A Travellerspoint blog

August 2010

Across the water - so I must be half-way there

sunny 22 °C
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

An early start took me down to Harwich Port, about 4 miles away, by 7.30, where the handful of cyclists queued up with the cars waiting to board. No preferential treatment for us - we had to wait until all the cars and lorries were on board before we could follow them in. Having assumed I'd done my last hill for several hundred kilometres, I was confronted with a steep climb to the upper car deck. Then it was time to settle back for the 7 hour crossing. Comfortable and uneventful, I busied myself with catching up with the diary, watching a film in the on-board cinema and trying in vain to get their promised free wireless internet to work.

Waiting for the ferry

Waiting for the ferry


Arriving in Holland

Arriving in Holland


Hoek Port

Hoek Port

We arrived slightly late into Hoek van Holland, fast-tracked through passport control (by simply whizzing past the line of cars and queue-jumping), and then I was off! I felt so excited... I'd made it to the other side! It seemed like my journey was half-way done, though a glimpse at the map laid rest to that. Still, the sun was shining, the world was flat (contrary to popular modern belief) and the cycle paths were AMAZING. Any cyclists dream. Almost every road has a dedicated cycle path, properly wide enough and usually separated physically. I headed over to the coastal path, expecting it to be very windy, but it was perfectly sheltered behind an embankment, and was bordered by greenery (and occasional sand) on both sides.

First Dutch Cycle Lane

First Dutch Cycle Lane

There were all sorts out on their bikes. Most sporting the traditional Dutch style of bike often described as 'sit up and beg bikes' - the handlbars are high and turn inwards so they're close by and you sit up straight. The crossbar is bent low so it'seasy to step into, and the chain is protected. This style suits all sorts for general purpose and commuting rides - tall and short, fat and thin, old and young; heavily pregnant ladies think nothing of getting on their bikes - if they can walk, they can cycle. Then there are attachments for carrying all sorts of accessories. Those that aren't taking their dog for a walk along side them may have poouch sitting in a basket up front. Kids sit on a seat behind, or wrapped round the handlebars at the front - or even both. Or sometimes the whole front of the bike is re-engineered: it looks like an ordinary bike as far forward as the handlebars, but the front wheel is replaced by two smaller wheels holding a large box. This is handy for transporting shopping, but more usually a couple of kids are perched in there. This gives them a better view, and let's the parent keep an eye on them.

On that first ride to The Hague, I must have seen a thousand cyclists. I counted just 3 bike helmets. The only people wearing helmets were the 'extreme sport' types, dressed in all the lycra, and racing along as fast as they possibly could. Even for them, I suspect it was more a fashion accessory than a piece of safety equipment. If anyone else were to bother with a helmet, they'd likely get puzzled looks. I've not brought a helmet with me - my only protection is a sturdy baseball cap that I put on if its sunny. I'll write in another post sometime about the Bike Helmet Debate and why its not necessarily as beneficial as is usually claimed.

Coastal path

Coastal path

This is hilly

This is hilly

After the village of Monster, I turned inland to The Hague I was back alongside roads, as well as criss-crossing a few parks. Larger roads have a lane for everything; one for the trams, one or two for cars, then another for parking. Then a segregated cycle lane (and sometimes a separate cycle parking lane). Then closest to the shops is the pavement for pedestrians. Junctions have a myriad of lights for each type of road user. If in doubt, cars give way to bikes, so you can get through even town centres at quite a pace. One thing to get used to is low-powered scooters are also allowed to use most cycle paths, but they seem to share the space quite well and are rarely intimidating.

Start of the cross-Netherlands cycle route

Start of the cross-Netherlands cycle route

Junction - bikes have priority

Junction - bikes have priority

I stayed in The Hague (or a district just outside) for 2 nights, and spent much of the time catching up with an old schoolfriend, Jeff. Nineteen years has passed since we left (and last saw each other) but you wouldn't know it. I stayed in a small family-run hotel down the road. It was locked when I arrived, and had to decipher Krypton Factor-like puzzles to gain access. Strangely, when you're in all the room keys are left hanging in the hallway, and you're expected to leave it there when you go out. As this area is unmanned, it begs the question about why bother having locks on the room doors at all?!

Street either from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings

Street either from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings

Saturday was an easy day, hanging out and Jeff's and going for a wander round town (ended up cycling 30km on the day off!) including a visit to the excellent Escher Museum and a Panorama gallery by ome famous artist called Meerkat or something. I did also try to spot some famous international criminals, but no luck unfortunately.

Somewhere important - palace or parliament

Somewhere important - palace or parliament


Gateway to somewhere important

Gateway to somewhere important

In the Escher Museum

In the Escher Museum


Imitating Escher (its the rounded glass making me look fat, honest)

Imitating Escher (its the rounded glass making me look fat, honest)


A try-it-yourself room

A try-it-yourself room

While Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, The Hague is the poitical capital, hosting parliament, the royal family and international embassies. So I can almost contrive to say that this is a capitals tour of the four countries I'm touring. Not that the Netherlands has a government at the moment - they've spent the last couple of months trying to thrash out a coalition deal after the election. None of the panic we had in the UK where we were without leadership for a whole 5 days! I gather the issue is that Geert Wilders' party (he who wasn't allowed into Britain under terrorism legislation) won 22 seats and is trying to wrestle their way into a governing coalition.

---> Don't forget you can follow detailed maps of all my journeys be clicking here or following the link at www.hambidge.com (Wait a few seconds for it to work out which are my routes, then click on the day from the list on the left. You'll then see all sorts of stats, plus a zoomable map. <---

Posted by bhambidge 13:14 Archived in Netherlands Tagged bicycle Comments (3)

Say Cheese

semi-overcast 18 °C
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

I set off early on Sunday morning. I was due in Gouda, 30 km hence, at 10am to meet a friend who was going to cycle with me for a while. I'd checked the map and seen a route that took me right along the motorway. I didn't feel keen on this for obvious reasons, but as I had to get my skates on, I went with it. I needn't have worried. With noise barriers offering some aural protection and a large grass verge on either side of the path, this was a very quick and pleasant path. I had intended to head in across a park to Zoetermeer to get away from the main road, but there didn't seem any point; this route was fine.

Even the motorways have cycle paths

Even the motorways have cycle paths

I got to Gouda ahead of time, and explored the pretty town before Dorota arrived from Brussels. It has a traditional European town square with a fairy-tale town hall in the centre, decked with traditional red and white shutters. The square is of course bordered with street cafes, where we lazed for brunch before setting off again. As in many other Dutch cities, wide streets are split by canals with little hump-backed bridges joining the two sides. However, what other towns lack are big replica (or real?) Gouda cheeses hanging across the streets like Christmas lights. Tasty if not tasteful.

Gouda market square

Gouda market square


Gouda

Gouda

We mapped out a route to Utrecht, heading directly east through some small villages. We then proceeded to go in completely the wrong direction, starting north alongside the Reeuwvijk lake. By the look of the map, this route was to take us alongside another main road, but we never saw it. While we started off on a segregated road-side path, we soon found ourselves following the bank of a wide canal. Many of the properties along here made a feature of the water, with part of the canal (or some other large water feature) making up a part of their garden. Many were small-holdings with a couple of sheep, chickens or goats. All were in pristine condition, both house and garden. The Dutch are very house-proud, and when you live in surroundings like these it's not hard to see why.

Along the canals with Dorota

Along the canals with Dorota


Dorota by the canal

Dorota by the canal


Typical Dutch house

Typical Dutch house


pet goats

pet goats

We stopped for a late lunch in Woerden. As soon as we parked up the bikes, the heavens opened. We sat outside (the tables were covered by one large umbrella, but had to shift the tables and chairs somewhat to avoid the rain splashing in. A hearty soup helped keep up the liquid intake, and we stayed a while to wait for the clouds to move on. Just as they seemed about to, the downpour intensified again, so there was nothing for us to do but sit back and order a plate of home-made apple cake and cream.

Eventually we could leave, and meandered our way out of the town to re-join the canal. This took us all the way in to Utrecht - an incredibly attractive and lively town with well-oreserved historic buildings, canals, as well as the hustle and bustle I like in a city. Between this, the cycle paths and the countryside I've seen, I'm starting to think this is somewhere I could live. Of all the places I've been, I don't often say that.

At last - a windmill

At last - a windmill


What's going on here

What's going on here


Cat guards secret party

Cat guards secret party


Made it to Utrecht

Made it to Utrecht


Canal in Utrecht

Canal in Utrecht

After seeing off Dorota at the train station, who was to head back to Gouda where her car was waiting, I went in search of my accommodation. This was my first experience of Couch Surfing, and I must admit to being a little apprehensive. Couchsurfing.org is a website putting travellers in touch with one another - people who have a sofa, matress or spare bed with those on the road looking for somewhere to stay. You upload a profile about yourself, get in touch and ask nicely, and hope for some positive replies. There are some checks to help keep you safe, but a lot of it is down to instinct as to whether you want to stay with or host a particular person. I'll write more about this in a separate post sometime soon.

Tonight my hosts were Marco and Judith, who lived a pebbles pelt from the town centre. I rang Marco when I was outside, so he could come down and let me in, then had to heave my bike up a flight of stairs. From the first moment, Marco treated me like an old friend, and we sat chatting about my journey, technology (he'd make a good iPad salesman!) and their gorgous cats (who they're teaching tricks to), and browsed his impressive photography portfolio - he's just set up in business (no job too far away! book him at ....). Judith rustled up some felafel and pizza before we headed off to the cinema with their friends Ton and Victor. I was somewhat surprised by the interval in the movie - that got dropped about 30 years ago in the UK, but is still common over here. Still, the film warranted another beer half way through. My first 'couch' to surf consisted of a comfortable mattress on the floor in the living room. One of the cats stayed in the bedroom, the other with me - they have to be separated. With the cathedral so close, and the hourly chimes happening throughout the night, I put in some earplugs and settled down to a good night's sleep. Before I did, I texted Dorota to tell her that I hadn't been murdered with an axe - she was poised and waiting to rescue me from the clutches of these dangerous strangers!

---> Don't forget you can follow detailed maps of all my journeys be clicking here or following the link at www.hambidge.com (Wait a few seconds for it to work out which are my routes, then click on the day from the list on the left. You'll then see all sorts of stats, plus a zoomable map.

Posted by bhambidge 02:17 Archived in Netherlands Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

From Dutch to Deutsch

semi-overcast 18 °C
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

It's Monday morning, and Marco & Judith are off to work early. They leave me to stay as long as I like, but I've got another 80km planned today, so I'm out of the door by 9.30. I meander out of the town - partly to see a little more of it, and partly because I'm not quite sure where I'm going; despite having a GPS cycle computer, it can be difficult to follow in towns with lots of roads, especially if you've detoured from the planned path.

Once I get out onto the open road, I find a local farmer selling fresh fruit froma hot-dog van, so I stop for a breakfast of freshly-picked raspberries and pears.

