Across the Sea and my first pedal strokes in Africa

After being waved through by Guardia di Finanza and had my details taken by Polizia di Frontiera I was let forward to the pier. The boarding process was in full steam. There were three bridges and a veritable traffic jam in front of them originating from two queues and some port machinery pulling in other cargo from the side. Most of the cars and vans looked so overloaded I wondered why the authorities never came across the idea of setting up scales and earn a pot of money in fines. In the middle of it was a guy with a few stripes on his shoulders and a clipboard shouting at his underlings who in turn shouted at the drivers who more often than not shouted back. Evidently a few Mediterranean tempers were clashing here. Eventually I was shouted at too, directed to the foot passenger entrance, from there back to the garage, where my bike was stripped into a niche. I was allocated a bed and then I continued watching what I can only describe as a mess from the outside deck. How different, how much more organised and quieter had that same process been back in Dover. I couldn’t pretend however that this piece of Mediterranean organisation was any inferior. Precisely on scheduled departure time the bridges were pulled, the mighty engine roared up and off we went. I stood outside in the sun for some time watching Genoa disappear on the horizon.



The sailing takes just under 48 hours. And it was boring. I had a cabin with three bunk beds and a window all by myself what would have been nice except that it was freezing cold in there. Otherwise, I found the pool dry, the gym turned into a mosque, the casino closed, the disco too, until on the second day Moroccan immigration set up their office there. That shipping company certainly overpromise in their shiny brochures.


On Friday I woke up with a beautiful sunrise however, quickly being reminded how boring it would be trapped on this ship I went back to sleep. When I finally got up it was moored in the port of Barcelona. I learned from other passengers that the port workers were on strike and the departure would be delayed until 17.00 hours, a hefty 7 hours delay was brewing.


More boring. It was raining outside so I went back into my fridge reading and playing computer games. After departure while filling out immigration forms I met a fellow Austrian who was on his way to holidays. He doesn’t like flying so he was driving to Agadir. He had a bottle of nice whiskey and we spent the evening just getting utterly drunk.


There had been a reason why I had chosen that particular ferry crossing. It was the only one that would arrive in the morning. Contrary to the trip across the Channel I had done my homework this time. It would drop me off at the new port called Tanger Med, which is about 50 km outside of Tangier. This way I would have more than enough daytime left to cycle to town. However now, rather than 11.00 hours the arrival in Tangier was predicted for 16.00 hours. Once more I had pre booked a place to stay, thinking that this would facilitate my arrival.


The increasing number of ships around and especially the widely visible rock of Gibraltar were sure signs the arrival was close. Once more I got a bit worried, about what would lie ahead, and the general thoughts about whether what I am doing is right or wrong.


Those worries were gone instantly as I stepped outside. Rather than some hazy hypothetical problems that might or might much more likely not emerge, the reality presented itself with pouring rain and a rather firm headwind, and worst of all probably without a lot more daylight.


It was already quite dark when a sign indicated 30 km to Tangier. I grabbed my headtorch only to find that the batteries were empty. With nothing but rocks and the ocean in sight, all I could do for the moment was keep going. And it got night, and by that I mean pitch black. In my black raincoat and without any sort of lights I felt more than unsafe. I stopped at the next shop which fortunately wasn’t that far hoping that they could phone me a taxi and I would come back tomorrow and pick up the bike.


This wasn’t necessary. I made a very slow attempt at telling my story using about 10 of the 20 French words I know. A guy named Omar, as I learned later offered me a lift to Tangier in his van, that was apparently used to deliver eggs, complete with my bike. I was relieved. The chatter on the way was equally slow. It was nice nevertheless. When he delivered me right in front of the place I had booked, I really wanted to pay him in a way or another or give him any sort of present, but he refused.


