Wednesday, 31 May 2017

at half tilt

hmm.. I think the parliament buildings of the Faroes
So what were the Egyptians doing in the North Atlantic anyway?  It's a question I dream about in my early morning fug.  Our ship has come in.  It's 4.30 am and the sun is shining in Torshavn (Thor's Harbour).  We disembark with a few other tourists who are staying, but as the ship will be here until the afternoon, quite a few others also get off to look around.  

We're here for a week, and we are expecting wind, rain and fog, so the sunshine is quite a surprise and pleasure.  Breakfast is taken at the dockside below the Faroes Parliament building - a small wooden hut painted red with a thatched roof.  The Faroes are part of Denmark but also independent.  It's quite confusing.  They have their own money but it's the same value as the Danish krona, which they also use.  They are part of the Danish kingdom but are not part of the E.U.  They have their own language and cultural identity and want to keep it, but these days that's not so easy.

the distinctive turf-roof of the Faroes
We say goodbye to Sun ("10 degrees? That's good for cycling I think.")  and Nadine, who is off geo-caching, load up at the shops and crawl out of the town up the steepest incline we've seen since we left Folkstone.  The road heads straight into the mountains on a quiet road. We pass from homely folksy town to bleak desolate and wild mountain scenery within the bend of a road.  The clouds close in and the sky turns dark and threatening.  We crest a ridge and then traverse the mountains with a view of the main road down on the coast.  The Faroes are a collection of about 35 islands and we're on the main one.  They're connected by sea tunnels, bridges and ferries.  The islands seem to have emerged from the sea and then tipped over leaving mountains with large cliffs on one side and long slopes down to the sea on the other.   

We hurtle back down to the coast into a cold wind before literally coasting up the eastern shore, slightly nervous of the busy road.  We are happy to venture off it up a long empty valley where we find a place to camp.  It takes a bit of finding but we feel it's worth it, as there are no trees in the valley and much of the ground is boggy or given over to sheep.  There's a bit of debate, but as it meets two criteria for our Five Star Wild Camping (hidden out of view of the road, close to water - there's a stream, it seems too good to pass up.

stealth camping at its finest
Saksun valley ends with a fabulous almost-enclosed bay, a pretty turfed-roof church and public toilets, so it would have been remiss not to call in.  The day is rainy and windy and after a good start we find ourselves back on the main road and feeling a little too close to all the passing traffic.  There's a bridge to the next island of Estuvoy and we pause at the supermarket to stock up before then heading away from the main road and up the coast to the village of Eidi.  

Here there's a cheapish campsite located right by the sea, at the old village football ground.  We get chatting to Adam, a Polish cycle-tourer who we actually saw yesterday, but mistook him for a local because he had a small backpack when he rode past our hidey-hole.  There's also an adventurous French couple who are hiking between villages over the headlands and through the mountains.  We decide to camp here because we can afford it and the weather forecast is not so great - the advantage is a sitting room with a kitchen and wi-fi, so we can make use of our stay.  The football pitch is laid out in a fashion, possibly based on how the national team approach their games, with caravans and mobile homes parked in front of both goals.  Later, a large overland truck pulls up on the halfway-line. The couple who emerge are not the friendliest people we've met on this trip.  After a quick chat the man tells us that the last time they went to Iceland it rained for 90% of the time, day and night, and that he admired us for our courage in going there on bikes with a tent for five weeks, whilst they would be in their very large and very comfortable van.  Thankfully we didn't have to talk to Mr. Smugbastard again.

It rains.  Then the sun comes out.  We go for a walk up onto the cliffs above the village.  The cliffs are full of nesting birds and we get a perilously vertiginous view over them and the rocks below.  There's a handful of buildings left by the British army who occupied visited here during the last war, keeping watch on the north Atlantic waters.  In the local grocery store are British biscuits, including Tunnock's caramel wafers, the only known biscuit made from chocolate-covered cardboard with an advertising tag line of "4 million sold every week".  When I was at school I worked in the Tuck shop and it was Tunnock's that were most highly-valued.  I managed once to smuggle fifteen out for my friends (therefore not fifteen of the four million), hidden in my school uniform, although the record was twenty-two.  The Tuck shop disappeared soon after and, coincidentally, so did my friends.  This ramble down Memory Lane is merely to illustrate that whilst I can clearly remember events of 39 years ago, those of only a few months past are gone forever.......