Each day, the first few miles are hard-going as my aching joints resist getting back on the bike and the sore backside protests with a pang of pain as it remembers what was endured the previous day, but I soon get back into the swing of it. I'm varying the comfort levels by way of a removeable gel seat cover, though I'm trying not to use it too much as it's not helpful in the long run. But generally I relish the fresh air and the road ahead, and only feel slightly daunted by the distance that lays ahead that day. I try not to think about the distance that still lays ahead on this trip, nor the mountain range that lurks half-way across Germany. No, I'll stick with the nether lands of The Netherlands. So far, touch wood (and Woerden downpour excepted) the weather has been ideal on this trip. Never windy, never more than the briefest refreshing spot of rain, frequent sunshine but never too bright, and a perfect temperature. Long may that continue!

Even the forests have separate cycle tracks

Even the forests have separate cycle tracks


Another windmill

Another windmill


Caption competition

Caption competition

With cycle paths on all classes of roads exceeding anything in the UK it doesn't really matter which route I take, but for the most part I keep to quiet country lanes where the only traffic tends to be the odd tractor ad occasional goat. I keep a fairly careful eye on both signposts and my GPS unit though. While I'm generally following the Dutch national route LF4a, occasionally the signs don't match my map, or they disappear, and I have to make the occasional decision. The route also usually goes out of its way to avoid even the smallest town, and from time to time it's nice to pop back to civilisation for a snack and a rest. One such place is Rhenen, mid-way between Utrecht and Arnhem where I stopped for lunch. Intending to order something reasonably healthy, I ended up with a 'Misty-burger and fries', the burger containing two slabs of meat, bacon, cheese and a fried egg, and the chips served with mayonnaise and curry sauce. Oh well, I'm burning off the calories I suppose, but I'm not going to lose any weight like that!

Just as I was about to leave Rhenen, the town lived up to its name as the heavens opened again - nice for it to be timed while I'm already sheltered. So I sat it out for an hour before it seemed safe to get on my way. I then followed the main roads most of the way to Arnhem, experiencing the first gentle undulation in Holland after a flat few days. One road even had an 8% gradient sign, which must have been specially commissioned.

This sign had to be  specially made

This sign had to be specially made

In Arnhem I surfed another couch, this time with Norma. She's recently moved into her own place and has a spare room. She cooked me a delicious dinner, sat out on her balcony a while chatting, then headed out for a stroll around the town, finishing with a couple of drinks in her favourite bar and a walk back along the river. Again, it would have seemed surprising to bystanders that we'd only met that evening, and I nearly took up her offer to stay another night, and give myself a day exploring Arnhem. But after a well-deserved lie-in, I checked the weather forecast: a day of sunshine, then a full day of rain was on the cards. I didn't fancy cycling in that rain so decided belately to get ahead of myself, packed up my things and headed off.

A museum for everything in Arnhem

A museum for everything in Arnhem

It was indeed a pleasant day to cycle, though the first several kiometres were fairly gruesome up a sizeable hill into a National Park. Down the other side was much more enjoyable of course - and would have been more so if I had a working back brake! Again I meandered along country lanes, through farms, and in forests. At one point I got a little confused as I had to cross a small river and couldn't see the bridge marked on the map. I saw some people on a small ferry, but it took a little time to twig. So this was my third ferry crossing of the trip - easily the shortest.

Third ferry of the trip to cross 20 metres

Third ferry of the trip to cross 20 metres


Canal lock at Borculo

Canal lock at Borculo

I was finding my stamina growing, taking longer distances between breaks and feeling less exhausted. After an apple-pie-stop in the picturesque town of Borculo, I reached the Dutch-German border at Zwillbrock at about 6.30. I had made it the entire way across a country! Now if only the next one could be so easy! I still had about 16km to go that evening as I was due in a Bed & Breakfast in Vreden. I texted the owner to give an ETA of an hour, and she replied with certainty that I'd be there in 20 minutes. I'm not sure how she rides a bike, but there's no way I was averaging 45 km/h on the flat!

Willkommen in Deutschland

Willkommen in Deutschland


Zwillbrock border village

Zwillbrock border village


From now on I'm roughly following these R1 signs

From now on I'm roughly following these R1 signs

As I approached Vreden, I could see on my bike computer that I was going to have done about 98km that day - a record. But because I like that kind of thing, I wanted it to tick over to the magic 100km, so I weaved around the town for a while before heading to the accommodation. I took my bike round to the back gate, wheeled it through, and found myself confronted with the gaping jaws of a 30-foot (10 metre) crocodile.

Posted by bhambidge 00:11 Archived in Netherlands Tagged bicycle Comments (3)

If you like this, you'll like...

One of my main inspirations for doing this trip was following the adventures of Alastair Humphreys who spent 5 years cycling round the world (and them some). I read about him in a newspaper when he was about a year into the trip and was entranced by his tale, following along as he posted occasional diaries. His ethos was that if you could ride a bike down the road, you could go round the world- it just took more time. You didn't need any special skills or talents, to start off with a particular level of fitness or have a superb bike; just set off!

So this short post is to say thanks to Al for the inspiration, and plug the books he subsequently wrote of his long adventure. They're very readable.

Book 1: Moods of Future Joys: Around the World by Bike - Part 1
Book 2: Thunder and Sunshine

Posted by bhambidge 12:40 Tagged books Comments (0)

No minster in Munster?


View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

The back garden of the B&B in Vreden was scattered with life-size metal sculptures, and the first to greet you was a life-size crocodile, somewhat surprising in a sleepy German town. I had been warned that my room wasn't quite 'ready',but what the owner actually meant was 'not quite yet built'. She was having a loft conversion done, and while there was some semblance of walls and wiring, there wasn't what you'd ordinarily call a light-switch, and although there was a door to the room, it wasn't anywhere near the room itself, but leaning up against a wall on the other side of the house. The room consisted of a couple of camp beds, and despite everything else was clean and habitable, and after my 100km dash, I was about ready to sleep anywhere. I wandered into the centre to find a plate of carbohydates for dinner, then wandered a little further to find a convenient bench close to an open wireless network for a spot of wifi-jacking. (The B&B was supposed to have internet, but the owner had ripped out all the equipment earlier that day in a bout of paranoia). I was struck by how close to the border I was, and yet how quickly the lingua franca changed. Particularly now there is nothing more than a sign to mark the boundary between countries, much like there is within the United Kingdom, it left me wondering what effect political union will have in Europe in blurring languages at border towns over the next generation.

I had no idea where I was going to be staying the following night, or even where I'd be. It depended largely on the weather which seemed somewhat erratic. It was due to be sunny in the morning, then rain all afternoon. There not being much to hang around for in Vreden, I decided to head off and see how far I got. If I could make it all the way to Muenster, 75 km away, then that would be ideal.

I didn't set off in the end until 10am, but as the R1 route took a much-extended scenic route, there were lots of oppportunities for short-cuts without compromising quality of environment much. The few short stretches I was following a main road, there was always a separated cycle path, so high-speed traffic was never a problem. However, while I had three methods of following the route - on the GPS, paper maps and signposts - it was still possible to take a wrong turn, especially when these three options didn't agree with each other. At one point, I chose to follow the signposts and regretted it as I ended up on a track that got muddier and muddier - too difficult to stay on the bike in points, and not ideal for walking in sandals. I had to give that up as a bad job and retreated back to one of my other routes.

Stopped on a country road

Stopped on a country road

I could see the rainclouds gathering in the distance behind me, readying themselves to race me to the city, so apart from a couple of brief road-side pauses, I continued nearly 50km before a lunchtime break in pretty Billerbeck - and that was just to a bakery and a town bench.

I had expected the weather to have beaten me by now, but I braved onwards. It looked like I might reach Muenster that day. I had originally not expected to get there for another day and had arranged a couch to surf for Thursday night. I texted my host, Babsy, to see if I could come a day earlier.

Signpost near Munster

Signpost near Munster

Then, a kilometre outside Billerbeck, I felt the drops of rain. I found the shelter of a couple of trees on the road-side just in time before the dark cloud let rip, and I busied myself finding and attaching the waterproof covers to my luggage. I also pulled out my raincoat, ready to wear it for the first time on this trip, but no sooner than I had done so, the rain stopped. The cloud seemed to disappear into thin air, and I rode in sunshine all the way to Muenster.

When I reached the city, I tried texting and phoning Babsy again, but got no answer, so I took the last available bed at the local youth hostel. This was just 1km from the city centre on the edge of Lake Aa. Someone was desperate to be first in the list when they named that. While the bed in a shared dorm was not as cheap as I remember hostels to be at €27, an evening buffet meal for €5.50 was excellent. The rain had started again by now and I spent the evening catching up on my Dutch diary entries - more than one of you had wondered what had happened to my blog - but with much of the day taken up with cycling, and finding decent internet not easy, it was easy to slip behind on ths.

I didn't sleep particularly well in the dorm; no sooner had the last person come in to go to bed, it seemed that the first early riser was clattering around having a shower and packing to leave. I'd not helped myself by forgetting that I had to make the top-bunk bed, and once I'd remembered, the light was already off and I was keen not to make too much noise, so the ensuing mess that might otherwise be called bedclothes were lumpy and uncomfortable.

I tried to contact Babsy again in the morning, both by phone and email, but resigned myself to searching foralternative accommodation that night - it was time for a rest-day in Muenster in any case. By lunchtime I had an email back from her; she realised she'd mistyped the phone number she gave me so had no idea I'd been trying to reach her. All was good - I'd explore the town for a few hours before heading over to her place.

Muenster is famous for being as much a cycling-city as any Dutch town. Bikes tend to be parked not in ones and twos, but in dozens and hundreds, on every corner and anywhere there's a bit of free space. Rarely do people lock the bike to a fixed object - there just simply aren't enough of them to go round. They just prop it up on the stand, nestled among other bikes (what's the collective noun for bikes?), and turn the key on the build-in lock, which prevents the back wheel from turning. Of course, bikes do get stolen from time to time, but that's just the way it is. Cars get stolen from time to time, but we don't throw a ball and chain round a tree to keep it in place. The built-in stand is an absolute necessity... and back in my day (the early 1600s) all bikes came with a kickstand of some sort. It was part of the bike, just like the wheels and handlebars. But when I bought this bike and asked for a kickstand, they looked at me like I was mad. 'What do you want that for?'. Well, duh. It took them 6 weeks to get one from their distributor, but I'm glad I persevered - every time I stop on a country lane for a break, or in busy towns with nowhere obvious to lean the bike against, it gets used. The only argument they could give me for not having one was, they claimed, it would make the bike less aerodynamic and weigh it down. Clearly they hadn't actually seen one in a while.

