All posts by georgisola

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Friendliest:

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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There are more photos at www.flickr.com/georgisola

Brigach und Breg…

bringen die Donau zuweg. All right, this is German, and since you are reading the English blog, I will give some explanation. It translates roughly into Brigach and Breg create the Danube. It is one of these little rhymes they teach the younger kids at school in order to make them more easily remember a certain fact. They teach you this one in Austria anyway, and if you were educated anywhere else in Central or Southeast Europe maybe you heard a similar one in your language. Two little streams, running eastwards out of the Black Forest, namely the Brigach and the Breg converge into one river, and this point is considered the source of the Danube. At 2810 km this is Europe’s second longest river after the Volga. Along its journey to the Black Sea the river changes names 6 times (Donau, Dunaj, Duna, Dunav, Donava, Dunarea, and Danube), crossing (or marking) 9 borders and flows through 4 capital cities.800px-Danubemap

 

The closest human settlement to the spot where Brigach and Breg converge is called Donaueschingen. From there the mighty river starts its journey eastwards, on a map at least. In the real world this is only half the truth. About 30 km downstream as it enters the Jura a curious thing happens. With a gurgling sound the water disappears into the ground. In fact the bottom of the river bed itself falls entirely dry for about half of each year. The water runs under ground through a system of caves in the limestone and eventually surfaces again around 20 km to the south, this time being called the Radolfszeller Aach, a stream which drains into Lake Constance, hence the Rhine. Long, long time ago the Danube drained an area as far west as today’s Rhone. However, over time the Rhone and Rhine both having steeper gradients and more erosive power sliced up the upper Danube catchment piece by piece, redirecting the water into their catchments, and will continue to do so. Since the previous Ice Age an ever increasing amount of water out of the Black Forest is redirected into the catchment of the Rhine underneath the surface. There the water washes out some 70 000 tons of limestone each year making the holes on the bottom of the river bed bigger and bigger. Eventually the surface will collapse and the entire Black Forrest will be within the catchment area of the Rhine. And Brigach and Breg will no longer be the source of the Danube. This said the Danube expands at its other end, the Black Sea. At its ever expanding delta it deposes the sediments which its tributaries erode primarily out of the growing Alps. Consequently the whole river doesn’t become shorter, it actually relocates eastwards.

So far the first mountain range of significance that I encountered, the Black Forest, still separated me from the Danube. Freiburg was another nice and atmospheric place for a stopover. The goal for the day was Donaueschingen, only 70 km away, had my planned route worked out.

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It turned out a bit longer due to a road closure and consequently a detour. Nevertheless it was a beautiful ride through fields, forests, and pretty towns. And it was steep, mind you. This certainly is a proper mountain range, not the way the Alps are, but still. Enough for a rookie. I shouted a few swearwords at the road during the steepest parts but I managed to get across pedalling without significant damage or delay. The views as well as the downhill stretch that followed more than compensated for the pain uphill.

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Donaueschingen I found a bit of a nondescript town, nice enough, but certainly no comparison to all these old towns full of atmosphere I saw on either side of the the Rhine. The next morning I went down to the convergence of the Danube which is a surprisingly unremarkable spot. The only slightly monumental feature there is a set of flags for all the countries the mighty river runs through. The flag for Austria was missing though, much to my disappointment. A woman who had previously travelled to Ukraine showed me photos of the other end of the Danube. I think it could be great fun cycling down the river.

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Exhaustion hit once more and my plan was to gently cycle just another 30 km down the Danube to a town named Tuttlingen and catch a train from there. Given the previous weeks lack of rain several stretches of the Danube were dry, elsewhere it rarely looked like more than a dirty and slow moving stretch of mud.

 

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Some locals convinced me that the most beautiful stretch was only after Tuttlingen, and then, I could catch a train from Beuron as well. They were absolutely right, and into the Jura with its white rocks and the beginning autumn colours the landscape was truly amazing. Less enjoyable was dealing with my exhausted self. Even the tiniest uphill stretch felt like the 38th kilometer in the marathon, and I was torn apart. Half of me was admiring the surroundings and the other half of me was swearing at those idiots who had told me to go further and to that idiot who had listened to them and kept going.

