres climbed
So how resuscitating was one day off the bike after 440 miles in 7 days? Well, I’m not sure that I was a ‘new man’ after that brief sojourn but it was nice to wake up and think I had a day off (with a stiff back). You also feel a little restored by having clean clothes and other things sorted. However, it was time to throw my leg across that top tube again and go.
Bernadette shook my hand vigorously, in a bloke sort of way, as I paid and departed. (The two boiled eggs at breakfast are to remain a secret in case others request them).
So now for the next mountain up to a ski resort. This was another 600 metre climb. Fortunately the air was chilly and refreshing due to the altitude and I ground up on the ‘granny gears’. As trucks were passing I knew the climb was not too steep. They don’t ‘do' steep climbs. Eventually passing these girls with their bells I reached Obertauern.
It is a large resort but quite empty at this time of year. Nearly a ‘tumbleweed scenario’ with loads of construction taking place in the off season. I felt that I should celebrate by having my photo taken. However the euphoria may have been misplaced as there was plenty of climbing on other days to come.
(The stocking is something I wear after a couple of Deep Vein Thromboses).
Meanwhile just over the summit Nicholas came into view. He’d left France with a pal (up the hill apparently) and was en route to Istanbul. He had no phone with Apps or a map. I’d also guess that he wild camped most of the way here. He’ll get there but it could be a journey of hell. I brought out my awful school boy French, which in fairness wasn’t much worse than his English and we pored over my map. He’d had enough of mountains! Frankly he may have to dig deep. I’d also tried to warn another chap from Dresden about the Katschberg. His grinning face suggested that I was a fuss pot.
So I fell downwards into the heat. It was soon in the mid 30°C’s again. Burning and impossible to remain stationary in. My water consumption is immense. I always try and have a couple of litres on the bike. However when I stop an ice cold Coke is up there with a glass of Chateau Margaux or a pint of Timothy Taylor’s beer in terms of pleasure.
Funnily enough the number of cycle tourers exploded into double figures for the first time. All heading upwards whilst I mainly freewheeled down the long hill. Interestingly outside of Werfen, beside the road, in high viz jackets were two university undergraduates interviewing cycle tourers. They wanted information to go back to the town with. Werfen recognised this tourism cycled past their town and wanted a piece of it.
Lunch was at a roadside shed manned by some Bosnians. The curried bratwurst in a flatbread wrap with raw onions was sensational. I sent a photo to my Favourite Eldest in London for her authoritative assessment. She had spent a year in Berlin. Dismissive might be an understatement of her feedback! How these sophisticates move on...
The scenery around me awesome.
Toward the valley floor that led to Salzburg the traffic picked up. Truly sharing the road again was not a pleasure. I stopped to do some research on my phone and found a campsite just east of the city.
I pitched my tent in a splendid field away from the caravans, motor homes and motorcycles. I was next to two French male millennials on their way to Klagenfurt (in Austria) for a wedding (in a Peugeot). I quizzed them on Emmanuel Macron and what they thought? One, being a socialist, didn’t like him and worried about his social and welfare changes. The other, more to the Centre, suggested that it was too soon to say. I noted how fabulous their English was and that they had the good manners when debating my questions between themselves to do it in English for my inclusion. Classy boys. On my other side were a family of 5 children with their parents from Sweden. They were beautifully behaved and the father needed a Transit van to ship them around and carry all the clobber.
So what did Austria offer? Just let me get a good night’s sleep first.
Day 10 - Salzburg to Groß Seeham - 76 miles & 925 metres climbed
I like to be able to dismantle my abode, pack and leave a campsite so quietly that the neighbours wake up to a shock that I’ve gone. I think my French neighbours will have scratched their heads when they surfaced. No such problem about Stupid O'Clock for the Swedes as they marched their brood to the washroom for calls of nature first thing.
I keep waking earlier and earlier and I’m now on the road between 7.15am and 8.00am. I also finish between 6pm and 7pm. These are long days with generally two breaks of 30 minutes or so.