So Muenster is Germany's cycling city, huh? So WHAT'S WITH ALL THE COBBLES?!!! At least it gave my bones a god shake in lieu of a much-needed massage. There was also some confusion (to me) about where in the Altstadt you could actually cycle. Some bits were pedestrian-only zones, some allowed bikes, some only between certain hours, most (but not all) one-way streets allowed bikes in both directions. To confuse it further, signs were often placed with a symbol of a bicycle and the word 'frei'. Talk about amibiguous... does this mean 'free of bikes', or 'bikes are free to go here'. It's the latter, but I still have to pause for thought whenever I see the sign.

Munster

Munster


One of the smaller bike parks

One of the smaller bike parks


Munster Promenade

Munster Promenade


Munster Chinese Art

Munster Chinese Art


Archways in Munster

Archways in Munster

After a couple of hours exploring this charming city (full of DOZENS upon DOZENS of churches, though none of themare actually called the Minster), I went back to the Youth Hostel to collect my bags, then pedalled round the leafy Promenade to Babsy's address. Most city Couchsurfers are in flats or small houses,but this was a large house not far from the centre. Babsy occupied the attic floor, but shared the house with several generations of her family - it used to be one big family home, but is now subdivided into floors. As a child, the attic was where they used to hang out the washing, but was big enough to convert into a two-bedroom apartment with lounge, small kitchen and bathroom. I spent the evening with Babsy and her brother, and some of her friends including Julian,a tall airline pilot, and his girlfriend Lily who I decided must be the tallest woman in the world. We sat in their parent's kitchen eating traditional Westfalian food and sampling the local brew. This was to be a pitstop before going out to a party (or clubbing, I'm not sure which), but we were still there at 1 a.m., and after a week on the bike, I was flagging, so eventually passed up on the early-morning 90s disco music experience.

In the morning, I let myself out, bypassing the offer to raid her parents fridge for anything I could find for breakfast (I didn't feel entirely comfortable doing that!), instead finding a bakery on the way out of town.

The cycling was feeling easier, if not easy, and I found myself less interested in stopping to see places, pausing long enough for a rest and then onwards once more. One of these rest stops was a cafe I spotted on the other side of the street. Like any good German, I waited at the pedestrian crossing. And waited, and waited. Eventually, we could get across. As I sat at an outside table with my sandwich and drink, I watched other people waiting and waiting at this crossing. Geekily, I timed the phasing. This was a junction of a not particularly major road, with a side road running off it. The main road was given a massive 7 minutes of green light before pedestrians could cross, and cars turn from the side road. What interested my here was the behaviour of the people waiting to cross. In the UK, there wouldn't have been anyone there after 7 minutes - even the most die-hard waiters would eventually have taken the opportunity to cross in the many gaps between traffic. But while I sat enjoying my lunch, I saw people tap their feet, look at their watches, jab the button repeatedly. Eventually one man broke ranks, and darted across, looking very shifty as he did so. Anywhere else, this bravery would be joined by others like sheep in a flock, but no-one else dared break the red-man rule!

Posted by bhambidge 12:24 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Kit and caboodle

So you've probably seen a pic of my laden bike. Quite a few people en route have commented how lightly I'm travelling considering I'm away for a month, so if you're interested, here's what I've got with me.

The blue pannier bag contains all the clothes that I'm not wearing, separated into plastic bags, roughly divided by state of cleanliness - clean, acceptable, minging. If I'm wearing sandals, then the shoes are stuffed with as many small items as possible, and in a separate bag.

I've mentioned before that many of my clothes are from Rohan, which specialises in stuff that dpesn't need washing so often, dries quickly when it does, folds up tightly, and never needs ironing. I'm managing with:

4 t-shirts (2 'trip't-shirts with my trip logo on)
1 long-sleeve shirt to wear in the evening
3 pairs shorts
1 pair lightweight trousers
4 x underwear (2 of these are padded for cycling comfort!)
1 pr sandals
1 pr shoes
1 jumper
raincoat & waterproof trousers

In the red pannier bag (which also converts to a rucksack) I have:
small laptop (9" screen)
reading book, and map guide book
bag of cables and chargers
emergency nibbles
sun cream
travel towel
bag of toiletries & medicines (mostly with mini versions of things), incl pot of sudocrem - very useful.
leatherman penknife
bike oil
thin latex gloves and hand cleaner for the messy jobs

Under the seat is a small bag containing spare bike parts (inner tube, brake & gear cables) and tools (mulitool, cable ties, etc)

In the bar bag at the front is everyhing I need close at hand or to keep safest:
camera
passport
mobile phone (ok, 2 of them. I know.)
gloves/hat/sunglasses
snacks for the journey
a page of todays map on top
small donkey hanging from the side

The bike also has attached:
two water bottles
pump
GPS cycle computer
D-lock. Well it did until an hour ago when it just broke and fell off. Not sure what I'm going to do with that now
A cable combination lock wrapped around the stem

That's basically it. What would I have packed differently? Actually I think I got it pretty well spot on. I'm not struggling to close the bags. The only things I haven't used (yet!) are the small travel towel (as everyone's always provided them), and some of the bike tools & parts. I could have managed without one of the pairs of shorts. And the reading book. I brought a 950-pager to keep me going. Nearly 2 weeks into the journey and I haven't even opened it. There's no time, what with the pedalling, and keeping you all entertained!

Posted by bhambidge 14:38 Tagged packing Comments (1)

Up, up and away


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The cycling is getting easier, and the aches and pains less noticeable, though Sudocrem seems to help with saddle sores (though parents: what's with Sudocrem? - it's horrible stuff to wash off your hands, especially if you're trying to be sparse with the soap).

There's a fair way to go yet

There's a fair way to go yet

The ride to Guetersloh was pleasant but uneventful, mostly cross-country, through farmland (with all the country smells that entails), then skirting round the outskirts of Harsewinkel, then stopping for an ice-cream before cruising into Guetersloh. Famous only for being the home of washing-machine manufacturer Miele, I didn't spend any time exploring this town, but went straight round to my host for the evening, Svenja. Once again, a very friendly host. Conversation flowed, we popped out for pizza, fixed her computer, out again for a pint at the pub, then a comfortable night's sleep and I was on the way again.

Sunday held some apprehension. I'd been on the levels for so long, but today I'd have to face a hill! How would I cope? Would I manage it? A little way out of town, I stopped at a roadside kiosk for some strawberries. They were being sold in the most enormous punnets, but I asked for just a few - she could see I couldn't carry more, and she dug out a smaller box and half-filled it for me. "Present!" she said. No charge. I then explained what I was doing, and she and the other waiting customer were so impressed, and waved me on my way. I enjoyed the strawberries as I rode along, trying to ensure I didn't drip juice on my clean white shirt. They were the tastiest strawberries I think I've ever had. All perfectly firm and the right colour; just delicious, and spurred me along.

Surely Unweltfreundlischewiederaufbereitunghof?

Surely Unweltfreundlischewiederaufbereitunghof?

Many of the towns and villages seemed to have Saturday markets; often the equivalent of our car boot sales with all sorts of junk being sold. They were very popular, and some of them even had an entry fee. That put me off browsing, so I pedalled on. I had to watch my route a bit here; I was keen to go over the hill the easiest way, but it took some finding to get across country to the right way. I needn't have worried too much about the gradient - it took some effort of course, but it was all manageable, and a pretty diversion through the Teutoburger forest led me down the other side into the town of Detmold. I hadn't ruled out stopping here, as I didn't know how onerous the hill would be, but instead I passed a couple of hours in a pub garden (finally opening my reading book for the first time) before heading over the next hill to Horn Bad Meinburg.

I don't know either

I don't know either

I had intended to stay at the Youth Hostel here, but they wouldn't let me for some obscure reason, so I rang ahead to a guest house. I arrived to be greeted by one of the two sisters who run the place. I told her about my trip, and she was so excited. After she had shown be to my room, she turned up again five minutes later to say that they had been talking about me, and wondered if I would mind if they contacted the local newspaper to tell them about my journey. I agreed, and thought no more of it. In the morning, I went down to breakfast, and as every other guest arrived, one sister or other would tell them about me. 'Well, you'll never believe who we have here. Our guest, Mr Hambidge, is cycling all the way from London to Warsaw, and raising money for WaterAid'. And I'd repeat the story to them again in broken German, wishing I'd bothered to memorise some of the key words. Sister number 2 apologised that they hadn't managed to get hold of a reporter, as it was the weekend, but that they'd write something up themselves, if I didn't mind. Then just as I was leaving the breakfast room, in rushed excited sister number one to say that a local reporter was coming after all to interview me, and could I stay until half past ten? Of course I could.

I've not spoken a huge amount of German since school, and my efforts were more akin to leprosy than rust, but neither the reporter nor the sisters speaking more than a few words of English, I managed to battle through his questions, and even embellished on some of the details. We went outside and loaded up my bike for a posed photo, then when the reporter had gone, the sisters took it in turns to have their own photo taken with their new-found celebrity.

They refused to charge me a penny for the night's stay, and sister number two produced a packed lunch that she'd prepared for me. Sister number one then dashed back inside, and returned to present me with a boiled egg that she'd cooked for me specially. Before they waved me off down the street, they asked my permission to display the newspaper article (assuming it was published, of course) in their display cabinet in the hallway. How could I refuse anything to two such lovely and friendly ladies?

The sisters at Bad Meinberg

The sisters at Bad Meinberg

Posted by bhambidge 13:10 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (4)

Heart of Harz

I had a decision to make. I'd stayed somewhat off the route, and there was an easy shortcut that bypassed the peak of the hill. Or I could backtrack slightly, go up the hill and see the sight at the top. Lazy or virtuous?

The free night's accommodation pushed me to be virtuous, and as I started to climb the hill, the heavens opened. No cafe nearby to duck into, I donned my rain-gear for the first time and faced the elements. The Externsteine is often referred to as Germany's 'Little Stonehenge', though I'm not entirely sure if it's an in-place rock formation or carried there. Certainly there's something about the light shining through the right way at the solstice.

Externsteine

Externsteine

The path up through the wood was steeper than I'd had to deal with so far, but the trees offered me some shelter from the rain, and the surface was very good. Back out the other side, I had easy paths running alongside a small river, and I found I could race along at 30km/hour even on the flat. I had more power in my legs than a week ago, and the hills had helped strengthen them further. When the route turned uphil through the fields, I slowed but wasn't always finding myself switching down to the granny gear.

Which way?

Which way?

By lunchtime, the sun had come out properly. I'd faced rain and hills together in the morning, and survived.

Sunday roads are very quiet. No shops are open, and large lorries are not permitted to drive on Sundays. The towns and villages are almost ghostly, unless you pass through at the start or end of a church service. I found a pub with a few drinkers sitting at the bar and checked the kitchen was open. A full menu of 18 dishes was presented - all of them schnitzel. I settled for the 'devils' schnitzel (well, it was Sunday) served with a pepper sauce. The food soon arrived and the plate was overflowing. A huge slab of breaded meat with a pile of fries and a salad garnish. On a separate plate came a side salad - you could tell that even the salad had a salad garnish on the side. All this cycling was making me very hungry, but even I couldn't finish it.