Now I was here, in a different world, which at first glance didn’t look all that different, and quite stressed out getting there. Was that all bad luck I had? That’s what I kept thinking all the way, but in hindsight, would rather call it stupid. There were places to stay in these little towns between the port and Tangier. Why had I pre booked a hotel in the first place? Already in the past that had done me no good, lead to shortcuts, uncertain arrivals, the need to make pricey phone calls or even saw me paying more than what similar places would have charged locally. Second, why was I a slave to that booking? My travel insurance covers delays. And third, why did I not buy emergency battery powered lights for the bike? I had them in my hands in shops back in London, several times in Holland, Germany and Austria, and even twice three days earlier in Genoa, not to mention spare batteries for the headtorch. Risking to end up as a piece of roadkill on my first 30 km in Africa only for doing something stupid like not carrying spare batteries… Talk stupid!


I did not find Tangier a particularly beautiful place. It has a nice waterfront though, and the views across the Straight of Gibraltar are great. There are tourists here most of whom seem to be day trippers from Spain. Apparently the government is seeking to increase tourism and there is construction work in progress all over the place. I learned the basics of navigating Moroccan cities however. There seems to be always an old walled part called the ‘Medina’ which tends to be a proper maze and a new town which is a lot easier to navigate. My guidebook has a substantial section about all the hassle from touts there. For whatever reason, none of this happened to me but unfortunately for the first few hours it had changed my attitude.



I left Tangiers on Monday. I saw Omar in his eggs van once more at an intersection on the edge of town. We waved at each other, and I hoped he would stop for a moment but unfortunately he didn’t. I was headed for the Rif mountains. The area I went through was moderately beautiful first, just densely populated with little order. The last bit, and then especially the ride today was very scenic albeit steep. I heard the horns a lot, which was almost exclusively friendly as I noticed. I got a lot of waves and thumbs up from many drivers, as well as pedestrians and naturally all of the few cyclists.



The cycling itself has not been great so far. In this area the only real choice are the main roads or what I found the ‘red’ roads on the Michelin map, and they are predictably busy. Nevertheless some can be quite skinny for extended distances and with some of these kamikaze drivers it is not always nice. So far any smaller roads would have been a major detour. From now on I have more ‘yellow’ and ‘white’ roads as suitable alternatives, so I expect an improvement there. I am headed for Fez.


Before I left this morning I was thinking about going farther than the just over 60 km, but now that I am sitting in Chefchaouen typing these lines I am actually quite proud of my achievements today. There must be an extended downhill ride ahead in the next few days. I am quite keen to cover greater daily distances in the near future though.


Europe Summary

Distance cycled: 2474 km

Distance covered on trains: 907 km (estimated number, road distances)

Distance covered on ships: 1982 km (estimated number, great circle distances, inclusive Barcelona to Tangier leg)

Breakdowns: Two punctures, both on the back wheel.

Items lost: Virtually nothing. One pair of sunglasses fell into the gap between the train and the platform when I got on the train in Beuron.


Countries visited:

England, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, (France, Germany), Austria, Italy


Maps used:

London to Dover: Google Maps on my mobile phone. No cost for data roaming there. There was not a lot of need though, it’s well signposted.

Dunkerque to Duisburg: ADAC Lnderkarte Belgien / Luxemburg. Covers the whole distance from just outside Dunkerque to the Ruhrgebiet.

Essen to Freiburg: None. The Rhine isn’t that hard to miss and the signposting is generally good. Got lost south of Strasbourg though, so might consider one next time.

Freiburg to Beuron: Breisgau-Kaiserstuhl and Schwarzwald-Baar by Landesamt fr Geoinformation and Landentwicklung Baden-Wrttemberg. The 1:35000 scale is really useless for cycling. Doesn’t leave a lot of time for pedalling with the constant turning.

Velden am Wrthersee to Bozen: Marco Polo Nr. 42 Krnten and Nr. 43 Sdtirol/Dolomiten. Their 1:120000 scale is a little large for cycling, needs frequent turning. There is a about a 50 km gap between the two.

Bozen to Genoa: TCI Touring Edition Nr. 3 Trentino Alto Adige, Nr. 6 Emilia Romagna, and Nr. 5 Liguria. The 1:200000 scale is about perfect for bike touring there.