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In Beuron I bought a ticket to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, sort of a shortcut to the Alps. I arrived there around ten in the evening after changing trains three times, including in Munich in the midst of the Oktoberfest craze. I still didn’t feel like cycling the day after and took a train to Brixlegg. On a day trip to Innsbruck I had learned that my professor from uni was about to retire and for this reason there was some sort of academic celebration planned for Thursday. And I was correctly assuming a few beers afterwards with lots of old colleagues. I stayed five days rather than the three planned and attended. It was great fun.

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Friday brought snowfall down to 800 m. Without any proper cold weather clothes in my pannier bags I continued on the train to Salzburg where I still am typing these lines. Now only some really funky tan lines remind me of three weeks cycling across Europe in the bright sunshine, I have been very lucky so far. Now there is another sunny, albeit chilly, day on the road ahead. I plan to cross the Alps next.

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Up the Rhine

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After a hilly but short ride south-westwards I reached the state capital DŘsseldorf. I stopped for some photos when a man started asking questions about my loaded bike and where I was going. After some conversation he wanted to buy me a beer what I gratefully accepted. This city is a top notch party place, and by far the latest nights in my life happened there, back in the days, some I remember, some I don’t. It seems that bars and clubs never close, and albeit on several occasions I did not leave before 7 in the morning I had never been asked to do so.

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After the one beer, I had lunch and hit the road again. The goal for the day, Cologne, is only 40 km away. Still, the sun had set by the time I was there. I found a dorm bed at the Youth Hostel. My plan had been to stay for another day and get some shopping done. Thursday morning however, after some sightseeing I was more anxious to keep going.

 

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Not far outside Cologne the Landscape became more hilly and the Rhine flows through a proper valley, a narrow one. Along steep rocks on both sides small towns are nestled, one more atmospheric than the other. Since I was anxious to stick to my plan and reach Koblenz that day I only stopped once for lunch. There would be a lot to explore however.

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Koblenz, my second overnight stop on the Rhine was a bit disappointing. It is a beautiful town, mind you but for some sort of garden show they actually sealed the most interesting part off and charge 2 Euro entry fee. I didn’t pay so to see the remaining sights I had to go around this area back and forth, what produced quite some milage already.

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The scenery didn’t change that day, it even became a bit more dramatic. The Loreley is a well known meander with a beautiful rock formation and one of Germany’s landmark sights. further up the vineyards dominated the slopes. The river is so busy this obvious bottleneck provided the only sight of the River without barges.

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I stopped in Gustavsburg for two days. The town is of no interest whatsoever but very close to Mayence. This is a very beautiful city, with a big historic centre and beautiful architecture. Once more I arrived on market day, and this one was a particularly colourful one. The reason for the two nights was a friend in the area, who is about to move to Brazil. I won’t see him for a long time, and was really keen to meet.

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Upstream of Ludwigshafen the valley becomes wider before it disappears completely into a plain. The landscape changes dramatically as the Rhine has loads of side arms in what seems to be an endless swamp around it. Albeit stopping is no good idea for the mosquitoes it is an extremely beautiful area to cycle through.

Overall, there are remarkably few bridges across the Rhine, but most towns are connected by little ferries sailing back and forth. Cycling here is a mainstream activity, and paths and signposts are excellent.

I stayed the night in Speyer, a world heritage site, mainly for its Cathedral.

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Following the left side of the Rhine I crossed another dotted line on the map the next day, back into France. I had lunch in Lauterbourg, and a man sitting at the same table got really excited about my trip. I had inquired about good places to stay, as I would not make it into a big city on that same day. He sent me to Drusenheim, what was a bit farther away than I wanted but still doable. When I gave him my blog he said he would send me photos of pork roast, sauerkraut and beer further down the road. I will see.