Largely a gentle downhill for the rest of the day to Hoxter made for a pleasant, easy ride, and I sailed into the town about 4pm. I checked the map for the location of the youth hostel. I checked it again, turning it around. Surely some mistake. The direction of the youth hostel would appear to be incorrectly marked near the top of the most enormous hill. No-one had told me that. I checked again, and set off, a bit miffed, having thought I'd done my work for the day. I found myself very quickly in the lowest gear, determined to tackle this hill on the pedals rather than walking. I could see a large building in the distance - the hostel. At least I had a target to aim for. It felt like a 1 in 1 incline all the way up, and long before I reached the building I was puffing and panting, wishing I hadn't bothered with any luggage for the month. As I approached the building, I saw a sign for the youth hostel... pointing FURTHER UP THE HILL. This wasn't it at all, it was a school. So I kept going, crawling up in second place to a tortoise. I could see the top of the road not too much further ahead so fixed my eyes on that and counted the revolutions of the pedal. I got to the top! Only to find it wasn't the top at all... just a bend in the road, as the gradient got steeper. I was now basically riding vertically up a cliff-face, my wheels gripping to the road surface from a combination of sheer force of pedalling and some kind of magic curse. I tried to cycle from side to side, the way you can walk up a hill to make it easier, but soon found this doesn't work so well on a bike. Soon, finally, at last, the entrance to the actual Youth Hostel appeared - the real one, not a mirage, and a muttered under my breath some kind of self-congratulatory blaspheme, and a vow never to come here again.

Well of course, the hostel, only having two guests that night, wasn't doing evening meals. I'd have to go into town. And you know where that is, don't you? I considered trying to find some abseiling gear to hire, but set off again down the hill, this time on foot, for the mile-long trek down to the town centre, knowing I'd have to face it once more that evening.

The town was absolutely stunning; most of the buildings in the centre were up to 500 years old, and have been kept as close as possible to their original form, half-timber with colourful decoration and ornate writing along some of the beams. I would later see much more of this in other towns like Einbeck and Goslar, so is obviously characteristic of the region.

Typical Hoxter building

Typical Hoxter building

Down the hill again in the morning was a very careful affair - I could feel that my brakes weren't in top condition, and I daren't let the bike go more than walking pace. I found a bike shop to replace the brake pads before continuing on my way.

I had a few miles of flat alongside a river before heading back uphill again. Like a child dragging a sledge up a hill to be rewarded with a few seconds of blissful speed downhill, I spent quite a lot of this day alternating between stamina and speed. I decided that endless flat can be tedious, but cycling hills is uneven: timewise it feels like you're always going up, bevause the downs are over soquickly. And so often you have to waste hard-earned freewheeling on the brakes because of rough surface, tight bends or junctions or oncoming traffic. Worst is when there's a junction at the bottom of the hill, and you have to face the next uphill from a standing start again instead of using the momentum you'd built up.

Thought for the day: why do we consider heaven to be up, when all cyclists know it's downhill?

Harz mountains ahead

Harz mountains ahead

I was being very lucky with the weather overall - so far just the one monring of rain, and usually overcast or sunny (never too hot) with little wind. I made good progress to Bad Gandersheim where I stayed overnight. The next day was much the same, though the hills were becoming more numerous and pentiful - I was now skirting the edge of the Harz mountains. This still involved a lot of country lanes through cornfields, and butterflies danced around me as I sped along (or heaved myself uphill). The biggest clue that I'd reached the Harz mountains was the signs for the R1 cycle route had changed to include the symbol of a witch on her bicycle, broomstick safely stowed behind. I'd follow these signs for the next 2 days as I crossed the Harz region.

Following the witches

Following the witches

But as I got into the wooded areas, the going was much more rough. It was muddy under the trees where there hadn't been enough sunlight to dry the path, and the bike slid around with its narrow road tyres. I concentrated hard to navigate a course that was as smooth and dry as possible, but slipped a couple of times, and wished I hadn't worn sandals that day!

To make things harder still, my Sat Nav had given up on marking the R1 route for me a couple of days ago, and even the off road paths that used to be marked noo longer were, so I was reliant on the paper maps and signs - but they could be easily missed, or misunderstood. (Actually it turned out after 3-4 days that the sat nav had switched itself onto a 'road map'mode rather than the cycle map, so I was struggling unnecessarily. You'd think I'd know how to use the technology, but I can assure you that this GPS is renowned for being quirky and difficult).

Wind farms everywhere

Wind farms everywhere

A brief note about the route numbering. It is (pretty well) marked as the Euro-cycle route R1, but on any German publicity (e.g. Tourism offices) it is known as the D3. They also mention that it is part of the long distance Euro-route EuroVelo 2. The publicity makes no mention of R1 which is actually signed. Very confusing.

I was due in Goslar that evening, which wasn't too far away, but I'd allowed for the hills. Despite their number, I didn't find these as bad as I'd thought - I just got on with them and had a rest at the top. I made good time and got to Langelsheim in time for lunch. I stopped at a cafe- just in time! At 1 pm, the cafe was shutting for lunch! I think they're taking the mittagspause a bit too seriously. I was allowed to sit at the only table outside and instructed to leave the plates there when I was finished. The door was locked behind me as I took my sandwich and cake out.

In Germany, just as it used to in Britain decades ago, most shops shut for lunch; they also close for a half day on Saturday, and often one day midweek. And everything, bar petrol stations, transport hubs and tourist sites, is closed on a Sunday. There are no 24 hour supermarkets - you'll be lucky to find anything open past 6pm (or maybe 8pm for the bigger supermarkets).

Goslar street

Goslar street


Goslar market square

Goslar market square

Every time I think I'm at the top, another summit looms ahead. The couch I was surfing tonight was a little beyond beautiful Goslar, and looked like it was just round the side of another hill, but I seemed to manage to go over the top of it. A very pretty ride nonetheless, and I wasn't completely exhausted when I arrived at Quint's house. He was sitting in the back garden in his big beach chair. His house was nestled between the steep slopes of the hill I'djust tackled, and the one I'd face tomorrow. We sat and chated for a while before popping to the shops to buy things for an evening barbecue, which we enjoyed when his girlfriend Astrid got home. Then we had to discuss my destination for the next morning.... school!

Posted by bhambidge 13:04 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

The big bike helmet debate

To wear or not to wear, that is the question

Two thousand kilometres, and I've not even brought a helmet. Am I mad?

Cycle helmets are designed to give essential protection to the most important part of your body. It absorbs some of the impact on collision, and can make the difference between death and survival, brain damage and a lucky escape. An obvious safety precaution then, strongly recommended by the British powers-that-be, and law in some countries such as Australia and parts of the USA. Cycling publicity in the UK almost entirely depicts cyclists with helmets, and photos in newspapers that show people without generate angry letters denouncing the irresponsibility of suggesting that you shouldn't wear a helmet. If not by law, everyone should be strongly encouraged to wear a bike helmet.

Shouldn't they?

The counter-arguments - and there are a few - don't receive so much press. As some of you, my readers, have already expressed surprise that I've not got a helmet, I thought I should explain why.

Firstly, from a broader point of view of society, the expectation that you need special equipment (such as a helmet) to do such an activity deters people from doing it. As cycling is an extremely healthy activity, any reduction is detrimental to the nation's overall level of health. After the legislation came into effect in Australia, the number of people cycling dropped markedly, many presumably switching to cars for transport, or watching TV for leisure. This has three effects:

  • less healthy lifestyle overall leads to more heart disease etc etc

  • more car drivers - environmental damage

  • higher car/bike ratio means that remaining cyclists are LESS safe, as the car drivers are less likely to consider them

Secondly, studies by Ian Walker of Bath University have shown that car drivers will drive closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those without, therefore putting them more at risk.

Thirdly, the level of protection offered by a helmet is hotly debated. In general, impacts with other vehicles are likely to be too severe for the helmet to be of much use, and falling off your bike will rarely lead to a serious head injury anyway. Yes, of course there are cases where bike helmets have likely saved lives in both these cases, but they many researchers now think they are pretty rare.

Travelling across Europe, I find hardly anyone wears helmets. In the Netherlands, they would find it as absurd a thing to do as wearing a suit of armour when out walking. The only people that do wear them are the hard-core racing cyclists kitted out in all the lycra gear, and then it becomes just part of the uniform. They are also going at much higher speeds were falling off would result in a higher impact, so the helmet makes more sense. Absolutely no-one on a leisure, commute or touring ride wears a helmet. The same is pretty well true in Germany too, though I've seen a few children with helmets on, and possibly two adults during the last two weeks.

The risk of death and injury from cycling goes down the more cyclists there are, and in general the more that helmet wearing is enforced, the fewer cyclists there are. These graphs are from www.cyclehelmets.org where you'll find lots of other information about the helmet debate.

1079_3.jpg

1079_1.jpg

On the day I set out I wondered whether I should bring my helmet after all. It would have been a hassle to carry an additional item, and as most of the time I've been on paths separated from traffic, I've felt perfectly safe without. But even when sharing the road, I don't overall think it makes sense to bother, and if one more person on the road dressed in normal clothes can encourage anyone else to think that cycling is for everyone, then that's a job well done.

What do you think? Comments below!

Posted by bhambidge 00:46 Tagged bicycle Comments (11)

When the going gets tough

overcast

Quint and Astrid were particularly interested in my trip because Astrid had been on a placement in Ethiopia last year, and experienced first-hand the importance of water and the scarcity of it. Quint was an English teacher, and wanted me to come to school the next morning and talk to two of his classes about both my trip and WaterAid. I was surprised that they were at school in the beginning of August, but apparently in Germany, the regions take it in turns for holidays, so the whole country is not off together.

The weather forecast for everywhere east of here was pretty good for the rest of the week, and the next stage was more down than up, as I was almost at my highest point of the journey. Particularly exciting was that I HAD REACHED HALF WAY! Goslar was roughly the half-way point, just shy of 1000km on the odometer, and the former border to East Germany a mere half-hour ride away. I'd done the hardest part - plain sailing from here. So it was with some dismay that I woke up to the pouring rain. Quint offered to drive me to school (we could put the bike in the back of his car), but I refused. That would be cheating... and with my uploading all the maps and stats of my rides, someone out there would pick me up on it fast enough! But mainly, I would be letting myself down - no transport shortcuts, except for essential ferries of course. Luggage, however, was another thing - I could let him carry that for me for 5 km of my journey!

First lesson was at 8am, so an early start to ensure I got there in time. Quint had gone ahead in the car, and I arrived at the school a little lost, and asked someone where Mr Gembus' office is. I thought I'd asked a member of staff or parent; she looked mature enough, but she shrugged back in Teenager-ese (its the same the world over) "I dunno, he's not my teacher". Evenutally I found someone with a full moustache andlots of wrinkles and decided he COULDN'T be a student, and wastaken through the magic door to the staff area - where it seems quite a few people knew I was coming. "Ah, you're the cyclist. From England. Incredible". (I'm not sure if it was that I had cycled from England that was incredible, or an English cyclist).