Despite the site being rural in its setting I was soon in Salzburg city. Believe it or not I had cycled to Salzburg before. Around 18 years ago we had an organised family holiday (my wife and two young daughters) cycling in the foothills of the Alps on fairly flat routes. The ride was about 15 miles a day and the luggage was carried for us from gasthof to gasthof. We ended the trip in Salzburg and did all the tourist experiences such as a visit to the castle, Mozart’s birthplace, a ‘Sound of Music’ evening etc. It is a delightful place. Today I skirted it on the inner ring road, took some pictures and kept going west.
In fact I was soon over the border and into Germany. The traffic was busy on the main roads and my concentration was always intense to keep a straight line and not swerve into traffic approaching from behind. The road did not remain flat and whilst never mountainous then going up and down through the gears was a continuous job.
In a conversation with Anna she remembered well our visit to Chiemsee. This is a very large beautiful calm lake with steamers crossing it and bikini clad girls soaking up the rays on its banks. Her recollection, however, was less happy as apparently it was here that for reasons lost in the sands of time I chose one evening to try and keep pace downing Austrian lager with a much more talented drinker. Her memory told her that I was very ill before I went to bed and mine remembered feeling distinctly rough the next day as we pedalled off in search of apfelschorle and or ice cream for the children. (Only a woman would keep this transgression stored away!)
My friends, the ‘cycle paths’ returned. However they stopped and started regularly and often they were indirect and generally I preferred not to use them. The popped up in more offbeat rural areas (as in the photo below) and often on busier urban routes. However the volumes of cars meant that I often briefly used them to give the queue of traffic behind me an opportunity to get past.
In fact given my optimism that the brutal climbing was over then I had a rude awakening as I clambered up some unforgivable hills to get to a campsite on the side of a lake. It was a small site with mainly caravaners in transit. It was also close to a noisy motorway and the Danes, Dutch and Germans were stopping off on their drive to Croatia or Slovenia. The grass was mowed to the length of your front lawn and I had no complaints at €15. However the malarkey that you paid €0.50/3 minutes for the shower just seems plain mean and bureaucratic. As usual friendly Dutch were on hand with mallets and small coin change.
I think I zipped up the outside of the tent at 9pm and despite the hum of high speed traffic I was soon in the land of nod.
Day 11 - Groß Seeham to Kohlhunden - 83 miles & 1,220 metres climbed
Rolling out of the campsite I joined the sort of rush hour traffic around the little towns. It was to be the first of three days of cycling over 80 miles a day. I’d not had any breakfast and so was delighted to find a bakery. Two croissants and a coffee filled the spot along with a sandwich and cake for later on.
I’d been used to most folk speaking English but here in the deep German south then older people could help with the odd English word but little more. One relief was that whilst I never faced hostility then neither did I find a German wanting to strike up a casual conversation! It was all business like and if you passed a cyclist then there was literally never any acknowledgement. As Donald would say, ‘sad’.
The pattern of busy towns and quieter but hilly rural routes were common and I toiled away. Even more disappointing was the occasional sign saying ‘umleitung’. This translates as ‘road detour’ in English and can strike fear in the heart of any cycle tourer as this means a longer route and climbing.
On one occasion I simply ignored some long and hilly deviation and decided to push my bike through the roadworks. No one questioned my presence but as I pushed past a bulldozer, road roller, grader and assorted tractors with trailers I then came across the heavy duty construction kit putting wet asphalt down. At this point I conceded defeat and found a different ‘deviation’.
The schedule was always to do around 60 miles and then find a place to stop. Here with a good internet I’d see where I’d could get to for the night. In Schongau I decamped in McDonalds and embarked on eating something hot whilst charging my Garmin Sat Nav, iPhone and doing research. I’d taken to drying my laundry on the bike. However, whilst entering the fast food emporium to escape furious heat I emerged, briefly, into a torrential downpour. This saturated my previously bone dry laundry.
I really wanted to push on further west and hated not maximising that plan. On Google I found an understated campsite on a farm and decided to go for it. At around 7pm I got to the farming village and saw no signage for a campsite. At this point I’m thinking that I would be making my way to the largest local town to find a room of some sorts.
