In the shadow of the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills, the River Tweed carves its way from the Lowther Hills, through the Cheviots, reaching its estuary at Berwick some 160km later. I chose a mid route stretch from Galashiels to Inverleithen, covering some 50km on both sides of the valley, steep and challenging on the southern flank, fighting a strong westerly wind, but fast and undulating on the northern flank, ushered along by the very same strong westerly.
Stunningly beautiful in the autumn sunshine, I will let the photos tell their own story….
How often do you drop by, unannounced, just to say ‘hello’ to a friend? Is it ‘the done thing’ in your part of the world? Where I live, people don’t routinely drop by unannounced but, when it happens, it is invariably a pleasant surprise….unless, of course, you arrive at an inconvenient moment. To overcome that, it is usual to make prior contact and check before taking the plunge.
If you want to just drop by, your vehicle of transport can make a big difference. Caged inside our heated/air conditioned cars, when we pass, we are much less likely to just call by for a chat and a coffee. Someone might explain the psychology of that one day. Is it that our journeys by car are so much more purpose driven, that the journey itself is just a means to an end?
My journeys from home on the bike, however, have very little to do with destination and purpose, apart from the odd café and meeting with cronies of course. They are all about enjoying the journey, the widening of personal horizons and a sense of freedom. And my journeys take me through villages and communities where friends and former colleagues happen to live. For some reason, being on the bike (and not in the car) makes the unannounced visit seem so much more natural. “I was just passing through so I thought I’d drop by to say hello”. It’s natural, spontaneous, non-threatening, and it will only be a short visit…..long enough, perhaps, to share a coffee.
And that is what happened on this 52km route….
Every adventure has its highs and lows, joys and frustrations….but through personal endeavour, we get to savour the sweet taste of achievement. I no longer measure achievement primarily by distance. I’m beginning to grow up a little (well, just a little) and appreciate the value of much more than just ploughing a furrow.
This adventure was never intended to explore heady landscapes, scale mountain passes, carve my way through verdant valleys…..no, this was all about visiting a host of countries that I have never been to before, and using the bike to connect capital cities. Over the last 40 days, I have simply binged on a succession of city breaks, 9 in total to be precise, including Krakow in southern Poland.
And in each city I have paused for a couple of nights, locked up the bike, and walked the historic city centres, visiting some 30 museums and historic buildings, enjoying the buskers and street entertainers, sitting by fountains with a picnic, catching the odd city demonstration (usually about climate change)….and in most of the cities, being hosted by friendly, caring human beings who form part of the Warmshowers network.
So I can’t share photos of many wonderful land and seascapes, of mountain top panoramas, nor of glacial ravines with cascading waterfalls, but I have come away with a sense of deep satisfaction of having discovered something about 8 individual nations, about people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, about major historical events that have fashioned their history, and where they are now in their march towards the future.
For those who like statistics, here are a few to keep you interested:
Days travelling: 40
Days on the bike: 28
Distance covered: 2,308km
Average daily distance: 83km
Longest day: 115km
8 countries and their capitals:
Poland: Warsaw and Krakow
Camping: 14 nights
Warmshowers: 15 nights
Backpacker’s hostels: 10 nights
With a former student: 1 night
Rain while riding: 2-3 hours
Days of headwind: 18
Days of tailwind: 3
Best national food: Viennese
Best National Library: Helsinki
Best museum: Vasa Museum, Stockholm
Most beautiful historic city centre: Tallinn
Most scenic part of the journey: Tatra Mountains.
Most annoying moment: discovering I’d left my tent footprint drying in the previous campsite.
Second most annoying moment: discovering I’d had my power bank stolen in a backpacker’s hostel.
Greatest surprise: being seen from a distance by a former student in Stockholm, and then staying with him and his family in Turku, Finland. That’s a 10/10 on the serendipity scale.
Most uplifting moment: an eleventh hour offer of a bed (for three nights) in Vienna.
The most unusual camping spot: departure lounge at Heathrow airport, after a late arrival from Vienna.
If you followed me on at least some of my journey, thank you for your company. I hope it inspires you to embark on adventures of your own…..