The two classes went off pretty well. Year 10 (16 year olds?) were first, and I started by telling them the basics about my trip, and how I met Quint (Mr Gembus to you), and then it was over to them to ask me questions in English. There was the typical boy-girl divide - the boys were too cool to ask anything, and sat there looking bored. The girls were more talkative, and asked some good questions. Next lesson would be to write up an article about me based on their 'interview'.

The second class were a year younger, and the difference in their English reflected that, but again they were motivated and interested, enough so that a couple of them came up to me afterwards to talk some more. Their next lesson was to make some posters; Im looking forward to seeing them!

At breaktime, it was time to head off. Next stop, Quedlinburg, home of the witches apparently (I gather several were rounded up here at one point). That was at the foot of the far side of the Harz mountains, so I headed back towards the woods to follow the witches' trail. Luckily, the rain had eased off to no more than an occasional spit.

First though I had a stretch of country road to follow, and just before I turned into the forest, I crossed the border to the 'DDR', what was East Germany. There was a sign acknowledging the former border, (and division of both Germany and Europe). In the forest, a short distance on, the trees suddenly stopped for a strip about 50m wide, and stretching into the distance over the hill. This was the 'green band' - rather than erect a border like the Berlin Wall across the entire landscape, here they did the opposite - made it impossible for people to avoid being seen if they attempted to cross, and of course they were shot on sight.

At the East German border

At the East German border


The Green Band

The Green Band

Although I was supposed to be going more downhill, there were plenty of ups, and the path was full of rocks and potholes. Had to concentrate hard to avoid dangers so even the downhills were a crawl, and very hard work on the hands, if not feet. Occasionally I'd notice a dip too late at bounce over a hole causing my luggage to jump. Frankly, I'm surprised I've suffered no punctures so far. This section would be far more suitable with a mountain bike with the wide tyres with good grip. At one point in the forest I was overtaken by a jogger - how embarrassing! But even on the downhills I could only manage to hold a speed of about 15km/h, when on a good surface, I'd be racing down at 40km/h plus.

Down into Wernigerode, I started noticing the difference with East German roads: many were in a very new condition, but those that weren't had been badly patched over the decades, and again racing down hills wasn't possible - in fact it was more precarious than on the forest paths as the potholes were deep with sharp edges.
I headed straight through the town, and could see from the map I'd soon be back in the forest. A pretty castle was perched on the top of a steep hill. I laughed that there was no way I'd be visiting that up there, but then it dawned on me that the R1 route was going to take a sharp backward-turn and up this incredibly steep hill. Somehow I stayed on the bike until it flattened out, by which time my face was beetroot read and hot enough to fry an egg. Fortunately I didn't have to go all the way up to the castle, but it was still hard work... only then to be back in the forest for more rough path torture.

Well before Blankenburg I was thoroughly sick of these picturesque but treacherous trails and was cursing at the top of my voice. When I finally found a route out, I took it, ignoring my planned route - I didn't care where it was taking me, I just wasn't going back into the wood again. Proper asphalt! What a luxury! I'd taken it for granted across the first half of my journey, but now I was being punished. But there was no escape - the road I was on led down to a rounabout where every exit led me back into the forest and onto the Europaradweg R1 - and this time the path didn't even pretend to be leisurely well-planned stretch for all-comers. It narrowed to a thin track, hopping over large tree roots and abruptly round handbrake-turn bends and up steep sections of track, like a gruelling BMX course.

After that, the descent into Blankenburg on the boneshaking cobbles was a godsend, and I was relieved to find somewhere to stop for a well-earned late lunch. Bulgarian cuisine seemed an unusual speciality for a pub at first, but just 20 years ago, Bulgaria was the Florida of commie holiday destinations.

I checked the map. Downhill or flat all the way to Quedlinburg. All roads - no more forest! But it seemed there was a mystical kilometre of sharp uphill that the map lied about. Then, finally, the reward. 4km of constant downhill, on a perfect asphalt road. OK, there was no cycle path and I had to share it with some traffic... but I didn't care. This was a few minutes of bliss. At the next village of Timmenrode, I looked for the signpost left to the following one, Warnstedt, 3 km further on. I was somewhat confused to see the signpost pointing the other way, with a distance of 9 km. Strange. I checked the map, and then saw the name of the street - Warnstedterstrasse - well surely that must go to Warnstedt. Indeed it did, but I soon found out why traffic was sent the very long way round. These weren't potholes. They were craters. This was the worst condition road I'd come across, and although it was perfectly flat, it must have taken me half an hour to cover the three kilometres. I stayed on the bike, but I'd have been no slower walking. By the end of it, my hands and shoulders were tingling from the constant vibration and jolting.

The final short section to Quedlinburg was smooth, flat and easy, if a little heavy on the traffic. As a student of Transport Planning I know that the key requirement often considered for a good cycle route is the traffic level, followed by the gradient. But from my first-hand experience today, we perhaps take for granted that the surface will be solid and smooth. That's now number one criteria on my list. As if to confirm that, Quedlinburg greeted me with the biggest, bumpiest cobbles possible, and my innards wobbled their way into the town centre and on to my B&B. Several detours were necessary to avoid major roadworks and random flights of steep steps at the end of paths - but eventually I found it! As there was no breakfast provided, I intended to head straight back out while the shops were still open to get some provisions and see a bit more of this UNESCO heritage town. Then I promptly lay on the bed and fell asleep.

Any pretensions I'd had at the beginning of the day that the hardest part of the journey had already been conquered was well and truly shattered. What was East Germany and Poland going to throw at me for the rest of the ride?

Quedlinburg

Quedlinburg

Reminder that water is precious in Quedlinburg

Reminder that water is precious in Quedlinburg

Posted by bhambidge 13:40 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Water, water everywhere

rain

I set off from Quedlinburg with dark grey clouds looming. Unfortunately I didn't have time to explore the town; I'd arranged to stay tonight in Dessau, over 100 km away, even with shortcuts (the R1 route would take me over 150 km). I had decided this was doable, as there was a big of downhill and otherwise flat, and my fitness level now should surely allow me to cover that distance in a day? Of course, those thoughts had been before the experiences of the day before, and I dreaded to think what road quality lay ahead of me. Maps just don't provide that kind of information.

My bike was still in pretty good shape except for the brakes - the front one in particular was scraping against the wheel every revolution. I tried to remember what to do about it (I went on a one-day bike maintenance workshop a couple of months before setting off) but couldn't for the life of me think which screw to turn and which way. Having found the only bike shop in town closed for the day, I decided to disable the front brake altogether and stop at the next town. (That of course assumed that the back brake was still working, or I wouldn't be stopping anywhere!)

I'd planned my route as carefully as I could, shortcutting my way back to the R1, then following it where it made sense (on the assumption that it would avoid the worst of roads), and short-cutting when it was just being frankly silly. But a few kilometres outside Quedlinburg, my initial plans were thwarted, as a road was completely closed to roadworks, and I had to find a major detour round, adding nearly 10km to my journey. The black clouds had opened now; not heavily, but enough to cover up in full raingear, though it didn't look like it would last too long. Sure enough, after about half an hour it seemed dry enough to strip off again. I needn't have bothered: 5 minutes laters, the heavens opened again, and I stopped to get kitted out once more. And it rained. And rained. And rained. There were no clouds visible in the sky. It was a single shade of dark grey, as far as the eyes could see, in every direction. All day. Rain meant covering my luggage, including the handlebar bag that the map was on, so I could only see that by pulling it out occasionally to glance at.

Fotunately the surfaces weren't generally too bad, though about half an hour before Stassfurt took me along a track so overgrown that I was being whacked on all sides by plants, nettles, and low-hanging tree-branches. The alternative was the farm track running alongside, with all the rocks and potholes that entailed, so I preferred to ensure the arboreal bruising, even finding some of the ducking and dodging exhilirating, and keeping quite a pace.

This is an international cycle path!

This is an international cycle path!

In Stassfurt, I found a bike shop, where they attended to my brakes free of charge, and after a spot of lunch, I set off again - there was still 65 km to cover. Unfortunately, just a few short kilometres out of town, I could hear the brake scraping against the wheel again, and could certainly feel it slowing me down. With the rain still falling (ironically there was a brief respite just while I stopped for lunch), I wasn't in any mood to consider looking at it, so I just disabled the brake again and pedelled on. I can't say today's ride was particularly pleasureable; it was just a matter of getting through the distance. I'm not as bothered by rain now as I was - it helps to be prepared - but after several hours of constant wet, it becomes a chore. The waterproof clothes are doing a better job than it feels, but they still feel wet on the inside and the trousers cling to my skin. The waterproof shoes that served so well in the morning seem now to have allowed some water to run in, and I can feel it sloshing and squelching with every turn.

Another short-cut takes me along a main road, but it is an excellent surface, and I pedal hard and count down the kilometres. By Aken I'm flagging - less than 20 km from Dessau, but find an ice-cream cafe (the most popular kind of cafe in Germany), and fortify myself with a hot chocolate,

Earlier in the day, I'd given myself only 50:50 odds of reaching Dessau that night, but finally I plough on and into the city. 105 km later, my longest distance yet, I arrive wet to the bone, at Bernadett's house. She has the very dubious pleasure of hosting a soggy dirty couchsurfer, with his soggy dirty luggage.

A hot shower and dry clothes puts me quickly back in good spirits, and we set about putting clothes in the machine, and leaving shoes out to dry. I also discover that despite careful packing involving lots of plastic bags, some of the things inside my luggage has got wet, including my hardly-read book and my passport. Nothing irrecoverable though, but it reminds me how important it is to pack well - the bottom of one of the pannier bags seems to have acquired a puddle.

I've earned a day off. I've been on the move for 7 constant days since Muenster, so Bernadett has kindly agreed for me to stay two nights. We spend the first evening at the local 'Kartoffelhaus' with some interesting friends of hers. She's Hungarian, and we meet up with a Kosovan and a couple of German friends, and later joined by a Pole who is astounded to hear an Englishman speak Polish. We don't stay out late though; if I was exhausted the day before, I'm just as much so after the day's slog.

The next day, Friday, I get on my bike for no more than a few hundred yards to a bike shop, to have the brakes checked one more time. I think the bar-bag isn't helping as it's gently pressing on the brake cables, so I make sure that's attached while they attend to it. Hopefully, that will make the difference this time. For the rest of the day, I decide to head to Leipzig for a day-trip on the train. With rain forecast all day, I go prepared, but never need the coat. I've long wanted to visit Leipzig, and often meant to but never made it. It played a pivotal role in the fall of the DDR that kept us glued to TV sets in 1989 (especially during German lessons at school). It was bigger than I was expecting, with many beautiful buildings (and of course many building works, as seems to have been the case across Germany constantly for the last twenty years). I found time to visit the Stasi-museum, hosted in the former Stasi building (with some of the rooms left intact), and a museum documenting life in East Germany. Both of these were excellent and fascinating. I spent too long here to get to the Bach museum which I'd also hoped for, but I headed back to Dessau in the early evening. Bernadett was out working a night shift that evening, so I had the place to myself, and finally read a bit more of my book - now nearly twice the size after having expanded from getting wet!