Best cycle paths:

The Netherlands. There is a dense network of dedicated cycle paths everywhere, always free of cars. And it’s perfectly flat. It is essential to understand the system of numbered intersections however to find your way around.


Best for sharing roads with cars:

England. By a long way. Drivers are a lot more patient than anywhere else.


Best food and drink:

Of course my mum’s cooking back in Salzburg. In terms of commercially prepared meals Italy equal with Belgium. The latter being my slight favourite because of the fantastic beer to accompany it.


Best for roadside breaks:

Italy. There is a bar in even the smallest of towns serving coffee that’s always fresh and strong for 1 Euro.


Best value for money accommodation:

Germany. It was sometimes old fashioned but always clean and well maintained. And for European standards it remains a very reasonably prised destination.



No unfriendly place so far, on a scale from one to five it’s a one for every country. The one plus I am (somewhat proudly) awarding to… Austria. Virtually all fellow cyclists greeted when we passed each other, others being a very rare exception.



Towards the Mediterranean Sea

Piacenza saw me for two more nights and it proved to be a friendly place. Probably most places are if given a little time. It is a nice city yet not touristy at all. It was fun hanging around for a bit in town and of course the nicer hotel I had chosen after the first night improved the situation.


I left Tuesday morning still in dreadful weather. It would be another uphill day. The road remained flat until Rivergaro, from where the Valley of the Trebbia starts leading uphill. Even in the thick clouds and showery weather it was quite obvious that this was an extremely beautiful area if there was only more to see.


It didn’t really matter how far I would go that day. As long as I did a mere 30 km it would be just one more day cycling to Genoa in any way. I knew the weather would improve in the near future so I stopped in Bobbio for the night. It is a pretty town in some of the most beautiful surroundings. Further more after the rain and the dirt of the previous days, as well as a slowly evolving puncture my bike needed a little attention.


The sun showed itself briefly on Wednesday afternoon and on Thursday I left under perfectly blue skies. Once more I had taken my plans back a bit. There were a few things I wanted to sort out in Genoa before I would leave Europe. Sundays are strictly observed in Italy so little could be done then. I pre booked my accommodation in Genoa for Friday and would stop for the night somewhere on the way. So far the plan…


For the last time in my winter clothes I cycled further up the Trebbia valley. It was a long climb until well after lunchtime. The gradient however is very nice and I kept happily pedalling for hours without the need for a break albeit not very fast. And it was really, really beautiful. It had certainly be worth the slow progress of the previous days just for the views on one of the most scenic stretch of my route.



Another delight of cycling in Italy, or probably travelling there in general are the coffee breaks. There is at least one bar in each town however small it will be. A coffee is always 1 Euro and with an industrially packaged brioche the bill usually adds up to 1.60 Euro, or 1.80 Euro with the freshly baked variety. There really is no point setting up the camping stove.


The downhill stretch was predictably very enjoyable. Much like on the uphill stretch it followed a very nice gradient, meaning that I effortlessly rolled along at something between 30 and 40 km/hr.


After I had turned the map for the last time the section I was looking at showed that big blue area with the words ‘Mar Ligure’ written across on its bottom end. It had been some time ago that I had seen that same big blue area on the map, and back then it had been on the top edge and was labelled ‘Noordzee’. It struck me like a flash. I was not far away from the other end of Europe! Sometimes I just don’t make these obvious connections any earlier. So now ambition took over. The daylight would not last much longer but nothing mattered now and all my thinking narrowed to one thought: I would see the Mediterranean Sea today.


The destination I had quickly chosen was Recco what seemed about the closest coastal town to where I was. The last intersection was at a town named Gattorna, where I should have turned right. The signposting there wasn’t entirely clear to me and, and I missed it. Perhaps… or not. I wasn’t sure. Well, at this stage I really didn’t have the time to contemplate whether a turn I made was right or wrong, mind you, and stopping to ask or consult the map was unthinkable. I assumed I was headed for Chiavari now, which being a coastal town as well was just as good. By now, nothing mattered, as long as the road was downhill, I figured, it would take me to the seaside, and that was all I wanted.