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The path clearly lost scenery as for a long way it lead along a dam which obstructed the view, and I could only assume that the Rhine was on the other side of it. I would lose interest in the views soon anyway. The sun was low already and no town was nearby when I realised that I had my first puncture. Given the limited time until darkness I decided against a roadside repair. I pumped up my tire every 15 minutes or so and raced on. I rolled into Drusenheim just before sunset.

 

To my delight there was a funfair and market that day and I planned to get changed and have a wander around and have some fun. Well, contrary to that I fell onto the bed and dozed off, and when I woke up and got out the funfair was closed and the market gone. Still, I had a very nice Flammkuchen, sort of a Rhenish pizza, outside

 

The path along the Rhine suddenly ended the next day, and together with two other confused cyclists I eventually got back on track. One of them I met a bit later on again, he was from Essen but his trip would finish in Strasbourg. This is where we went together and spent the afternoon in a beer garden. The unplanned overnight stop turned out to be difficult, as the city seemed full. A short term cancellation secured me a nice but little expensive bed right in the city centre. There is no question why those EU officials chose this place for the parliament, it’s really beautiful with a very impressive historic centre.

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It took me some time to find back on the path, the signposting was very poor outside of Strasbourg. The route continues away from the Rhine but along the Rhone to Rhine canal. I got lost again at a place where the path was blocked. Frustrated by poor Alsace signposting I decided to cross the Rhine at the next possibility, maybe it was better on the other side.

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The right side convinced with a path on top of the dam. Further more a northerly wind picked up and once more the tailwind blew me across, and I was racing southwards.

 

For a few minutes I considered changing plans and continue to Basel, but I stuck to my old plan. I lay in the sun for an hour in Breisach where I said good bye to the mighty river which I had followed for a week and turned east towards the Black Forest. Much to my delight the remaining 20 km to Freiburg were still flat.

There are more photos on www.flickr.com/georgisola

 

 

 

Ruhrgebiet for a few days

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I had a very late lunch at the Innenhafen, a remodelled port on the Rhine and one of the more successful urban regeneration projects and a good night sleep in Duisburg. With the exhaustion of the past few days I was not up to much. I was expected for dinner with friends in Bochum so I had the whole day for this stretch of about 30 km. It would be a gentle ride, through known territory.

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The Ruhrgebiet is Germany’s largest and Europe’s fourth largest (after Moscow, Greater London and Ile-de-France) urban agglomeration. There is no one centre as such, it consists of a number of big and moderately big cities bordering each other. I used to call the area home for three and a half years, Essen to be precise. Before the industrial revolution the area wasn’t much except for a few towns and farms. When mankind learned what to do with coal, this changed rapidly. Coal of very high quality is only just below the surface here. In some areas, you virtually dig a hole in your garden and grab it. Very quickly the area developed into a buzzing industrial centre, and with large numbers of immigrants flocking in big cities developed within just one generation. Canals were dug and railway lines built in support of the heavy industry and the coal mining. By the early twentieth century around 300 coal mines were active in the area. During the two world wars the Ruhrgebiet functioned as Germany’s central weapon factory. Consequently during the Second World War the area was levelled, wiping out about 20 % of Germany’s entire industry. The cities were rebuilt in a rush, apparently without anyone bothered to involve the architects. The ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and 1960s saw the area as a main beneficiary as it created a high demand of coal and steel. From the early 1970s onwards coal mining became less competitive and the area went through a number of structural crises, known as steel crises. The Ruhrgebiet today is still an extremely large albeit shrinking metropolitan area. There is little beauty to it on face value, but it is a unique place in many ways. Certainly industrial but surprisingly green, crowded but long past its persistent cliche of heavy pollution. Looking at its history and perspective it seems there has always been a future, even if the present has never been that great. Due to its large population and the density of industrial headquarters it remains a political and economic powerhouse. Football is a serious matter here. I has developed into a top notch cultural centre. People are open, almost cheeky, with a strong egalitarian perspective. Albeit grey, the place is far from grim in my memory.