I'd worn sandals that day as the shoes were stil wet, leaving the shoes by an open window to dry, but they were still soggy that night, and the next morning. So on Saturday I set off again, fully prepared for rain from the outset, wearing full raingear and sandals.

Destination: Belzig. Via the R1: 90km. Direct route on Google Maps: 52km. Well, I could compromise. I found a route that used some marked paths that would be a 65km ride; that was acceptable. My destination was a cheap hotel recommended by another cyclist. Brian raved about the comfy room, friendly staff, but mostly about the power shower and big fluffy towels! That sold me.

From Dessau I started off east following the river Elbe towards Worlitz. Not far out of town, the roadside cycle lanes turned into good countryside paths, with glimpses of the river through the greenery. Then a covered bridge, reminiscent of Madison County, if not as pretty, crossing a stream, and down into a dip. This was the Elbe floodplains, and things were certainly waterlogged now. The path turned into something of a ford and I cycled through a long puddle a couple of inches deep, the bottom of my feet just getting wet. A short distance on though, and I could see a much longer stretch of underwater path, and this time a little deeper. I checked the map, and decided to detour to a nearby road. But just a minute or so away, the road turned into something of a lake. A car approached from the other direction, and quickly turned back. It was too deep for the car, and way too deep for me. So back I went to check the path. I could head all the way back to Dessau, or I could brave this and continue. I didn't like retracing my steps, nor admitting defeat, so I set off, gently gently to minimise the splash, keen to keepmy luggage dry. I was glad I was wearing the sandals now, and I didn't care if my feet got wet.

I made it through to the other side unscathed, and the water hadn't quite touched the underside of one of the bags. A group of cyclists were soon behind me, and I stopped to watch them enjoy the experience. Another few hundred metres on though, we rounded a bend and were confronted by yet another water obstacle, this time clearly a little deeper and longer. The group rubbed their chins. I now had spectators, and couldn't admit defeat, This time though, I pushed my bike across, wading through the water, carrying the more precious (and less waterproof) of my pannier bags. Glad not to have turned back for a long detour, I then cycled on as adry path stretched ahead of me. The group had stopped rubbing their chins and decided they weren't as stupid as me. They clearly didn't have big fluffy towels waiting for them.

Elbe floodplains

Elbe floodplains


Cycling through the floods

Cycling through the floods

Inevitably, the next water-crossing came, and I tackled it much like the last, wading through water above my ankles. I wasn't going to turn back now! I did have to pause and think at the next one though. Not only was it deeper, there was a visible current running across! Still, I'd come this far. I didn't get where I am today by (mumble mumble mumble), Big Fluffy Towels. The last crossing had dipped the bottom of my bag into the water, so this time, I lifted one bag to rest on the handlebars, so that I could hoist the back wheel off the ground lifting the other bag to safety. I then wobbled my way across, knee-deep in riverwater, steering the front wheel while trying not to drop the balancing bag. Halfway along, the two sides of the floodplain joined forming a reasonable current, and shoals of small fish swum about my feet. But I got to the other side, rearranged the luggage and set on my way again. Who needs the Amazon rainforest when you've got Northern Europe?

Fortunately, that was the last of them through this nature reserve, confirmed a kilometre further along when I met people again! I warned them about the path that faced them ahead, and as they didn't have big fluffy towels waiting for them in Dessau, they decided not to bother. The next stretch to Worlitz took me along a raised path and felt something like cycling on top of a wall, but at least it was keeping me above the water-line. I detoured to cycle round Worlitz, worth a look apparently, but quickly came back out to press on. I wasn't following the R1 now, but was on another recognised route that would take me across the Elbe, and I'd hope that the roads northwards were well paved.

Five or six kilometres on, I reached the bridge over the Elbe. That was strange. There was no bridge. The road simply ran straight into the wide river. There was a stop sign, and nothing else. I checked the map more closely to find it was marked with a tiny ferry symbol, but becuse it followed a cycle route, it looked like a road. There was no obvious ferry to befound, and I asked in a nearby cafe, and was told that there wasn't a ferry. The next bridge back the way was the Autobahn, which I couldn't use, or all the way back in Dessau. The next one on was a 26km detour to Wittenberg. Either way, the only road back took me through Worlitz again. So finally I was defeated, as I retraced my steps, and found the road round to Wittenburg.

Defeat - can't cross the Elbe

Defeat - can't cross the Elbe

At least it had stayed dry above the surface. I was still kitted out prepared for rain, and the clouds threatened, but it was a new road all the way to Wittenberg, and I was determined to make up for some time, and pedalled as hard as I could. Being the weekend, the roads were pretty quiet, and it was flat all the way. I put these extra miles behind me with the reminder of the big fluffy towels awaiting me. What could have been 52km was now creeping up to a 90km day.

I stopped in Wittenberg for lunch (yet another schnitzel I'm afraid), and pulled out the details of the hotel - time to check out exactly where it was, and program the address into the GPS unit. Oh horror! It turns out that the hotel isn't actually in Belzig at all, but like any good Ryanair airport, TWENTY-NINE KILOMETRES AWAY. ON THE OTHER SIDE. I'd put 50km behind me (some of those underwater), but now found I still had 70 to go.

Or did I? I hadn't paid for this room. I didn't have to go all that way, especially as the next day I wasn't going much further to Postdam. I could just find somewhere else on the way to stop. (Big fluffy towels). But did I want to admit defeat a second time in a day? Big fluffy towels. Well I didn't have to decide straight away. But I did decide that as the rain hadn't yet come I'd risk being back in T-shirt and shorts.

Chess-like monks in Wittenberg

Chess-like monks in Wittenberg

Apart from one gentle hill, the area was flat. I had to decide between the R1 route, or some unknown roads that may or may not be paved; the distance was now about the same. I opted for the R1, but it was pretty variable... maybe the grass would have been greener, but I propelled myself on, thinking of the towels. The kilometres that had flown by coming in to Wittenberg were now taking longer and longer. While the surface through a forest wasn't full of potholes, it was soft and slighty shaly, and doubled the effort required. Eventually I got on to a nice tarmac path, and a sign for Belzig 22 km away. It should be easier from here, but I was tired, and the 30km/hour flats that I was managing earlier in the day were halved. I wasn't sure I'd make it past Belzig. (Big fluffy towels, big fluffy towels).

Eventually I reached the town, and searched around for a rest stop. I'd done 90 km now, and still had thirty to go if I was going to make it, but I was seriously flagging. Being a Saturday afternoon, hardly anything was open, but I finally found a bakery cafe, and ordered my magic potion of hot chocolate, and treated myself to a slice of Apfelkuchen to go with it.

That, and 30 minutes rest was just what the doctor ordered. Back on the bike, I had energy again, and was quickly back up to 25 or even 30 km/hour, and while I couldn't maintain that all the way, I could count down the final kilometres quickly enough, and the hotel got closer and closer. I arrived that evening at about 6.30, though it felt much later, greeted by the friendly staff who were expecting me. I struggled not to just collapse on the comfy bed again, but had a top-class dinner at the hotel (after 120km, I wasn't going another metre on the bike).

Oh, and the towels. Well, they were a bit of a let down! Certainly wouldn't describe them as fluffy, or particularly big. But compared to the ones you're given at most hostels, then I suppose they were ok. Not sure they were worth racing 120km for!

Big fluffy towel

Big fluffy towel

Cyclists welcome at the hotel near Beelitz

Cyclists welcome at the hotel near Beelitz

Posted by bhambidge 08:46 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (6)

Couchsurfing

So I've spent a few of my nights now staying with random strangers. How does that work?

Well you can read what Couchsurfing have to say themselves at http://www.couchsurfing.org/about.html - but basically, thousands of people who are into travelling - or just meeting others who are - add a profile to the site inviting others to contact them for a chat, advice or usually somewhere to stay. Most people have both hosting and surfing experiences, so the "love goes round the world man". It seems a bit utopian/idealistic, but is it realistic? Is it safe?

It doesn't surprise me that (as far as I can tell) it hasn't taken off in the same way in the UK or USA as other parts of the western world - I think we're overall less trusting of our fellow man. We're very hospitable to people we know, or even have a secondary connection to, but complete strangers? What's in it for the host? Well, I've so far only been on the surfing end of the bargain, but actually I think quite a lot, if you're open to meeting new and friendly people. Throwing your doors open to someone from a far flung part of the world is a gamble (what if they're boring, or they smell?), but they need only stay a night - and it seems many friendships have been formed this way. In fact, I'd describe it as 'having a holiday without leaving your ront door', as you get to be an active part in someone else's adventure. There are so many people looking to travel the world but put off by the costs of accommodation, and Couchsurfing seems a great solution to this. Sure it's not for everyone (I can think of a few of you reading this that would rather eat live rodents), but there's something quite exciting about it.

Making a request is a matter of first searching for people in the area you want to stay in, then browsing the profiles for people that you think would be suitable (e.g. what sleeping facilities they have available, when they are liekly to be around, as well as whether they sound interesting). You then just send a message through the site, and wait for a reply. But in larger towns, there can be hundreds of Couchsurfers! Well, you can't contact them all, so there are a few ways to filter it down. This is something they could improve on the site - meanwhile, I'm using the 'pretty girl' filter if there are too many to choose from :) (Though what's a guy to do in Berlin though, where there are 10,000 registered people, and my 'pretty girl' filter still lists over 1000!)

Is it safe? Well, you get to read about each other first, and you only give out your contact details if you want to, so you get an impression. No-one's ever obliged to say yes. In fact, I'd say only about 20% of my requests are accepted and I think I'm doing well - people are interested in my unusual trip, and I give the address of my website upfront so people can get a better idea of who I am. There are also some checks on the site, like address validation, and a 'vouching' system where more experienced users of the site can vouch that they've had a good experience with someone. But at the end of the day, there's still an element of trust. There must be some bad apples out there, because that's how it goes. So far for me, I've got nothing but fabulous things to say about my hosts, who have all been generous, hospitable, friendly, interesting. I hope they've enjoyed my company too.

I'd go as far as to say it has been my lifeline on this trip. When I have a few consecutive days staying in guest houses and the like, I am starved of conversation beyond the bare essentials. Couchsurfing gives me friends along the way, reasons to reach a particular town, and second thoughts as to whether I want to move on so quickly. Even though I've spent such as short time with each along the way,and so have barely met, I know there are a few I will keep in touch with and look forward to inviting them to stay with me.