Monday, 29 May 2017

aweigh we go

Arriving in Hirtshals on Saturday morning gives us a little time for a raid on Lidl, Netto, and the other supermarkets in the town.  We are not alone.  The town is full of passengers for the ferry to Norway and ours to the Faroe Islands and Iceland.  Everyone is stocking up.  Down at the docks it's barren and windy but the sun is out and everyone is in a holiday mood.  We get to queue with the motorbikers and other cyclists, apart from the cars and camper vans that clog the lanes at the departure gate. 

befriending some German bikers

Five German bikers draw up and get off their BMWs.  They look at our loaded bikes, nod in acknowledgement and talk amongst themselves, laughing.  I say to the one nearest to me "You know in England we say 'Real men ride bicycles'"  He doesn't know if I'm serious or not but he's game.  He wants to know how we can travel for three years with only what is on our bike.  What about money? Insurance? Pension? He's not really fulfilling my stereotypical biker image by now.  Gayle is sorting through her panniers for the ferry journey and suddenly unleashes a pile of newspaper clippings into the wind.  Papers billow about our heads and fly off across the carpark.  The bikers gamely hurry to gather up as many clippings as they can, whilst Gayle apologises and explains that they are only her sudoku puzzles.

We meet three cyclists and chat with Nadine from Germany and Sun from Hong Kong.  They are loaded and heading for Iceland.  We chat a while and then are joined by another cyclist who is from Munster.  He's got only a backpack and two bursting carrier bags full of beer.  Well, he explains, I have three days on a boat before I reach Iceland.
with Nadine and Sun
It turns out the journey is a booze cruise for some.  We are in cabins below the car deck - a strange hot place that might just be under the surface of the water.  I foolishly mention this to Gayle who visibly blanches.  We are in separate sex  cabins (I mean gender-specific cabins - just in case you get the wrong idea), sharing with five others.  So we spend most of our journey up in the bar where there are comfy seats and a socket to charge our pc.  We also have to do our laundry and surreptitiously hang it around the place to dry out.  Nadine and Sun stop by to chat.  Nadine has three weeks in Iceland and has researched her trip well.  Sun is coming to the end of a long ride that began in South Korea.  He looks mellow and ready to end the ride - he's met someone from Taiwan and will be heading there soon.

We have a couple of nights on the ferry and a long day in between when there is nothing to do but run my smalls through the hand-dryer like some perverted weirdo or peruse the chocolate selection in the duty-free shop like some perverted weirdo.  The ferry is from the Faroe Islands and in the lounge they show a promotional video to the mostly retired people who make up the passengers.  Later on there's Bingo.  The place fills up and the tension is palpable as the MC turns on the automated Bingo caller.  He's a model of professional cheer and charm when someone gets a 'House' otherwise he looks bored rigid.  This is his livelihood, after all.
we pass Mucklefugger - the UK's most northerly point

In the evening we are lulled to our sleep by the soft guitar melodies and crooning of a 'cabaret' performer.  Neil Young.  Neil Diamond.  The Beatles.  He knows his audience.  We fall asleep humming Crackling Rose.  I'm feeling slightly nauseous in my airless bunk bed......  

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Jutland challenge

We ride northwards through Germany and take a ferry over the Elbe in order to avoid Hamburg.  It's all very pleasant and easy going.  We beetle up through the west side of Schleswig-Holstein, not quite on the coast and arrive in Denmark on a quiet Sunday morning.   Now we thought the cycle paths in Germany were good but Denmark ups the ante with top quality tarmac as well.   And one gloriously sunny day, just as we are flagging, I suggest we stop for lunch.  "What we need", says Gayle, softened by the luxuries that Europe has to offer cycle tourers, "is a picnic table."  And lo! around the bend, beside a stream, there comes a picnic table.
it has to be said we saw an alarming number of flagpoles in Denmark, perhaps so not to be confused with Sweden....