 

I headed for Essen in the morning. Ignorant of where I was going, other than the general direction I turned onto Karl-Lehr-Strae. Here, on 24th July 2010 a stampede at the Love Parade, an electronic music and dance festival caused the death of 21 people and hundreds of injuries. A place between two viaducts is heavily decorated. Besides of mourning a high degree of anger is expressed here, anger at the authorities and organisers. I stopped for some time.

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The centre of Essen is usually very quiet on Sundays. I stopped for a coffee and surfed the internet for a bit, I was still ready for some rest. The remainder of the way to Bochum took me on a nice path along the Ruhr river, through woods and fields.

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When I started cycling around London sticking to the left side of the road was of course something I had to get used to. After three years, other than expected, I didn’t have to get used to go back to the right side. Rather I feel comfortable on the side of the road, regardless whether this is the left or the right one. This is rarely a problem, except when I am forced onto the other side by something other than traffic. If unaware, I caught myself just continuing on that side, until, well, usually other people make me aware of where I am cycling.

Seeing friends is always nice and there is a bunch of especially close ones in the area. And not least a few comfortable and free nights. I had arranged for some drinks at my favourite bar at the time when I lived there on Tuesday. Many friends and former work colleagues showed up and gave me a nice wave off. I had a great night.

The knock on effects of the night before caused a late departure, as I left on Wednesday, headed back to the Rhine.

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There are more photos on www.flickr.com/georgisola

 

 

 

 

 

Die erste Etappe

Mein urspr├╝nglicher Plan war am Sonntag, den 11. September aufzubrechen. Am Freitag bekam ich einen freundlichen Anruf von der Botschaft, mein Pass sei fertig. Mein Pass! W├Ąhrend all der Vorbereitungen in letzter Minute hatte ich meinen Pass vergessen. Nun, ich hatte wohl auch gerade erst so richtig verstanden, dass etwas gro├čes bevorsteht. Und zur Vorfreude kam auch etwas Angst. Am Samstag, als ich fertig gepackt hatte, beschloss ich, meine Reise einen weiteren Tag zu verz├Âgern, was ist schon ein Tag?

Montag Fr├╝h stand ich um acht vor der Botschaft, nur um festzustellen, da die erst um neun ├Âffnet. ├ľffnet nach Englischer Manier und schlie├čt nach ├ľsterreichischer. Ich suchte mir Fr├╝hst├╝ck und als ich um neun zur├╝ck war, hatte sich ein Gr├╝ppchen von Damen, deren P├Ąsse gestohlen worden waren, versammelt, die jetzt das Land nicht mehr verlassen durften. Bis alle Formulare ausgef├╝llt und Fingerabdr├╝cke genommen waren, und ich an der Reihe war, war es zehn. Mit meinem neuen Pass in der Hand war ich zum Aufbruch bereit.

Ich hatte geplant meine Reise am Trafalgar Square zu beginnen, an dem ich dann nur vorbeifuhr. Mein Weg f├╝hrte vorbei an praktisch allen bekannten Sehensw├╝rdigkeiten Londons. Im Greenwich Park, genau da wo der London Marathon beginnt, machte ich meine erste Pause und zog mich um. Bevor ich meine neuen Fahrradschuhe zum ersten Mal auf der Stra├če benutzte, wollte ich noch ein bisschen das ein und ausklicken ├╝ben. Als ich mich sicher f├╝hlte, und abfahren wollte, fiel ich zum ersten Mal, weil ich schlichtweg vergessen hatte, auszuklicken. Es sollten am gleichen Tag noch vier weitere St├╝rze folgen. Ich habe buchst├Ąblich auf die harte Tour gelernt.