However going past one farm entrance I saw, unusually, a number of children riding bikes around the large farmyard and I turned in. I saw some scattered tents, loads of people with children and a lively scene. Fortunately a young mother with a prostrate child in her arms came up to me. She wasn’t the owner but said she’d help. She disappeared. An age later she re-appeared to say the farmer’s wife was milking the cows and later she’d find me after getting changed. I could stay but there was a toilet but no shower available.
Not good news but what could I do? She showed me a pitch (the corner of a small lawn/field) and where the toilet and washbasin were. (With a flannel I managed some tolerable ablutions).
Now who were all these folk staying on a working farm? The farmer drove into the yard at 9pm on his tractor. It seemed to be full of the same type of folk with young children. Apart from being together then the whole arrangement seemed a bit odd and whilst they all had shower facilities (!) then it was not in the least comfortable compared to other more recognised campsites. Again as I didn’t speak German and as no one cared to talk to me I never worked out what the attraction of a smelly farmyard was!
At this point I must add that like Holland the whole of the countryside in this part of Germany usually had the aroma of cow dung and urine. I suppose it is predictable but it followed me across the country.
So as light fell and the farmer's wife had not appeared I climbed in my tent and wondered if the other campers were now all huddled around a large bonfire wearing face paint whilst sacrificing one of the surplus children to the omnipresent god, John Deere.
Days 12 & 13 - Kohlhunden to Altheim - 84 Miles & 951 metres climbed & Altheim to Zwieselberg, Germany - 82 miles and 1,557 metres climbed
So I was up early and when clambering out of the tent found a man standing guard. I would describe him like a WW2 U Boat Captain - tall, fair, lean, 30 something and sporting a stubbly beard. (He wasn’t wearing a roll neck sweater and carrying a periscope). It was early, but nothing is ever early on a farm is it?
So I did my ablutions, packed the tent and then despite the ‘guard’ (who was probably ensuring that I didn’t kidnap any of the sacrificial children) I cycled off without paying.
Now, in my defence, I didn’t know where Mrs Farmer resided, whether she was going to charge me for a corner of a lawn and the use of a toilet overnight, whether we could communicate because she didn’t speak English and whether she was pre-occupied with Daisy, Ermintrude and her sisters who seemed to be very inconsiderate and needed milking again. Anyway I was gone.
So the usual pattern ensued of little busy roads in the towns and quite a bit of climbing when taking to the quieter routes. I have to declare that my focus was now on reaching Strasbourg as soon as possible. The present Mrs Ives had deigned to visit to break up my visit and with it also came the promise of three nights in a luxury hotel. (Apparently they have showers that you can use all the time). Anna had not dictated the schedule but those lovable rogues Ryanair who only flew into Strasbourg a couple of times a week did. When I say ‘lovable rogues’ then let’s be frank... we all hate them but they are cheap and fly to places we want to go to.
So I plodded on admiring the beauty of the countryside but frankly making a mental note never to pedal across this part of the world again. It was tough and hot cycling with little, other than the view, to detain you. Rosenheim was my late afternoon stop and in my quest to get west I found no campsites. Booking.com identified cheap accommodation (€40) in Altheim and I found it eventually in the back streets of a little suburb.
The German young lady who took my booking spoke wondrous English after a year out in Ontario. I dug out my phone and showed her the room availability and price on the website to confirm that this was what I expected to pay. She told me her boss wouldn’t take a debit card but needed cash. Ffs... We all know this is nonsense as he cannot run a hotel on cash. He personally helpfully gave me vague directions in German where back in the little town I’d find an ATM. I spent another 30 minutes on top of a long day sorting out this challenge. I got back and handed the cash across. I must add that he also ran a takeaway restaurant on the site and dealt with me whilst serving doner kebabs and pizzas.
I chose not to use Booking.com to save the hotel the 20% commission. Frankly, in Germany, I’ve twice been mucked about by Turkish gentlemen who push their luck on these matters. I will now use the Booking.com website and they can pay the commission. My irritation is that they don’t recognise that I know I’m saving them money by going direct.
(Outside my host’s ATM and how I would have liked to have delivered his cash)
I’d bought some food en route and after this and a quick beer I called it a day.