We pass through the picturesque old city of Ribe before beginning to cross Jutland towards Aarhus. And then something weird happens.  After three weeks of fairly flat riding we find ourselves riding up and down some hills.  In Denmark.  Who'd have thought.  There's even a hairpin bend on one climb.
the lovely churches are always a good source of water and shade
Our navigator has plotted a route that cuts across all the main roads and instead takes us along back country lanes.  It becomes clear to us that we are on some kind of Old Way across the country.  We arrive in Jelling (pronounced Yelling) where the country's Viking and Christian roots meet. There are the burial mounds of Old Gorm and his wife which are separated by a church marking the spot where Denmark's kingdom was first united.  In the shape of a Viking long boat are standing stones surrounding the site.  Now I don't know that much about the Vikings but I know a little and even I was amazed to discover that they were using wireless technology back in the 900s.  Harald Bluetooth, Gorm's son, converted to Christianity, built a church and then went on an evangelical rampage.  We sit on a bench in the sunshine, soak up the sun and watch the remote robot lawnmowers clipping the vast lawns.  I bet Harald never imagined that.

Jonas and Linda introduce us to Denmark's favourite snack

the old town centre
In Aarhus we stay with Linda and Jonas who had got in touch to invite us to stay.  They take us out to their local bohemian cafe for a lovely meal and a local beer.  They help us get a better understanding of the country - one we are not familiar with - and offer to show us around their city.  Jonas takes us to meet a local record producer down in the dock area.  He's a warm, chatty guy who shows a lot of interest in our journey.  "What's the wildest thing that's ever happened to you?" he asks and I immediately think about the tick bite I discovered on my penis the morning before. (I discovered the tick nonchalantly ambling away from the scene of the crime and caught him red-bellied.) But instead we make some bland response about how wonderful people of the world are and how cycle-touring isn't as crazy an adventure as some would believe.  Now, when I think about it, he might have liked the tick story. 

Later, Linda interviews us in the hope of getting an article about us published.  I'm slightly amused because I hadn't really considered what we did particularly exciting or adventurous - which, if you're reading this at your desk in an office, might surprise you.  I guess it's because after so many years this all feels quite normal.  However, we do get excited about seeing and learning about new places.  
with Jonas and Linda setting us on our way
We have a wonderful time with Jonas and Linda - but the clock is ticking.  Our ferry to the Faroe Islands departs on Saturday.  We have to move on.  We take the easiest route but not the most direct - trying to avoid the main roads north.  We also miss any big towns, going up the east coast and catching ferries across some of the bigger rivers.  There are some circuitous bike routes that lead us around the country roads but that's okay - it means the roads are more quieter and more enjoyable.
hardly the same, are they?

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

catching our breath

asparagus season
Imagine the setting: a sun-filled garden, summer flowers blooming, shade under the trees, garden chairs around a table filled with lovely fresh food,  real coffee in the pot.  Sigh with content and relax.  We are sitting with our friend Gertrude whom we last saw in Iran in 2013.   We really had to stop and see Gertrude before she goes off on a short holiday and we are extremely happy to make it to her home.

We spend a few days here in Dorverden and out and about in the region.  This is Lower Saxony and the landscape is large farms and woodland, fabulous old farms and barns some of which date back 500 years.  Gertrude has always lived in this area and we visit her family home (now her brother's farm), the lovely old town of Celle and the city of Lubeck.  She treats us at every opportunity and she thinks about everything.  At first we are swept away in Gertrude's delight in being able to show us these places. The weather is perfect - sunshine every day - and it's lovely that we can relax at her home while she generously feeds us wonderful meals.  But the cycling finally catches up with us and we have to pause for breath.  But this is okay as Gertrude has some things to prepare for her trip.  We get a much-needed rest here and have a great time with our friend before setting out once again.