Es dauert ein wenig, bis man aus London drau├čen ist, mir wurde wieder einmal bewusst, wie gro├č diese Stadt ist. Kent ist wundersch├Ân, gr├╝n mit kleinen W├Ąldern, und allerdings h├╝gelig, Um etwa 17.00 Uhr erreichte ich Canterbury. Von den unz├Ąhligen H├╝geln war ich schon einigerma├čen ersch├Âpft. Da eine Sturmwarnung bestand, vermutete ich, dass es wohl auch Probleme mit den F├Ąhren ├╝ber den ├ärmelkanal geben w├╝rde. Somit legte ich den Rest des Weges bis Dover mit der Bahn zur├╝ck.

Um 23.00 Uhr war die F├Ąhre f├╝r 20.00 Uhr zum Einsteigen bereit. Ich hatte als Ankunftshafen Dunkirque statt Calais gew├Ąhlt, das spart mir 30 km Weg. Die Ankunft war dann im Nirgendwo. Ich hatte schon erfahren, dass es noch ungef├Ąhr eine Stunde Fahrt vom Hafen bis zu Stadt sein w├╝rden, nicht unbedingt etwas worauf ich mich freute, um 2.00 Uhr in der Nacht. Es war warm, kein Verkehr, sternenklar und ich hatte guten R├╝ckenwind. Schlussendlich genoss ich diese Fahrt sehr.

Es war nur etwa eine Stunde Fahrt bis zur Grenze und kurz danach f├╝hrte der Weg entlang der K├╝ste, meistens direkt am Strand. Ein kr├Ąftiger Westwind blies mich nur so ├╝ber die Stra├če, und neben mir wehte der Sand. Links von mir der Strand und das Meer und von oben strahlender Sonnenschein. Die K├╝ste in Belgien ist fast komplett verbaut, es f├╝hlt sich fast an, als w├╝rde man sich durch eine ewig lange Stadt bewegen, komplett mit einer Stra├čenbahn, die den ganzen K├╝stenabschnitt entlang fahrt.

In Oostende bin ich nach rechts abgebogen Richtung Br├╝gge. Hinter den D├╝nen beginnen die Felder und ziehen sich wohl ├╝ber ganz Nordeuropa. Der Mais war mannshoch und streckenweise gab es au?er dem Himmel wenig zu sehen. Br├╝gge ist wundersch├Ân, historische H├Ąuser, T├╝rme, Kirchen und Windm├╝hlen, und alles durchzogen von einem Netz von Kan├Ąlen.



Es ging weiter durch Felder, immer auf guten Radwegen.


Antwerpen kostete mich ein paar weitere Stunden, um, wenn es schon nicht zu besichtigen, so wenigstens ein bi├čchen an der Oberfl├Ąche zu kratzen und ein paar Fotos zu machen.

Mein Eindruck von Belgien ist sehr gut, zumindest f├╝r den Teil von Flandern, durch den ich durchgeradelt bin. Es gibt hier wundersch├Âne St├Ądte, ausgezeichnetes Essen, und Massen von Radfahrern.

Die Radwege wurden noch besser in den Niederlanden. Meine einzige ├ťbernachtung war in Eindhoven, einer Stadt, die auf den ersten Blick weniger zum Besichtigen einlud. Zum ersten Mal nahm ich am Freitag die sch├Âne statt der schnellen Route, und die f├╝hrte durch interessante Sumpflandschaften.

Nach 120 km oder mehr an f├╝nf aufeinanderfolgenden Tagen war ich etwas ersch├Âpft und ├╝bernachtete in einem Ort gleich hinter der Deutschen Grenze. Am Samstagvormittag erreichte ich den Rhein in Krefeld, und querte ihn sp├Ąter von Rheinhausen nach Duisburg,wo ich meine erste Etappe als beendet betrachtete.

The First Leg

My appologies to the London folks who have never been taken out to a send off, or a few drinks anyway. Especially those I promised. My degree of organisation was very limited the days before I headed off, and albeit planned it never happened. There will certainly be other occasions however not necessarily soon…

 

My plan was to head off on Sunday, September 11th. With all my planning, organising, and running around in circles I had completely forgotten about my passport. The gentle remainder came on Friday, as the embassy called to inform me it was ready to collect. I was anxious to get started but what does a delay of one day matter? Only on Saturday it dawned on me that something big was about to happen. And with that the thought of staying another night in the safe confines of my temporary home in Stratford upon Avon was comforting.