The bubble of the illusion has burst. I fondly imagined that in Vienna I would breeze into the booking office at Central Station and book trains, there and then, right through to the Hook of Holland, from where I would catch the ferry to Harwich, and be back in England ‘in a trice’. Well, that was the plan…… but the bike thwarted the plan, given that these were inter-city trains. The most they could do was guarantee my arrival in either Munich or Düsseldorf, but beyond that, there was no provision for the bike. So I had to capitulate and book a flight with Austrian Airlines.
It would seem the only way to guarantee transit on multiple trains across Europe is to have a folding bike, which could be carried on as hand luggage. But how remarkable it is that when you are confronted with a need, a solution is sometimes put before you.
Stefan, my host during my time in Vienna and a multiple bike owner himself, offered to let me test ride his folding Dahon, a small-wheeled versatile bike which can be adapted for touring and carrying luggage. I’m already familiar with the Alex Moultons and Bike Fridays of the small-wheeled world, but Dahon are a bit of a mystery.
Then in the city centre I bumped into Andreas who was not only a proud owner of a Dahon, but had cleverly equipped it for the long distance stuff, and was a firm advocate for the nimble small-wheeled bicycle. With a quick flip of two levers, he folded it in seconds, and then demonstrated how he could detach the pedals with his fingers. As we parted company he shouted after me “Make sure you try out the Vitesse”. In fact, he was quite prepared there and then to let me test ride his own machine.
Staying with Stefan for a few days has brought me into contact with his other lodgers. He regularly hosts foreign exchange academics, and in this instance Kyoko is with him, a Japanese visiting fellow at Vienna university (whose mother Kaoro has come out to join her).
And Gudrun from Cologne, a university professor, who has recently co-authored a book about the rise of right wing populism in Europe,
came to Vienna to give a paper at a conference. I told her I hope one day to read her book in translation. “Well” she said “do you know anyone who might translate it for me?”. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that one, I said….now, if it were written in Spanish, we’d have a partnership…..
Stefan himself works in the offices of the Green Party in Vienna so, with so much political talent and involvement, there was a heavy bias in the conversation around the table…..and the table itself has been abundant with Japanese fare one evening, and Viennese another, amongst which was this delicious dessert called Kaisershmarm, anecdotally named after Kaiser Franz Joseph I, who was very fond of fluffy shredded pancake..
So tell me, what dish would you like named in your honour?
I’ve slept in a lot of strange places in the past, but never in a greenhouse. Erich, who runs a nursery garden business, decided to diversify, and converted one of his greenhouses into several AirB&B units….so his guests get to sleep in a glasshouse. But he kindly invited me, as a Warmshowers member, to stay as his guest, and my bedroom looked out onto the tomatoes, and I could lie in bed gazing up at the stars. My route to the bathroom was across a lawn on some stepping stones, and when I got up in the night, I jumped when the resident one-eyed cat scooted across my path, doing his security patrol.
The route to Vienna along the Danube fulfilled very few promises unfortunately. But I’ll let the pictures tell their own story….
The guy making me a coffee at his street bar said:”You don’t look like a normal tourist. You riding a bike?”. When I told him my story in one sentence, he said “You probably need a good strong coffee then. Going to Vienna after here? You’ll find us in Vienna too…look us up”.
Then I walked into an outlet advertising street food, and ordered myself a Morrocan tagine, to fuel the legs to climb the enormous hill to Hrad Castle where, amongst the many exhibits in the museum, was this….
…and I thought, what an interesting use of the term ‘portable’. But a couple of cabinets away was a display of the first Bratislava Cycling Club founded in 1888, all lined up for the start of a race, and if you look carefully you’ll probably recognise one of them as being Peter Sagan’s great great grandfather….
There are towers to climb in Bratislava too. To get to the top of the Castle tower, you need a special kind of steely determination, and the Town Hall tower will reward you with lofty views over squares….
….and interesting roofs whose pitches make them look like church steeples…
And when you see some poor fellow trying to crawl out of a street drain, it is very tempting to just stroke him on the head to comfort him (as everyone does). What was he doing down there anyway?
And when you are bored with museums and towers and men crawling out of drains, you can join the crowds to catch bubbles, and contribute to this young man’s beer fund
…..believe me, people openly ask for money for their beer fund….they know you know they will spend the euro you give them on the next can of beer. So why not be honest about it….
Tomorrow, it’s goodbye Bratislava, hello Vienna…..with 60km of the Danube trail in between.
As my final destination, Bratislava was always going to be my second choice (behind Prague), but a persistent headwind across Poland dictated terms and conditions, so here I am, at the notional end of my journey.