the traditional houses of Celle

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

back to the low country

Sunshine, bike paths, Lidl. What more could a cycle tourer want?  Our ride northwards shadows the Maas/Meuse river and is a real pleasure after the cold days we've had since we reached the continent.  We are in and out of forests, cruising through small towns, pedalling past fields being ploughed and find our way onto a bike path next to a river, hidden by the dyke alongside it.  We have identified some woods as potential camping but the sun is still up and there are dog-walkers and joggers about so we stop at a bench and cook dinner.  A local man stops and sits down to chat with us.  He obliquely refers to his b&b, perhaps dropping the hint to us, which we let pass.  We have eyes only for the woods, and a little gap away from the path overlooking the fields.  As the sun starts to set a hot-air balloon drifts over our heads, the hot air blower sounding like an asthmatic whale.

BP has a problem with penny farthings
Dick Bruna's memorial
Onwards to Utrecht which is a lovely city.  It's a Sunday so the roads are quiet but there are folk about.  Canals. Miffy. Houseboats. Bike paths galore.  We find the one along the riverbank which bends and twirls past some fabulous houses and gardens.  It's a popular route although the roadbikers get a bit annoying because they really want to go fast and the path is full of Sunday riders.  We mooch along happily, threading our way towards Amsterdam. 

We reach the city via a canal path, what else?  One moment we're in fields and the next we've arrived in a modernish suburb on the south side of the city, looking for Fiona and Gordon's street.  We decide to stop at the supermarket just as Gordon rolls up on his bike.  It's seven years since we saw them last in Bangkok, before we were travelling on bikes and again we have lots to catch up on.  We are introduced to their son, Laurie ,who is now at school.  It turns out that this is the longest time they have ever lived in one place together, so it's no surprise when they express itchy feet. 
obligatory windmill photo - although these days it's more wind turbines
We have a day to wander and explore the city - both our first time in the city.  The ever-diminishing rings of canals might be more charming if they were pedestrianised.  This is a classic European city where people live right in the city centre.  I hadn't really considered this before a friend in England reflected how much Manchester had changed with the development of the city centre making it more residential and more European.  Here we find bustling street markets selling food, clothing and bric-a-brac.  There are lots of tourists but the city is busy with the normal day to day stuff.  We just have to take care on the bike paths - the locals who know their way round are not always patient of tourists who stop suddenly to take photos or gawp at the street scenes.  The one thing that strikes me is the familiarity of the architecture, specifically the brown stone houses - they look just like the brownstones of New York.

say 'cheese'

It's only a fleeting visit and before we know it we're saying our goodbyes once again and heading out eastwards through a green part of the city and out along a huge canal surrounded by wind turbines.  Zwolle has a nice pedestrianised central area where we stop for a picnic lunch. The weather has finally begun to warm up and we still have showers but signs of summer are everywhere.  Our last night in the Netherlands we find ourselves amongst farmland where all the fields either have crops or are being prepared.  It offers little to the wild camper but finally we find some woods where we can keep out of sight.
yep, it's flat alright

Friday, 5 May 2017

Oh, Cologne

We like cycling in Germany.  There are bike paths everywhere - even between small villages - and folk stop to ask us where we are going when we are having our lunch.  We're on our way to Cologne and the going is good at first, after getting through a conurbation early morning we are out on the open road, well, bike path, and flying along when we come to a place where the path ends and we join the road.  But the road is a little fast and busy with trucks and we realise that we should probably not be on this particular road, but hey, we're here now and there's no where else to go except forward, so we might as well continue and go as fast as we can to the next junction. Phew.   
not all German bike paths are perfect...

The rest of the way is calm and peaceful again as we find the quiet roads that finally lead to a bike path into the city around about rush hour.  It's quite a nice feeling riding past all the stationary vehicles queueing along the main road.   Soon we are in the city and knocking on Angie and Peter's door.  Angie is an old friend from England and we are excited to catch up after how many years (?) and meet Peter for the first time.  They both cycle around the city and while we were on our last trip they also had a year off, beginning on bikes in Britain before heading over to explore the Americas.