Well again I was on the road by 7.30am with, according to my Garmin, 108 miles to go. However, as the day unfolded then with more detours and roads that prohibited bicycles that figure went up. A really frustrating symbol was a sign with a blue background and a car on it. This meant only motorised traffic could use a particular road. I’d ignored a couple of these but they could be dangerous by incorporating tunnels or have cars seriously go fast. Inevitably I got a bit of horn blowing by plonkers.
What was on my mind was that on top of the ‘up and down’ I had the Black Mountains to cross. These rose up before The Rhine and Strasbourg. In principle all was good because my destination, Strasbourg, was 400 metres lower. However there was still the matter of these mountains.
As routes got blocked by prohibitions I’d stop to consult my map, Garmin and mobile. The latter had not been very useful because my 3G or 4G signal was useless in Western Southern Germany. So there I was at some junction, quite lost, when a very nice German lady, with her grand child, asked if she could help. Given the general indifference of the population I was quite overwhelmed at this intervention. I was so touched. Anyway, we didn’t have the ability to communicate and that was that.
By small steps I found my way down the country lanes where cereals were being harvested on either side and eventually made it to the top of the mountain. At Freudenstadt I was done for the day and had 45 miles left before France. A Google search found a campsite that professed to be full. I went back to Booking.com and booked a cheap hotel. The only rub was that it was another 5 miles away!
Eventually I got there and checked in. It would do, and so would the beer and schnitzel. One more day to ride before luxury.
Days 14, 15 & 16 - Zwieselberg, Germany to Strasbourg, France - 47 miles & 486 metres climbed + Rest Days
So it was simply a freewheel downhill to Strasbourg? I wish. I’d found a hotel just west of Freudenstadt in a spot called Zweiselberg. The next morning even though I was at the top of the mountain range it meant a steep and long descent before a long climb back to the top to find the road to the bottom. This required an hour’s worth of climbing up hairpins deep in the forest to get back to the freewheel scenario. It was slow and painful in the Sunday morning cool of the sheltered valley. I wasn’t alone though as Sunday morning is motorcycle time in the mountains. I must have seen over 100 bikes that morning as they zipped up and down the valleys. Apart from the noise, which must drive the locals mad, then another joy was the speedsters who raced each other up the hills.
I’m on a badly balanced bicycle descending at 35mph. I’m leaning into some very sharp lethal corners and always on the brakes: not that would solve much in a hurry. I’m picking a line nicely on one side of the road to allow overtaking from behind but also allowing me to take the bends. Next comes three screaming bikes around a bend racing each other up the mountain. They need all the road (both sides) as they lean virtually to the horizontal. I can do nothing but reflect on whether it’s too late for me to embrace Christianity.
On the descent I find cycling strugglers climbing. I came across a number of disabled cyclists using their hands and arms to pedal. Even when assisted by an electric bike solution I loved the ambition and effort. I’ve posted an image of the type of bike they rode (minus the motor and battery).
Eventually I am towards the valley floor and either maddenly twiddling around on gravel cycle paths or trying to use main roads where I am prohibited. I’m aiming for Kehl. This is the last German town before you cross the Rhine and enter France.
Entering France might be described as low key because whilst the river is the border then in reality there is no border. This was my sixth country of the ride. The Strasbourg tram runs from the centre of the the town and across the river into Germany. I know this because last year I was in Kehl staying at a campsite and took the tram.
Next mission is to find the hotel and my wife! The Okko Hotel is just west of the centre in a busy area with lots of restaurants. I just find this as my bride is wearily pulling her cabin bag toward the front door. Perfect timing! She’s had a big effort to get to Strasbourg using public transport from York to north of London where Stansted is located. Her tribulation with delays and under manning seem to make my ride seem a doddle.
The hotel is very chic and apart from a trendy room with a futuristic bathroom pod it also has ‘The Club’ where you can hang all day with free drinks and some snacks. After having spent all the preceding days thirsty then to have tins of soft drinks available in a large fridge free is like winning the lottery.
I’ve always known how to show a girl a good time and of course after showering then the first point of call is the launderette. Anna had done her research but I expect that the hotel staff, when quizzed, never expected to be answering these typical ‘cyclist on the road’ mundane questions! The present Mrs Ives was mollified by a McFlurry for allowing me to wash my smalls properly.