Posted by bhambidge 05:56 Tagged lodging Comments (1)

Brandenburg, Berlin and the Border

overcast
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

It had ooccurred to me that the path suddenly improved during the journey the previous day, right in the middle of the forest. That point also marked the border between two regions (Laender) in Germany, from Sachsen-Anhalt to Brandenburg. Apart from the city of Berlin, I would be in Brandenburg until the Polish border, so I had high hopes that the worst of the German cycleway was behind me.

Also, having come so far, I was now only 30km from Potsdam, and 60km from Berlin. This made the capital an easy day ride, but I was planning to couchsurf in Potsdam on Sunday, so had an extremely leisurely two days to spread it over.

I could afford myself a reasonable lie-in. The bed was indeed comfy, and more importantly the curtains were thick and shut out the light, and I got up in time for a late breakfast ready to head off by 11 am. However, this was not before checking my shoes again, that had got so wet three days earlier. They were still soaked. So I took advantage of the facilities in this hotel, and armed with a hairdryer, took it in turns to blow dry each shoe until it was at least in a fit state to pack into the bag without risking soaking everything else.

I'd expected to find today's short ride a breeze; it was almost entirely flat, and almost entirely on asphalt paths through woods and by large lakes. But my body was complaining from the recent endurance and I had to force the pedals to turn.

Fiona wasn't expecting me so early, but she was home so I arranged to drop off my bags before 'doing' Potsdam for the afternoon. However, when I got there, she had a better idea. Her boyfriend Florian had a kayak. The two of them had been planning to go out on the lake for the afternoon, and now I was in time to join them. First we had to cycle over to the other side of the lake to the boathouse. There was a short-cut over a railway bridge that involved hiking the bikes up some steep steps then walking along a narrow path next to the railway tracks. I was glad I'd been able to dump the luggage - the bike was eminently more carryable. Florian explained that this railway line had been of particular importance in the years of the GDR - with West Berlin closed off, the main Potsdam-Berlin route was useless, and this bridge carried rail traffic that detoured round to East Berlin. The line is still in use, but nowhere near as heavily.

At the boathouse, we fetched Florian's kayak and rented a canoe suitable for two. My job at the back was to steer, but I never really quite got the hang of it, and while somehow we stayed afloat, and even managed to go generally in the right direction, it must have seemed more like the drunkard's walk (or row) with us zigzagging around trying to avoid obstacles like buoys and distant boats. Fortunately our motto was 'less speed, less haste', and after a while we pulled ashore on a small beach for a break.

I then tried out the kayak. It was awkward to get into at first, as the opening is at such an odd angle, and your legs stretch all the way into the boat. But I surprised myself how much more easily I could control this with the two-ended paddle. Before you get too impressed though, this is entirely relative. A short circle round the beach was one thing; I then stayed in it for the next stretch out on the open water. Now the larger boat was racing ahead, gliding effortlessly in the right direction, while the kayak was flailing around in a random pattern, struggling to keep up. I had mastered left. Turning right, I had got down to a tee. Going straight ahead? Now that was the tricky bit.

Time was pressing on, and while we had hoped to get far enough to see Potsdam city from the water, we decided that if we turned back now, we could afford a leisurely pace back, allowing for my slalom style. It was time to swap over though; there's very little back support and I was aching, so we rotated: Fiona in the small kayak, and Iwas at the front of the larger boat.

It soon became apparent that Fiona was having as much difficulty with it as I had done - she was pretty adept at making it go backwards (though not when she actually wanted to), and soon after we heard a rumble of thunder. The storm seemed a little way off, but any science teacher will tell you that the middle of a lake is not the ideal place to be in a lightning storm; we tied the two boats together, rowed back to the beach to consider our next move. We were actually much closer here to Fiona's flat, but the bikes were back on the other side of the late, and we had to return the boats. Time was ticking along, and my hosts had an engagement that evening.

We had a farmerly discussion about the weather, Fiona pleading caution, Florian insisting that the wind wasn't blowing the storm in exactly our direction, just as the rain started. There were a couple of lightning bolts, followed shortly by thunderclaps, but aftera while we agreed that the nucleus of the storm didn't seem to be getting closer yet, and that we may as well go for it. With the boats tied together, and Florian's steering skill, we pushed as hard as we could to the next point of safety - directly underneath the railway bridge that we had cycled across. We got there as the storm brewed a little thicker, so took some shelter under the bridge. We were already soaking wet from the rain (and I thought I was done with getting wet), though being a railway bridge, it wasn't a solid surface and we still continued to get wet through the tracks. We counted the time between flashes and rumbles, and argued about how to calculate the distance of the storm*, but agreeing that perhaps we'd best wait here awhile. I clung on to a metal post that protruded from the water to avoid us drifting out into the open water. It soon died down though, and we could row back over to the boathouse, pack up and cycle home in the glorious sunshine.

(* It turns out that I was wrong. We were taught at school that it was an additional mile away every second; apparently it is actually five times closer than that, or about a kilometre away every three seconds gap.)

Fiona and Florian had a family dinner that evening, so I cooked for myself, then went for a bike ride around town to see the sights. Potsdam is famous for its parks, palaces and other buildings, and while the main park was closed, I could ride around the outside and see much of it from the other side. Sanssouci Palace was the venue for Stalin, Churchill and Truman to carve up Germany after the Second World War.

After a delicious breakfast (where we lamented the state of typical English bread - a common peeve among Continental Europeans in Britain), I set off towards my major landmark: Berlin. This took be across Glienicke Bridge, closed for over 40 years to the public, but played host to the occasional secret spy swap.

Glienicke Bridge

Glienicke Bridge

Over the other side, I was surprised how suddenly rural it had become. I drew a parallel with Hong Kong, where a major city is confined in such a small space, and yet there is still so much open landscape if you go beyond the centre. I cycled for several kilometres through forest and woodland, round the Wannsee, until up near Spandau I joined the long straight road that would take me right up to and beyond the Brandenburg Gate. It felt like such an accomplishment as I approached the heart of Berlin, like my journey was already complete - Warsaw was but a short additional hop. I had an evidentiary photo taken at the Gate, and smiled as I continued east along Unter den Linden past many other Berlin landmarks. I was staying in a hostel tonight on the eastern side, so checked in there, before cycling back to the centre for a victory lap, past landmarks like the Reichstag, Fernsehturm, Tiergarten and Checkpoint Charlie.

Arrived at the Brandenburg Gate

Arrived at the Brandenburg Gate


Past the Reichstag

Past the Reichstag

I wasn't couchsurfing in Berlin in the end for some mundane practical reasons, and the hostel afforded me somewhere easy to sit with a drink at a table and catch up on earlier sections of this diary. I had planned to stop a day or two in Berlin, and in other circumstances I might have, but I was keen to press on and complete the journey.

Reaching the border in a day is too ambitious, so I phone ahead to book a room in Buckow, and head off. There are good paths out of Berlin, including a great rural stretch by the Muggelsee. Out of the city limits, the rain starts. Fortunately, it doesn't last long, and 10 minutes shelter under a big tree suffices. Similar small showers pepper the afternoon, until I'm just 2km out of Buckow, when the tree I've found just isn't doing the job. This time it doesn't look like it's going to stop, so I don full wet suit and brave it into the town to find the accommodation. I arrive looking soaked and bedraggled, but it is only superficial, and I soon dry off - as does the weather within 2 minutes of my arrival of course. In turns out to be a picturesque small place perched on the side of a lake, and host to a beautiful sunset.

On my final morning in Germany, departure is delayed as I wait for the drizzle to stop, or at least die down. First up is a hill, about the only one of any note in Brandenburg that I've had to face. This is also one of the few stretches without asphalt, as the road turns cobbled for several kilometres. However, helpfully a narrow brick strip is provided down the side to make cycling bearable and I quickly put the distance behind me. I had planned to take shortcuts from the R1 route as it seems unnecessarily lengthy, but I think it is only along the marked stretches that such consideration has been paid, so I follow the long way round. About mid-day, I reach the banks of the Oder, and there see land on the other side - Poland. I just have 14 km to race down along the Oder to the nearest bridge and border crossing, and I'll say goodbye to Germany.

First glimpse of Poland

First glimpse of Poland

One more obstacle awaits me: a flooded foot tunnel. There's no other obvious route to the border bridge, and accustomed to such things (and to the surprise of another cycle tourer pondering the same difficulty), I hoist up my bike above the water level, and wade my way up to knee-deep again through the 200m-long tunnel.

Poland is now part of the Schengen agreement, which means there are no passport controls here. The buildings for immigration and customs still stand, but are abandoned, and we can pass straight through. I've achieved another significant step - Germany complete, just Poland to go!

Posted by bhambidge 09:16 Archived in Germany Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

Navigation

I'm lucky to have tools and information available to me to make navigation so easy. Signposts, paper maps, electronic maps, GPS with compass, internet through my mobile phone. How on earth did people on horseback in days of yore nagivate the land? (incidentally, were the days of yore before or after the olden times? What about yesteryear? Chronological order required please! Anyway, I digress...)

When the guy in the bike shop saw that I had both a GPS unit and a map holder on top of my handlebar bag, he laughed that I was clearly worried about getting lost. But even on a well-marked route across civilised cycling countries, I was pleased to have both. When all three (signs, GPS, map) agreed on the route, it was easy, but frequently one would diverge, and occasionally all three would point in different directions. There was no right answer, and I'd judge each time which one to obey - or even none at all, and find my own route.

Across the UK and most of the Dutch sections, I had no paper map other than a printout from Google maps. Then from Arnhem all the way across Germany I was using the German 'Bikeline' guide. Unfortunately (although in theory designed for it) the book was too big for my map holder, so I ripped out the pages and folded them to fit, discarding the used pages each day. By the time I reached the Polish border, I had litle more than a cover on a metal spiral.

bikeline-radtourenbuch-europa-radweg-r-1-von-arnheim-ber-berlin-nach-kstrin-an-der-oder-13432050.jpeg

is-r.gif

Another guide book (also in German) was available from Berlin through Poland, following the R1 up to the Baltics, so this was useful to me as far as Bydgoszcz. This was a much better fit, and while invaluable, the maps weren't quite as detailed, in particular no distances or gradients marked. As with the other book, recommended sights, pitstops, and accommodation were listed, as well as a detailed profile of the hazards of each country that this section passed through. In Poland, for example, it warned of the crazy driving, lack of cycle paths, and occasional dogs that would chase you down the road, yapping at your pedals.

My Sat Nav device is a Garmin Edge 705. Specifically designed for cycling, it's certainly not as easy to use as a TomTom for the car, and nor does it have any husky voice chastising you for missing a turn; just a series of different beeps.

garmin-edg..705-gps.jpg

It come pre-loaded with the most useless map, showing no more than the largest roads, exactly the ones you are likely to want to avoid, however you can buy map packs that contain more detailed road maps. These are very detailed for roads all across Europe, but don't show off-road paths. The alternative is to download maps from a website called OpenStreetMap. This is a map compiled by volunteers (and therefore without copyright). In the areas that have so far been mapped, the detail is very good, especially at adding off-road cycleways, and marking the signed routes such as the R1. Through Poland the detail is in places extremely patchy, though the R1 route is marked in detail, even when main roads around are completely absent, so it has been ideal for me. Even across Germany the R1 signs can be easy to miss at turnings, so having some kind of map is essential.