But wait a minute, Vienna is only 60km away along the Danube, on Eurovelo 6. Flat, scenic and designed for cyclists, the only drawback being that I would be going upstream….. OK, not because it goes imperceptibly uphill (probably by only 10-20 metres), but because the vast majority of the annual 38,000 cyclists that follow the route go downstream, which is bound to complicate my progress if I have to go against the flow. But still….
Quite apart from the attraction of bagging yet another country and capital city, Vienna is a bigger transport hub than Bratislava, thus making it an obvious finishing point, with a greater chance of getting home by train and boat. Going overland will be more expensive than flying, and certainly more time consuming, but then I could simply change my thinking about that and regard it as part of the journey….in other words an integral segment of the whole adventure.
Last night, in the town of Pezinok, I was welcomed by an enthusiastic Slovak couple, called Michal and Eva, who are expecting their first baby in December. Michal came out to meet me on a borrowed electric mountain bike, one that he had been testing in the local hills, to see if he might be interested in one for himself.
The conversation over supper ranged from riding bikes to politics, and amongst the many fascinating (and disturbing) things I learned about Slovakia was the surprising popularity of its up-and-coming far right party, the Kotleba People’s Party, which has a double cross insignia that was used by an old Slovak fascist party during the war.
Slovakia spent more than 50 years subjected to the brutality of, first, the German Nazis, then the Soviet system, but people are clearly forgetting all that. The People’s Party ideology is underpinned by extreme nationalism, fundamental Christianity, hate for the Roma people, and a total rejection of western liberal democracy. What does that remind you of?
Tomorrow will be a day for exploring Bratislava.
Now tell me, what do you know about Slovak wines…..never heard of them? If not, join the club. When did you last see a bottle of Slovak wine in your local supermarket? The reason why not is because the Slovaks keep it all for themselves. How selfish is that? But I’ve just discovered their dark little secret….in a wine museum in Pezinok, where I am spending the night.
For the ‘exorbitant’ fee of €3 (senior fee, of course), I was given a very informative audio guide to the excellent displays about the history and production of wine in Slovakia, and at the end I had a glass of the local Riesling thrust into my hand. Pity about the lack of pretzels….
The whole region, in fact, reminded me of the Alsace, and the vineyards growing along the slopes of the Vosges mountains. These vineyards grow on the slopes of the Little Carpathians, and the wines all have a similar character to the Alsatian wines…
I also learned about, and sampled, the first stage of production after the pressing, which produced what they translated into English as ‘the scrumpy’, a low alcohol beverage given to the vineyard workers as replacement for water….a bit like the small beer given to English farm workers in former times.
Last night, in Smolenice, I was hosted by an English family, resident in Slovakia for the last 6 years, and very happily settled. Mark and Suzanne’s 7 year old daughter, Zoe, was 1 when they arrived, so now has a native fluency in Slovak, and was proud to include their new kitten, Lily, in the photo.
No, not the piece by Mendelssohn, but an actual march by real people. As I approached the village of Chetelnica, I could hear a band playing in the distance, and just imagined it was rehearsal day for the local musicians. However, when I dropped steeply down into the village centre, I met this very colourful procession walking along the road,
and right in the middle were the bride and groom. Lots of them shouted comments in my direction, which were either disparaging of my appearance or were an invitation to join the party…I’d like to think it was the latter.
About half of today’s 80km route was one of my favourite kinds of road, peppered with steep climbs, commanding views over the countryside, and tyre-burning descents….better known as ‘lumpy’ in the cycling community.
It also happened to be a favourite with that other biking community, the motorcyclists. Hundreds passed me, oblivious of the many shrines to the memory of their fellow bikers who have lost their lives on this stretch. And invariably, they ‘hunt’ in packs….they always roar past in groups…
So here are a few things that Slovakia is famous for: Peter Sagan, one of the most talented of elite cyclists, and certainly the most entertaining; the Slovak language has given us two very common words, ‘robot‘ and ‘pistol‘. And its capital, Bratislava, stands on the border of two other independent nations, Hungary and Austria. And don’t confuse Slovakia with Slovenia (which, apparently, many do) and in case you still haven’t caught up with history, it’s been separated from the Czech Republic since 1993. Here endeth the lesson….