All sorted we sauntered into the beautiful town centre to have a look around and have a spot of very late lunch. Strasbourg has a history of having been either French or German over the last few centuries. It is also full of millennials and I worry that many have jobs associated with the European Union. The European Union is headquartered in Brussels. However, the Commission and Parliament have premises here and for reasons that beautifully explain the whole nine yards of fudge that the EU is then the Parliament convenes here 12 times a year for 4 day sessions by way of ‘away days’ for the MEP’s. (I noted that a hotel in the centre, in the district called Petit France, had rooms at €550 per room. I wonder how many of those I’ve paid for over the years).
We went on a boat trip. Canals are to be found in the exquisite centre and we had a dreary history by pre-recorded audio. Interesting facts include the fact that once there was a gas works supporting 360 street lights and that quite a lot of the city was developed during the second to last German ownership at the end of the 19th Century. After this we wandered back to the hotel.
Day 2 of my rest days sees an expedition to Colmar, about 40 miles south. Another beautiful city that leans on that mix of German architecture and French style. We strolled around in the staggering heat. We had some lunch including exceptional cake and then made the trip back.
The French trains are sublime - air conditioned, spacious and new. A real pleasure to experience. That night we find some pasta for me and risotto for Anna. Also I have some delicious white wine - something that I haven’t had much of for a while. The next morning Anna’s steeling herself for Ryanair and I’m thinking of that long road home up through France.
We have some falafel at a Lebanese restaurant, kiss goodbye and I set off in the wrong direction as usual. That bloody Garmin!
Day 17 & 18 - Strasbourg to Colmar - 46 Miles & 83 metres climbed and Colmar to Belfort - 68 miles & 623 metres climbed
It was a gentle start after some time off and I rolled beside the Rhine through flat fields of maize. I’ d amassed 881 miles getting to Strasbourg and the meter started running again. The farming seemed all small holding with little tractors chugging everywhere. As happens during hot days then it seems everything in the town is deserted and the only movement is from another dog barking at me or perhaps the squeals of delight from some young children in a paddling pool at the rear of a house.
I never could see the river but it’s influence on the terrain was complete. Most towns had the suffix of ‘heim’, which is German for ‘home'. This told the story of its earlier heritage.
The route was flat without so much as a railway bridge to ascend. The legs liked this! The destination was Colmar, which the observant amongst you will recall I visited the day before. However, the objective was to reach a campsite.
This was a bit of a shock in that for the first time since Croatia I came across British tourists. On the road from Croatia I had had come across a handful of British registered cars, motor homes or motorbikes. The latter category had the kindness to acknowledge me. If the real British were here then there were also some pale imitators. As I’m stood there wondering where to place my small tent on a large available patch of ground my neighbour pipes up, in pure Cockney, “put it anywhere you like, it’ll fit!”
So as I’m thinking to ask him if he was born within the sound of Bow Bells and supports West Ham when I establish that he’s actually from Copenhagen and a Dane. Now this isn’t the first time I’ve come across a Dane with an immaculate English, or in her case, American accent. I reckon they would make great spies as a nation. Breaking a habit I didn’t seek out a Dutch hammer but borrowed a Danish one.
The campsite had little charm. This was reinforced with lager at €6 for a pint.
Cycling off the next morning, as always in bright sunshine, the reality about the condition of my legs hit me. They had thought I’d finished the expedition and had in effect returned to York with Anna. So in their ‘absence’ Plan B was to grind the small gears and with the road still brilliantly flat I got back amongst the fields and made it to Mulhouse.
On one of these country lanes I experienced a lot of trucks. It must have been a cut through or was on the route to a factory. On the bike you get used to the steady growl of large engines behind you and I recollect hearing a large beast slow and that awesome large grumble dawdle behind me waiting for an opportunity to pass. When he did he hit his air horn. I nearly lost control of all bodily functions. He either did this to let me know he was there and or he did this because he was France’s longest surviving brain donor in charge of an articulated truck. I now know why Brooks saddles are brown.