There's much to catch up with and we have a good rest here with them.  Peter runs his own business and it took a radical shift in his working life to get away for a year.   But we think he hasn't regretted it - he's so enthusiastic about the journeys of other cycling tourers and keeps an eye open for blogs of the more interesting ones.  It's quite funny because Gayle also does this when we're not travelling and she's always looking for ideas for new places to visit.  Peter also has been following people around the world through their blogs.  Since their big journey Angie has knuckled down to learn German well enough to qualify to teach full-time in German state schools - with only the tricky writing exam to pass.  Our time with them is non-stop talking and great fun.  Peter is really helpful finding us a tool I need and that all-important 45mm bolt that enables me to adjust my front mudguard.  I am trying to get everything right on the bikes while we have access to good supplies and Peter goes out of his way to help.

We reassess our planned route north to Denmark - we are conscious of the limits in time and our comfort zone.  Since we left home we've been pushing harder than our usual slothful style.  Regretfully we have to miss our friends Friedel and Andrew in the Hague and go straight on to Amsterdam.  After one more lovely night tasting the local beer and food at a local hostelry with Peter and Angie, they ride out of the city with us, leading us in the right direction to avoid the big roads and find the way into the Netherlands.  It's a fairly flat ride dodging between Dusseldorf and Moechengladbach and not so beautiful, but it's easy enough for us to reach the Dutch border by the end of the day.  It is raining when we find a pine forest to pitch the tent and after a long day we're happy to have such an easy camp.

Monday, 1 May 2017

low country

We camp in woods near to an airfield.  Along the side road we take into the woods are signs warning us away - the land belongs to the military.  But there's a woodcutter's track which is clear and we find a nice dry spot under pines.  In the night there is the bark of a deer, but otherwise it's peaceful.

not a Belgian restaurant
We find our way onto the Albert Canal - a great waterway which cuts through Belgium and connects with Maastricht.  We call it the Fat Albert.  Both banks have a cycle path and it's really popular.  Belgium is awash with cycling clubs and we are frequently swept aside by swarms of lycra clad men buzzing past wherever we are.  You can't escape them.  The Fat Albert has huge embankments on either side and they are lush green with new growth.  Along the canal, enormous barges drift along.  
on the way to the Fat Albert

We take a bridge over the canal and then descend for a long time down into the city of Maastricht. And down we go some more onto cobbled streets that lead into the heart of the old medieval centre.  It's lovely and lively with people.  There are cyclists everywhere, mostly on those classic clunky Dutch bikes.  We trundle along through the centre and straight out the other side, crossing the Maas river and onto a bike path that leads almost immediately into a tranquil village.  We then end up alongside the main road to Aachen in Germany.  It's tree-lined but very busy so we're glad of the path running through the fields.  It's a very long pull uphill and we pass by an enormous American war cemetery which looks immaculately kept.  It's a stark reminder of the war and might explain why there are no road signs to Aachen or Germany - nothing to tell us we are approaching the border at all - only signs to the local villages and small towns.
English charity riders

At the border sign we stop for a photo and get chatting to a group of English road cyclists who have rode here in three days.  "Why do you need a fire extinguisher?" one of them asks, pointing at our fuel bottle.   They're all raising money for different charities and they are finishing in Aachen, just over the border.  Our challenge is to get across this city and out to where we can camp. We have paper maps used the last time we came through here in 2010 and manage to find our way onto a small road which takes us on another climb to a woodland area.  It's time to stop and camp but we can't find a good out of sight place.  We also surprise a man walking alone beside the woods - he jumps into the trees when he sees us and this spooks us.  It's only when we see another man just standing trying to look inconspicuous with his phone that we think we've arrived at the local cottaging area.  So we cycle around to the other side of the woods, cook our tea and wait for darkness before camping in a fallow field.  It never gets really dark - there's a full moon and a clear sky - but the only sounds are owls in the woods.  This kind of sylvan wonder is why we don't like normal campsites.  And of course, it's for free.
vorsprung durch technik