I was prepared for a long, fast descent….I knew it was on the menu for the day. However, Google maps couldn’t provide a cycling option in Slovakia, the only option that gives an elevation profile of the route ahead, so I used the ‘terrain’ format to help identify ascents and descents.
Before the continuous fast stuff started, there was a switching of valleys, which meant another horrendously steep climb up and over, but once that was out of the way, after a 15km fast descent, there was continuous gradual descending for the rest of the day.
After 110km, I got to Trencin an hour before dark, to find the only campsite had closed for the winter 4 days ago, and every hotel and hostel I contacted or visited was either full or closed. This created a predicament that required a bit of creative thinking and a strong coffee.
So I decided to wait for dark and do a stealth pitch of my tent, but then chanced by a service station, and went in to have a coffee and consider my options. The girl behind the counter spoke good English, so I enlisted her support…. Between serving customers and checking the internet, she kindly made a few calls for me and eventually found a vacancy in a penzión just three doors away.
What I ended up with (despite its unpromising name) was a suite of two bedrooms, a kitchenette and bathroom for a very reasonable €30…..and he let me sleep with my bicycle….🤩
Having dropped from the high Tatras, I am now in an entirely different climate zone. The layers came off gradually as I lost altitude, from a few degrees above freezing, I ended up in a relatively balmy 18C.
I am the luckiest guy in Slovakia (well, now that I’m here). As I began the long, arduous climb up to the border, there were several occasions when the weather threatened my progress. But, despite all the threats and icy cold showers, I persisted, climbed over the border (topping out at 700 metres, 2,300ft) and hurtled down the other side into the town of Cadca, when the heavens opened, and the temperature immediately dropped some 10 degrees….the day ended icily cold…..I mean icily cold. That’s why I am the luckiest guy…..I could easily have been caught by that at the highest point of the ride, totally exposed, no shelter…it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
So I grabbed myself a 15 euro room, and have just munched my way through the biggest pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life…
But I will let the pictures of the day tell their own story…
Ah, hello dear friends! How I’ve missed you….
No not you, the mountains…. After nearly 1,900km of mostly flat, sometimes dispiriting, riding against a predictable headwind across 6 countries, I can’t begin to explain the sheer relief I felt at finding myself in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains (also known as the Little Carpathians). I’m currently only 50km from the border with Slovakia, my 7th country on this trip…..but more of that later.
Special mention must be made of my Warmshowers host over the last two nights in Krakow. Adam is a veteran of road and off-road riding, with many years of touring experience, covering some 10 countries in the Balkans, and cycling from Poland to Nordcapp, over 5000km, to the most northerly point of Norway (and Europe). These are just two of his many exploits, all of which have been recorded on film, and we spent several hours reliving those experiences. I was mesmerised by the quality of his filming and the landscapes he has travelled through. Click here to sample some of his offerings. Sit back and enjoy them, whether or not you are a cyclist. You will be carried along by the gentle quest to discover new landscapes.
Back to my own journey. As I cruised out of Krakow on dedicated cycle paths, and had begun to climb up from the valley of the River Vistula, I chanced by the oldest Benedictine monastery in Poland, sitting high above the river,
and enveloped in that sense of withdrawal from life that begs you to stay awhile. A Dutch lady I met at the entrance was an habitual visitor, drawn back to Poland year after year.
After 102km, in the late afternoon, I checked into a wayside room, just into the final climb of this segment…
and at some 400 metres above sea level, I decided the night time temperature would be way below the tolerance of my sleeping bag. So once again, the indulgence of a real bed and a chef-prepared meal…..what has happened to the spirit of austerity, you might ask.
…or so I thought. I learned the full force of Polish steely determination when I cycled out to visit the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory, about 3km out of the centre of Krakow. It was a free entry day and it closed at 16.00. As I negotiated a very tricky route I found a road closure, which sent me on a longish detour. I arrived at precisely 14.35, only to be told the last entry was at 14.30 (because, apparently, you absolutely need 90 minutes to see the permanent exhibition).
“But….but…..but I’ve cycled here, and been delayed by a road closure, and the website said nothing of the last entry at 14.30…..can’t you make just this one exception?”
I won’t bore you with the detail, but I tried various ploys to blag my way in…..I even tried walking past the entrance staff to see if they would notice….even if I’d been Pope Francis himself, they would have barred my way through. So just being any old ‘Francis’ wasn’t going to cut it either….. I’ve now learned the hard way…. don’t mess with Polish museum staff.