Mulhouse is a large town. My reason for visiting was to visit, for the third time, the French National Automobile Museum. In a purpose built setting a large number of mainly French cars from the beginning until the end of the 20th Century are displayed. It has the largest collection of Bugattis in the world at over 70 cars. The collection was owned by the Schlumpf brothers. They amassed the collection whilst running a large textile business in the city. Many thought the collection and refurbishment of cars was their priority as they employed 40 people alone to restore and maintain them.
With global migration of textiles to Asia in the 1970’s the business collapsed, albeit the Schlumpfs had been selling off bits. With bankruptsy looming the Schlumps fled to Switzerland and the workers took over the factories. The Schlumpfs were exiled abroad and the large collection of cars, never previously seen, were put on display.Eventually the collection was sold and is now part of the museum.
I, personally, like the 1960’s designs and the more mundane saloon cars. It is bewildering to think how many manufacturers there were and so disappointing that they eventually closed down.
Today we have a handful of manufacturers worldwide.So after a spin around and some spaghetti I saddle up for a tough afternoon. The heat was unforgiving as was the Sat Nav that made me take a tortuous path to the South West and Belfort. I never actually went in that direction as I seemed to tack and zig zag like a small sailing boat up and down little hills.
Frazzled I got to a campsite that I last visited in, I think, 2011, some cheer was restored as I saw a large chill cabinet selling cans of beer for €2. Normal service was resumed as I reverted to asking the Dutch for a hammer.
Day 19 - Belfort to Vittel, France - 84 miles & 1,211 metres climbed
I maybe should have known that pitching next to construction contractors on a Thursday night may mean an early start. Having worked in the industry then I know that many contractors stay away from home during the week and then return home on the Friday afternoon. I knew they were contractors by their company flat bed truck logo. They must have been working locally and camping during the week. I imagine this makes it very affordable for the contractor and in decent weather it isn't a particular hardship. What was a hardship, to their neighbours, was that they started to 'break camp' at 5.15am on the Friday morning. There was a reasonably responsible attempt at minimising the noise but I was frustrated to get woken up. Sleep is a fuel.
So this clonking about went on for around an hour and I must have fallen asleep again because when I next looked at my watch it was 7.30am and they were gone. I needed to be up to get a few miles in before the inferno started and I wasn't pleased.
I wrote about the rest day and if it had provided any recovery; obviously it was a help but I was not as fresh as I was when I started in Split. The thought of lots of climbing up seriously demanding inclines was abhorrent as I turned out of the campsite. So I decided to aim a little west to get past the mountain range to the north in the Vosges. In the heat I trundled along to Lure and then had a splendid lunch in Luxeuil-les-Bains of risotto and another Coke and ice with that delirious pleasure of the first mouthful cracking on the back of your parched throat.
Food wise I was struggling. I simply had little or no appetite yet if I failed to eat properly then I quickly faded. Often I might pass a supermarket thinking that I should get something in but I felt so uninspired as I plodded around the aisles. All this is in stark contrast to the lectures I put in my Touring Handbook on my personal site called Cycle Tour Craft. Take a look as this is a literal A to Z of touring based on my travels in Europe and North America.
With my water bottles replenished I had a vague plan to get as far north as I could and also to a campsite. In this part of France then campsites were thin on the ground and there wasn't much to see. The landscape went up and down and arable farming was on either side of the road.
However, today the heat seemed at a new level. The thermometer read up to 36 degrees C or 97 degrees F but it seemed more intense than other days and the road heat came up at you like as if you were opening an oven door. I found myself with a dry mouth all the time and I went on to drink over 7 litres of fluid for the day. Inevitably I ran low on occasion and I surprised two ladies, sat outside their house, in some small village by pulling up in front of them and pleading "excuse moi, avez d'eau s'il vous plaît?" Of course they helped.
Which, brings me onto another subject: the sociability of the French. After the indifference of the Austrians and Germans I was now being regularly acknowledged by pedestrians I'd pass on my ride, tractor drivers, other cyclists and little old ladies urging me on as I reached the brow of another hill. In fact I often used too much French language when stationary and a torrent would come back that I had no idea about. It was simply heartening to have some interaction during 7 or 8 hours on the bike. Viva la France.