I rolled into Chiavari well after dark. An easy distance planned had turned into 120 km. After finding a place to sleep I bought a pizza in a box and a few beers and headed for the beach where I listened to the waves breaking and bathed my toes in the water.


My rather errand cycling the day before had taken me quite a bit away from Genoa. However it would be a nice ride along the coast. The road out of Chiavari soon led uphill, at a hefty gradient. While all the towns are on the shore here the road is a bit inland, what means elevated by about 200 m in this rather steep area. When you leave a town the road quickly starts to meander and while spiralling upwards you don’t move an inch towards your destination. Then it is a relatively flat stretch to the next town, where you then spiral downwards in a similar fashion, then upwards again, and so on. The beauty of the surroundings however is a great distraction. After an absolutely scenic and a bit roller coaster like ride I arrived at Genoa at dusk.




Genoa certainly doesn’t disappoint with beauty. It is quite a vertical city, with only a small flat area around the harbour. The centre is about three floors up from there. There are plenty of viaducts and intersections often mean two streets cross another on different levels. Public transportation has a horizontal component in the traditional form of trains and buses and a vertical component in the form of lifts and funiculars. It is mostly a collection of beautiful architecture, with even a handful of big squares, something I would not have expected in such a mountainous place. The old port is nicely remodelled. Streets are bustling with activity, most are less than 2 meters wide.




I wandered down to the ferry terminal first thing on Saturday. I bought a ticket for departure on Thursday then went off doing the funny things tourists do and just generally enjoyed the sun and warmth. My relaxed sightseeing tour continued on Sunday, and as business resumed on Monday I got down to some last minute preparations and shopping.


I have thoroughly enjoyed the time in Genoa. Now I am looking forward to crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The trip on the ship is something rather exotic for me. It will be good to get going again too. And finally I am soon going to arrive on the African continent. However there is also a part of me that is a bit anxious if not slightly fearful. That ship will take me out of my European comfort zone. There will be a lot more new things to discover, and a lot of new things to to deal with. Most probably the trip across Europe was only the appetiser.

Out of the Alps… and into the big rain

Tuesday was a public holiday and Bozen remained closed. I had time for a coffee in the morning sun under the statue of Walther von der Vogelweide, and took a few more photos. On the way out I passed the Victory Monument. This is one of the few remaining fascist monuments. It was erected on the personal order of Benito Mussolini and inaugurated in 1928, dedicated to the ‘martyrs of the war’. On its front side a goddess of victory throws an arrow towards the (germanic) north. To this day this structure is a focal point of tension between the Italian and German speaking communities, the latter regard it as a provocation and nickname it the ‘Fascist Temple’, for its design and for who built it. It is heavily fenced and video surveyed. In 2008 a protest march against fascist relicts was on the verge of turning violent as the protesters ran into a group of neo fascists and only a heavy police presence could keep them apart. The latin script ‘Hic patriae finis siste signa / hinc ceteros excolvimus lingua legibus artibus’ on the facade however must have been a joke at the time. It translates to ‘Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point on we educated the others with language law and culture’. Around the time of the First World War, illiteracy rate was about 5 % in Austria, and almost 60 % in Italy.


I headed off and followed further down the Etsch/Adige towards Rovereto. It was a sunny day and the cycle path was crowded, mainly with Italians as it seemed. This proved to be a friendly bunch, most people greeted with a ‘Salve’, ‘Ciao’, or when they caught me during a meal a ‘Buon Appetito’.


The cycle path remained excellent. First it followed a former railway track with a number of tunnels, then along the river, for the most part, and sometimes through the seemingly never ending vineyards and apple plantations. After seeing so many apple trees I stopped at a roadside stall to buy a bottle of apple juice to accompany my lunch. It turned into a sociable break there. People told me the cycle path would continue all the way to Verona. Such a good road without any combustion powered traffic for such a long way? Hard to believe…


I only passed the provincial capital Trento and rolled into Rovereto at the last light of the day. It is an old charming town with a big fortress. For much of its history this used to be a heavily militarised outpost. It was the border of Habsburg’s Austria until the end of the First World War. And even then the town had never surrendered.