 

I left Stratford on Sunday afternoon on the train and stayed the night in London. Just before eight on Monday I arrived at the embassy on my loaded bike only to learn it opens at nine. Well, English opening times and Austrian closing times, I thought. I left again for a coffee and when I came back a group of women had gathered whose passports had been stolen and who were now unable to leave the country. Well, it took only an hour until forms were filled out and fingerprints taken. By ten I grabbed my shiny new passport and off I went.

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I cycled up to Hyde Park corner, and towards Buckingham Palace, then down the Mall. I only passed my chosen start line, Trafalgar Square, and turned into the Strand. Through the City, I rather coincidentally passed my old work, then St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Monument and the Tower. I crossed the Thames at Tower Bridge, then turned onto Boris superhighway towards Greenwich. It was a truly superb ride, and the celebration of my departure.

 

I had a break on the upper end of Greenwich Park, right where the London Marathon starts. I dropped a few clothes there and for the first time in the real world I changed into my new cycle shoes. I practiced to engage and disengage the connectors a few more times and when I felt safe, I went back on, for a few meters, before I had to perform a sudden stop, and made my first uncontrolled acquaintance with the ground. Becoming familiar with the connectors took the whole day, and four more times falling over. I got there eventually…

 

The ride through Kent was beautiful through a hilly, green scenery. I made good progress. It was an exhausting progress however, given the hills. Why had nobody told me before?

 

Astorm warning was out so I checked for the ferries across the Channel. They were running heavy delays. For this reason, and given the unexpected exhaustion from that hilly ride, I took a train from Canterbury to Dover.

 

The eight o’clock ferry boarded round about eleven. The bike queue was just me in shorts shivering and a Czech man on a scooter who had come all the way without luggage to see some family. I had chosen Dunkerque as the destination because this would save me around 30 km of cycling over Calais. The crossing itself is such a straightforward and organised prosess, there was nothing romantic about it.

 

The ferry spat me out in the middle of nowhere, and some locals had told me it would be at least an hour to town. Getting back on the bike at two in the morning didn’t exactly excite me. I headed off into the night. There was no traffic whatsoever, it was warm and clear, and I had a strong tailwind. I had a surprisingly pleasant ride under the stars. I found my bed at about three in the morning.

 

The start on Tuesday was late in the morning. Not long after crossing the border to Belgium I hit the coast. For the most part it is built up and feels like a very long city, even with a tram running all the way. I stuck to the beach for most of the way. It was another sunny enough day and with a strong tailwind I raced along, the beach to my left, clouds of sand blowing along the way. I turned inland in Oostende and the rest of the way towards Brugge was through the never ending fields.

 

Brugge is an old, charming town. The historic centre is bigand very well preserved. Most houses are either half timber or beautifully decorated. There is an extensive network of tree lined canals, with bridges crossing them. It is a truly beautiful place. Albeit anxious to keep going I decided to spend the morning in town, to take a few photos at least.

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The scenery for the rest of the week was never ending fields on perfectly flat ground, with the occasional swamp, and canals cutting through. Easy to cycle but rather dull for the views.

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Antwerpen was another beautiful overnight stop, and worth spending a few hours.

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Belgium was a very nice experience. There is a nice beach, incredibly beautiful towns and cities, the food and the beer is good and there are always good cycle paths. Plenty of cyclists were around, and when asked always helped with directions, or filling up water bottles.

I didn’t mind finding Eindhoven a rather functional city where I had no desire to stay longer than for the night. For the first time though I took the beautiful rather than the short way on Friday.

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Exhausted fromfive days of about 120 km cycling I stopped for the nightat a small country town just after crossing into Germany.

I hit the Rhine in Krefeld on Saturday morning. Later in the day I crossed it into Duisburg where I considered the first leg finished.

 

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There are more photos on www.flickr.com/georgisola