Yet, was it? The football team won the World Cup a couple of weeks earlier and there was the odd French Tricolour draped on a wall but little else. In England half the nation wouldn't have sobered up yet had we won it!
So all a sudden despite feeling less than sparkling and still thirsty I decided to push on to Vittel (of the table water fame) and came across a blissful municipal campsite. I got there at 8.25pm and the sign at Reception suggested I should find a pitch and pay in the morning. Okey dokey.
This day got me to a total of 1,079 miles for the trip.
(Hammer: Dutch motorcyclists).
Day 20 - Vittel to Bar-le-Duc - 71 miles & 739 metres climbed
It was a late start. A combination of being tired, needing to wait until 8.30am for Reception to open to pay my fees and a great site. I wobbled onto the road in a tardy fashion.
Vittel is a spa town with gardens near its centre. I discovered most of this by the Garmin being unable to find a way out. As a consequence I seemed to go round in circles for a little while before making an executive decision just to head north, predictably it was therefore up a steep incline. I must add that I’ve toured in some parlous weather on many expeditions but yet again it was a flawless blue sky with bright sunshine and that threat of afternoon high heat. I shouldn’t complain too much.
Bar-le-Duc was the objective/plan and the route was broadly North West with quite a decent elevation profile of not being too difficult. As always I peeked at the Google Maps and Komoot Apps on my phone and then trusted myself to the Garmin and Michelin maps. It looked like my usual trawl through minor towns better known for their farming than anything else.
(A town I passed through (Domrémy-la-Pucelle) was the birth place of a well known French national we burnt at the stake)
Fellow cycle tourers are now long gone. I’m alone on this journey. This is mainly due to my route - a fairly featureless several hundred miles. However it does cross my mind that in all this distance a lone soul with their back bent will eventually appear over the brow of a hill.
A word or two for the bike. Before every tour I do a dry run and as I embark on this I never can believe the weight I’m loading on the rear and the way the bike twitches/trembles at the front end due to the imbalance. However, it holds up well. I mentioned that I had a knee injury that I feared had stopped this long distance riding. A lot of rehab and some adaptation of the riding position had solved in large part any issues. The typical day is always spent going up and down the gears and chain wheels. The load on the chain and gear cogs are immense and the smoothness of the gear changes soon goes as chain stretching or wear kicks in. It doesn’t get chronic, or if it does then I get it addressed but the reality is that the failing is mine with my set up rather than the bike’s. My leather saddle keeps me comfortable and wear on my hands is protected by the gloves. The gloves however do become a health hazard with all the sweat and even after a shower I can smell something unpleasant in the palm of my hands.
McDonald’s becomes a regular stop simply for an ice cold drink. I haul out my charging cables and devices and plug in to top up wherever possible. I joked earlier about the sin of using them but they are now common throughout all of Europe and especially in France. I usually have the chicken sandwiches but I am increasingly avoiding the food due to it being tasteless, tepid in temperature or dull in variety. However, with predictable locations, wi-fi, toilets and air con it does provide a respite in the middle of the day.
Neufchâteau was such a spot. I descended gradually into this large town (knowing that there would be payback for such a pleasure) and as I checked my Garmin for the location of McDonald’s I was presented with a spiteful suburb 15% gradient hill to reach it. Being Saturday, then to quote Fats Waller “the joint was jumping”. I found my usual corner, plugged in and tried to catch up on my blog. Fathers struggled with young children excited by their Happy Meals and I bided my time whilst I used the bike as a clothes line. I have to do this because I get to sites so late, last night was 8.25pm, that I can wash kit but not have enough heat or sun left in the day to dry it at the site.
I always lock the bike when I’m away from it but if someone were inclined then they could rifle through the panniers and take items. The items they might take would be worth nothing to them but their absence would be an inconvenience to me. There is always a risk of theft but in small towns then I tend to have faith that the worst of human nature is not common.