Only a few kilometres further down the river the cycle path ended abruptly into a meager dirt track. At the same spot a signpost indicated that this was where Trentin-Sdtirol/Trentino-Alto Adige region borders Veneto region. How ridiculous is this? Well, cycling for four days on a shiny new cycle path would have been too good to be true. I followed the road for some time until I hit a cycle path once more. Apparently it wasn’t nonexistent, just patchy.


My goal for the day had been Verona however I changed plans on the way and headed for Peschiera del Garda. It seemed stupid to make the detour, and back, and saving a night in Verona would probably buy me two there. Unfortunately, this was when the weather changed and it was not meant I could enjoy the beauties of Lake Garda for more than an hour before sunset. Over night a heavy fog formed which was replaced by heavy low clouds the next morning.


On Thursday I had a day trip to Verona on the train. I found it a beautiful city, not to be missed. It was the first time I encountered some other bike tourists. Shame I hadn’t been there on the bike too.


Leaving Peschiera I had the chance to test my waterproofs for the first time. I headed off in the rain on Friday, with no clear target in mind. The rain stopped in the afternoon. Thanks to the strong easterly wind I chose to continue westwards and ended up in a Cremona. With great confidence in my reflectors I rolled into the city well after dark. There is a very impressive cathedral in this city. Not sure whether it would be worth a trip, but certainly a detour.


I had figured out that there was a cycle path along the Po and I headed off, upstream. It was pouring with rain. This time it was not the question whether I would get wet, just how wet would I get. How waterproof is waterproof? I wasn’t particularly keen to go, but I had predicted myself a nice tailwind and that lifted my spirits to the point that made the departure possible. The path is not really along the river, in fact I only saw it three times, two of which were crossings. It is rather a zig zag course around the area. After about 60 km I gave up and headed for Piacenza, a city which is only 25 km from Cremona if you follow the main road. Dang! In the centre some man sized plastic snails greeted me, spot on, I thought, a symbol of my achievements today.


Despite my waterproof camera there are no photos of this day. I was too worried to open my handlebar bag to grab it in the pouring rain. The landscape wasn’t particularly exciting either. The Pedan Plain is a perfectly flat and heavily farmed place.


So far, I am happy to report that my pannier bags have kept their contents dry, and so did the rain trousers. The upper half of me, as well as my feet got wet eventually, though it was not too bad. And then, I am not sure whether this is more a statement about my gear, or about how much of a beginner I actually am…


When I crossed the Po into Piacenza yesterday it carried a worrying amount of debris. I have no idea how it looks like when it is ‘normal’ but I think the water is a bit closer than usual. Parts of the road that I used coming to town are closed for traffic now. I learned that further upstream Torino was on the edge of flooding. I am only 130 km away from Genoa, two days cycling since some altitude is involved crossing the Apennines, and the daylight is short. Due to the recent floods there I am still not sure whether the city is fully functional, and in particular whether the harbour is operational. However chances are I will stay here in Piacenza for another day if the weather doesn’t improve. There is probably no need to hurry right now. I might splash out on a nice hotel though.



Across the Alps

It has been a while since the last post, and this one is even without the big mileage it would deserve. And if the headline somehow implied to you that you get to read about me sweating and swearing as I crossed the Alps on my bicycle this will be a disappointing one. In fact I crossed over in the comforts of an express train. But first things first…

I spent five days in Salzburg at my parents’ enjoying my mum’s cuisine, a few Stiegl beers, and otherwise tried to sort out some necessities. Thursday was my chosen day of departure but this one was another one in the pouring rain, and the temperature felt like the snowfall line was not far above. There is no point fighting the weather I think, and this one is an educated thought. The thing was I had invited a friend to stay with me in Velden am Wrthersee. I could have probably delayed this by a day but I didn’t want to. I probably won’t see a lot of people for some time. So to be there on Friday the only chance was to go by train. There is little to tell about this trip, it was easy, smooth and comfortable. Albeit this being a long term plan, crossing the Alps on a bicycle will have to wait for next time. The weekend was great with a barbecue, a trip on top of the Dobratsch and otherwise relax and hang around. On Monday, my plan was to clean up, do some final shopping, and leave Tuesday morning, south-westwards towards Genoa, the goal for the last leg on this continent.