I've got both sets of maps loaded, but am using the OpenStreetMap version, at least until I leave the R1 near Bydgoszcz and have to find my own way to Warsaw. However, I found myself missing the marked R1 route for 3 days in Germany, wondering why it hadn't been mapped there, until I realised the device was set to show the wrong map.

The paper maps are more useful for looking ahead, while the electronic map is more useful for checking you are still on the right route, and zooming in in built-up areas to see junctions in more detail. It's also handy for keeping track of speed, distance travelled, etc, and you can also do some basic routing when finding a particular hotel or couchsurfing address. The device is also supposed to record elevation, though it isn't particularly sucessful - every day there are points that it records me being several hundred metres below sea level! The statistics shown on the Garmin site show elevation: I have set it to estimate based on the known topology rather than the barometric readings taken. If you haven't already seen this, here you can see detailed maps of my every turn, speeds, and so on: Click on the link from my home page at www.hambidge.com for a summary of my daily rides (wait a few seconds for it to filter to my trips), then click on a day from the list on the left hand side to see full details.

Posted by bhambidge 13:46 Comments (2)

Bring on the tomatoes

sunny 25 °C
View London to Warsaw by Bike on bhambidge's travel map.

I've enjoyed giving my knowledge of German a lick of paint over the last couple of weeks, and it became more useful further east as less English is spoken. I found myself able to have basic conversations with ease, if not with accuracy.

Now it was time to crank the next language into gear, but the effort of doing so is like not having a working clutch. Yet again I was surprised at how quickly the language shifts among locals; just the other side of the bridge I heard elderly residents passing the time of day in German, now I could hear teenagers swearing across the street to each other in Polish.

My first practice was to order some lunch in a cafe, and I treated myself to one of my favourite dishes in Poland, placki po wegierksu z surowka (potato pancakes with goulash). The prices were also very amenable, both compared to Germany, and the prices I was used to in Germany. A pint of beer in a bar was half the price than the capital, for example.

Within five minutes of being in Poland, the sun came out, and for the most part it was to stay that way for several days; literally a warm welcome. However, I was really somewhat anxious about this stage of the journey. I'd not thought about it too much until this point, but I knew very well what Polish roads were like, and more importantly what the traffic and drivers were like. I wasn't likely to see any cycle paths outside the towns (and those in the towns would likely be in a bad state of repair) so I'd be sharing the road the whole way.

I just wanted to get to Warsaw now; it seemed so close, but the distance still to tackle was depressing. I could go the direct route 470km east to Warsaw, or I could meander around following the marked R1 route as far as was useful, but this increased the distance massively to nearly 700km.

Barring the route itself, information about the R1 in Poland was sketchy, but it beat the lack of suitable details of any other route, so I chose the long way round. Someone had at least decided this way was as good as any for cyclists, so I may as well trust in that.

I set off out of Kostrzyn, and immediately noticed the difference. Cars and lorries roared past, usually giving a reasonable berth but occasionally a whisker away from me. Every few kilometres, a cross and some flowers or other memorial would mark a fatal accident at the spot, making me feel particularly mortal. If there was a time that I felt wearing a helmet would be sensible, it was now, though I reminded myself grimly of the other statistics about how much use they really are.

Fortunately, after 10km I turned off this road to a much quieter one, and then nearly fell off my bike in surprise when I saw a cycle path running alongside the road. This wasn't what I expected from Poland! It only lasted a few kilometres, and is apparently one of the few rural segregated lanes in Poland. It seems somewhat out of place on such a quiet country lane.

The signs I'm following in Poland

The signs I'm following in Poland

I passed through small villages and towns, and kept going until the odometer ticked up to 110 km. The next couple of days passed similarly, staying at cheap hotels, occasionally pausing for breath or a quick meal, putting over 100km behind me on three consecutive days. I sneezed my way through Pszczew, Krzyz and Trzcianka (a pint of Zywiec to the first non-Polish speaker who can pronounce those correctly), and noted how few touring cyclists there were compared to Germany. In fact the occasional others that I saw were all German, following the R1 route.

I passed through the remote town of Miedzyrzecz, which is Polish for irony, then had a fantastic stretch of excellent road with almost no traffic. The reason? Ahead the road was closed, and the diversion was nearly 20km long. I hoped that, as with previous roadworks, bikes could get through even if on foot, otherwise the trip back to the diversion point would be even more depressing. Eventually I reached it. They were rebuilding the bridge over a river, and it was clearly not passable, by anyone. My heart sank, but I asked around and was told there was a shorter route round, just half a mile back. This was an incredibly bumpy, sandy, stoney, muddy track that abruptly crossed railway tracks a couple of times, but eventually led me to the other side of the bridge, and I could continue once more on the empty road.

Blocked!

Blocked!

Soon after, I met a couple of German cyclists; we'd stopped at the same bar for a drink. They were doing the R1 in the opposite direction, so we were each a source of invaluable information to the other. Unfortunately, this meant my brain had to somehow switch back again into German, which it was reluctant to do, so the conversation was somewhat stilted. I left there in much higher spirits, knowing that the road surface ahead was generally good, where to watch out for heavy traffic, and so on. I realised that I also felt more positive than I had done because it was the first extended conversation I'd had with anyone for a few days. I missed Couchsurfing!

I continued to follow precisely the R1 route, as it had generally served so well, except for a recommended diversion that the Germans confirmed. Often the road was fairly monotonous, though nicely undulating without being too strenuous, and with the good weather made it easy to cover the longer distances. It was frustrating to realise that I was at times going in precisely the opposite direction from Warsaw. But the alternative was to risk roads with an unsuitable surface, or too much traffic. Even a tarmacked road with loose chippings was a problem, particularly in the heat as the small stones both slow you down and get stuck to your tyres, even trying to pierce holes through them.

Villages came and went, and villagers came and stared. Dogs barked from behind fences, and then eventually I had my first chase, a little thing yapping at my feet, keeping up with me until the road turned downhill. Compared to Germany and the Netherlands, the towns and villages looked more impoverished - economically, culturally and architecturally.

I stopped for lunch in one village where a cafe or resturant was marked on the map, but the small bar I found was closed. Further along the road, a shop marked as a cafe was open, but by cafe, all they meant was that you could buy bottles of beer, and sit outside and drink them. This was a true village shop though. Among the small selection of bread and traditional Polish cold meats, bottles and packets, were trays of nails and screws, sold loose by the kilo like a sweet shop for Jim'lls. In the corner sat a woman on a stool in front of a fold-up table, with the hand-written sign 'bank'.

Outside, blue postboxes were numbered in a row. People here don't have letterboxes on their doors; they walk down the road to their box on the corner of the street to collect the mail. The postman has the key to a big lid, each covering dozen boxes, and drops the mail in. Each resident has the key to a padlock to open a forward-facing door to retrieve the mail. Simple but ingenious - until that is you want someone other than the postman to deliver you anything. Until recently, in my flat in Warsaw, if the building administration people wanted to send me anything, they couldn't push it through my door or pop it in my box. They'd go down to the post office, and sent it registered mail to be delivered back to me.

I keep questioning whether I can now be bothered to keep going. I feel like I'm almost there, yet it's going to take more than a week to complete the section in Poland. There's less of interest to see here - I know Poland quite well, have visited all the interesting places, and rural western Poland really isn't it! But its still nice to be here, back to hearing Polish spoken all around, and I remind myself that it beats sitting behind a desk. The sun has also been out since crossing the border, and that gives me cheer and drive to keep going.

My third night in Poland was finally with another couchsurfer, after several days of anonymous paid-for accommodation. Hania and family were putting me up for the night. I had originally expected to get to Pila by Saturday, but the long distances I was doing got me there a day early. It was tempting to press straight on the next day; like reading the last few chapters of the book, I was keen to race to the finish line. But I also knew I'd need a rest - it had been over a week since the last day off the saddle. Not only were saddle sores still evident, but my hands needed a rest - since the Harz mountains I've started getting occasional numbness and tingling in my hands, apparently known as handlebar palsy, caused mainly by the constant vibration, particularly on bad surfaces. I've taken to wearing padded gloves the whole time, but really a day off would help. So I stayed for two nights, enjoying the excellent company and hospitality.

All Hania's family are geographers, cartographers or in tourism. Her Dad was responsible for signing the R1 along most of its route in Poland. We discussed my dilemma of having no route after I leave the R1 before Bydgoszcz - I want to avoid the main roads, but want to ensure that the alternatives are suitable for cycling. This is a problem, as there aren't as many side roads as in England, and many that are there are heavily damaged or stony or sandy tracks. We pore over the maps we have, and they make phone calls to colleagues, and fetch leaflets from the office, and we piece together the most likely route. It's still speculation of course, but a very educated guess, though beyond Torun it will be worth me checking in there at the tourist office to see if better local information is avaiable.

Saturday morning is a very leisurely time. The only time on the saddle is to pop round the corner to get my bike serviced. Large enough towns are far more spread out here than in Germany, and it would be a shame to have a problem at this stage. I've noticed a hole in my tyre, and I'm not sure if I should do anything about it. The mechanic's first response is that it's a big hole and that I risk a puncture. But he quickly follows it with the advice that any replacement tyre he can supply will be far inferior to mine, and one hole aside, it's in good nick. The hole hasn't pierced through, so he sets about reinforcing the weak spot with a patch on the back. He then prides himself on ensuring that my gears and brakes are tuned to perfection, not letting it off his stand until he's perfectly satisfied. I think he's enjoying the pleasure of working on a bike of good quality rather than the rustbuckets he normally sees.

Saturday afternoon starts with a wander around town. Pila was bombed in the war, so there's not much to ee, though it is actually a very pleasant town, with lots of greenery, a river, and easily the best town cycle paths I've seen in Poland. Later in the afternoon, we go kayaking on the river. The second time in a week! This is Hania's family passion, and they live right by the river. Fortunately, I manage this time to go in a straight line. I'm convinced there must have been something odd about Florian's boat in Potsdam.

Kayaking on the river

Kayaking on the river


Hania

Hania

All the conversation is in Polish, and I'm pleased by how much I manage to communicate - or maybe it's testament to their politeness as I vomit out a random stream of disconnected morphemes, and they nod sagely as they pretend they can reconstruct them back into a meaningful sentence.

In the evening, Hania has some friends round for a bonfire in the garden, and we roast sausages on long skewers, and drink beer until the small hours. An excellent day off; I'm glad I didn't rush off.

But next morning, the final 400km awaits. It's time to finish what I started over three weeks ago.

Cooking sausages on the fire

Cooking sausages on the fire

Posted by bhambidge 06:49 Archived in Poland Tagged bicycle Comments (4)

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