Re-energised I pushed on to Bar-le-Duc and the municipal campsite. Municipal means that they are run by the local town. They have good washrooms, basic pitches and few other facilities. One bonus is that they are in the towns and nearer to facilities. When I got there it looked spartan but had a few motorhomes sprinkled around it; mainly in one field. I chose one of the other three fields with one motor home in it thinking that this would be quiet. It transpired that a millennial man by himself was the other occupant and he’d called up a pal to join him. A chap subsequently arrived separately in a car.
The protocol used to be that silence should reign after 10pm on campsites and believe me I was certainly tucked up for the night by then. However my neighbour and pal were only just warming up. They had gentle background music on, a few drinks on the go and incessant chatter. The guy had picked this field to be alone and I had stumbled on his Saturday night party. At 10 minutes past midnight I jettisoned my ear plugs, grabbed my bright bike light and clambered out of the tent for a chat. They were surprised I was approaching them. With their faces lit up by my torch I was astonished to see that they’d just started their BBQ, and the sizzling noise was not French House music but sausages on a grill!
They said they didn’t speak English and so I attempted to advise them that I was tired and had ridden a long way in my French. The music was unacceptable. A few grunts ensued and the music was switched off as I returned to the tent. Their chatter continued and next to the campsite was a children’s playground. In here teenagers were shouting, chanting and being rowdy. That wasn’t a problem I could negotiate. You have to remember that for the majority of the campers had walls thicker than canvas and were not too inconvenienced by all this.
I think I dropped off to sleep at about 2.30am when my neighbours decided to get some sleep or to retreat inside the van as it was getting chilly and the playground kids went home. I awoke at 6.15am as rooks in the trees engaged in a spat. I decided to pack up and get on the road as I wasn’t going to get back to sleep.
My neighbours were also up and about and I wondered if they’d been to sleep and whether they’d been popping pills as well as taking a drink? You live and learn.
Day 21 - Bar-le-Duc to Attigny, France - 66 miles & 646 metres climbed
They say to foreigners, who visit Britain, that if you have to eat British food then have the breakfast three times a day. I can see the attraction for the French as they don’t have hot breakfasts! And if I’ve complained how drab McDonald’s food is then finding that their Gallic restaurants don’t do the Breakfast Menu reaffirms that they've even missed out the best bit. With this in mind I pedalled past the Bar-le-Duc one knowing it was a ‘Sausage Egg McMuffin' free zone. Inconsolable.
The harvested corn fields I cycled through were scenes of great conflict a little over a century ago in WW1. The Germans attempted their invasion in this area from the East and due to the nature of wide opened spaces it appears indefensible. Along my ride were cemeteries and memorials to these conflicts and horrific losses. As in British towns then villages always have a memorial with countless names on the cenotaph. The scale of the remembrance to the fallen throughout France is enormous. It is quite stark in its scale to the few monuments of the war 20 years later. Here you’ll see an odd roadside headstone to a member of the Resistance or maybe a plaque on a bridge that the Resistance defended or blew up against the Nazis.
In Saints-Menehould I stopped off at a roadside bar for a couple of Cokes and enjoyed the ambience of a busy Sunday social scene.
I soldiered on in the heat and the traffic was literally non-existent on this Sunday. I eventually dived into a town, Vouziers, and found a cafe in the square. Here I joined three Belgian lads in the shade having a late lunch. I had a large chicken kebab and they had pizzas. They were riding their motorbikes back from a wedding to Belgium and had stopped off to recuperate. We talked about the World Cup and my trip. One motorcyclist was interested in my thoughts on Croatia. I was positive but not as much as he was. One of his friends rather ‘popped his balloon’ by commenting that his enthusiasm was heightened by some holiday romance in Zagreb!
So where tonight? I decided Attigny looked good. In fact it would be my third visit - once by bike and once previously in the Morgan. I shall never forget my first visit when a Dutchman suddenly appeared on my pitch with a cold can of beer. No such luck today. Being such a short day on the bike I was able to wash and dry laundry and pop into town for a beer at a bar. This nearly proved embarrassing as I didn’t have any cash to pay for it and had to pop out to find an ATM.
Being Sunday the restaurants were shut but I found a boulangerie for a grim sort of pasty. In fact I can advise that if the French combine pastry and meat it is not a happy event, ever. It was a quiet night and the sleep was needed.