I ended up staying in Velden for ten more days. I could write about the pouring rain, the cold, snowfall, the difficulty to find certain spare parts, all obstacles getting me back on the road, and most of them excuses. The truth is I had a hard time saying good bye. Velden is the southernmost place I remotely call home. And I love it. I like the town and the surroundings and most of all the little house my family have there. I stayed there happily doing little but relaxing, with a trip to Villach now and then. There is a certain melancholy about summer tourist resorts in winter, when they virtually close down. And especially the snow looked out of place, albeit I had of course seen this before. On the productive side however I have got all my gear and spare parts now, I am set and ready to hit Africa. I got rid of some unnecessary stuff as well, jeans and trainers amongst them. The rest of the time off the bike will be in sandals and zip off trousers, and a high visibility windstopper jacket. As long as it won’t get substantially warmer I’ll come across as a nerd.

By the way, has anyone ever bought winter cycling clothes? Expensive, huh? Well, if I wanted to keep cycling in Europe in November I figured I have to make this investment. Or take a train to Genoa. The latter was out instantly.

The obvious and well cycled route westwards would be along the Drau, but from some internet forums I learned cycling up the Gail was much nicer, albeit, probably steeper and on roads not exclusively dedicated to the one manpower vehicles. Other than for skiing in Hermagor I had never been there. I left on Friday and made it all the way to Ktschach-Mauthen. There is an excellent cycling path to Hermagor (Gailtal Radweg), and further on the traffic on the main road became lighter the further I went. The route offers superb views of the Carnic Alps and through cosy little towns which seem to be out of this world. I have been to Carinthia so often, why have I never found this before?



In the evening I talked to some people around town most assuming I take the route right southwards, the Plcken Pass, and assured me the Lesachtal route, where I planned to go was a lot harder. Not for the overall climb but rather for the fact that it was an old road leading across ridges and troughs. However, I was told, this was also the beautiful one.

Once more I had only planned to go for 70 km, expecting a slow progress. For whatever reason the valley changes names to Lesachtal just outside Ktschach-Mauthen. There is no cycling path as such but the traffic is very light and therefore the cycling is very good. Superposed on the general gradient is a number of ridges and troughs and the whole way is an up and down ride, more up that down. It reminded me a bit of the cycling in New Zealand, where it seems no road builder has ever been looking for the nicest gradient. I had beautiful weather and the landscape became even more interesting. The road is not on the bottom of the valley, for the most part, but rather across the slope, what adds to the great views. After about 40 km when I assumed the steepest part must have been done I decided to stop for lunch at the next opportunity. This was when the climb from hell started, outside a town named Obertilliach, which I could spot from far, what really didn’t make it easier. As long as you don’t see too much of what is coming, you at least don’t know or you can pretend the end may be just around the corner. Not unexpectedly the downhill stretch was rather measly and I spent the night exhausted in Sillian.




Time change induced I left a bit earlier on Sunday and soon after departure I said good bye to my native country. The next two days would be a nice downhill cycle, predominantly at least. Approaching the source of the Drau there was the last predictable uphill stretch however this one was surprisingly easy.



The goal for the day was Brixen, which I did not reach, rather for the early sunset than my exhaustion. I stayed about 10 km outside in a town named Mhlbach. Brixen is an extremely beautiful old town. The next morning I spent a few hours there wandering around.





There are excellent cycle paths across South Tyrol, almost exclusively purpose built and for the most part new and with super smooth tarmac. The area is very beautiful for the landscape as well as the towns. The only annoying thing is that you are following one of the major traffic arteries across the Alps and as the valley is narrow the path is all too often squeezed in between the motorway and the railway tracks. I spent the night in the provincial capital Bozen.




There are more photos at