But I do love browsing museums, learning about the history of places and their principal characters and, of course, every city will highlight its own positives:
Had there not been a Rome in Italy, Krakow itself would have been Rome.
Wawel Castle, on the top of the hill, is the most beautiful in the country..
But Krakow, like the rest of Poland, suffered disastrously at the hands of, first the Gestapo, then the Soviet KGB….go to the Terror of Krakow exhibition and you’ll need a strong coffee afterwards to calm your nerves.
But then spend an hour in the National Museum to discover Polish works of art of the 19th century, and you’ll come across jewels like this by Jacek Malczewski…
If Gothic and Baroque is your thing, there are more visitable churches than you can shake a stick at. If you need to help purge the demons of the holocaust, go to Auschwitz, or dally in the Jewish quarter of the city and visit the old Synagogue.
Tomorrow I resume my battle with the headwind in search of the foothills of the Tatra mountains, the most westerly peaks of the Carpathian mountain chain. After some 1800km on this journey, the legs will get their first stretch in hill climbing, to give me my first elevated views of landscape.
Tent dried from the overnight dew and packed up, I headed for breakfast in a nearby café, and just about managed to eat one of their small Polish-style hotdogs, but then in came this ‘Uber-Eats’ delivery guy, and he gave me a quick lesson on how to eat two giant-sized ones in quick succession…..and in less than two minutes!
Then later in the day, as I took shelter from the rain, Peter Lee (his English name of course) from Nanjing in China, struck up conversation in almost flawless English, and ended up showing me some of his superb photography shot on his most recent trip to Tibet. He then told me of his upcoming trip back to Tibet, and the 6 week 20,000km journey he will do with a friend in his car, and I ask him: ‘what has happened to the bicycle in China?’.
He looks at me and gives me one of those inscrutable Asian smiles, and proudly says: ‘Ah yes, the bicycle….China has changed a lot….we now have real traffic jams…’
It had to happen. A day of reckoning was due. I thought I’d made a canny move changing my final destination to Bratislava from Prague, and for two days I had cause for celebration. I couldn’t boast having a tailwind, but a crosswind is always going to be a better option than a full-on headwind. However, today the pact with the weather gods has been rescinded and, according to the forecast, I will be paying my dues for the next couple of days. The wind is coming from the south, and staying from the south…..and I am going south. After a reasonable day’s quota of 83km against this 15mph headwind, I arrived at the unpronounceable town of Jedrzejow, discovered its most attractive feature was its railway station, checked on the internet and found there was a train to Krakow in 30 minutes…..it was a no-brainer….a one hour train journey into Krakow and I would be heading to a campsite by the River Vistula (the very same river that runs through Warsaw)…..it was two fingers to the weather gods.Krakow is a place Jenny and I have already visited in winter time, when the Christmas market was in full swing, and the air was filled with the aroma of mulled wine. I’ve already had a kind Warmshowers invitation to stay a further two nights here, so let’s see how the city compares in September. It is universally regarded as the jewel in the crown of Poland.
Ride a bike and learn something new. I have just spent the best part of two days riding through apple orchards, in the Grojec region. Like the olive groves in Spain, they seem to go on forever. But little did I realise that Poland is the biggest apple producer in the EU, and that a full 80% of all its fruit production is in the form of apples. That’s a huge 4 million tonnes of apples every year. Check the origin of the next bag of apples you buy.
I spent last night in a tiny village of 900 inhabitants called Lipie, right in the heart of the apple region, being hosted by a delightful family. Renata, the mother, is a primary school teacher, and her children Olivia and Pawel attend the secondary school next door to their house.
Olivia is passionate about horses, and showed me her collection of 49 equine figurines.
Pawel, who wants to be a chef one day, cooked an excellent pasta bolognese, and then tried to teach me the rules of a card game using the Google translate app….we had a lot of fun with that, but very little success.
85km into my day’s ride, I arrived at Konskie, a delightful little town 160km north of Krakow which really caught my attention….enough in fact to persuade me to stay the night. And when I discovered the temperature was going to drop to just +4 degrees (the comfort limit of my sleeping bag), I decided to take a room, just metres from this signpost…..
….telling me I’m 1,651km from Londyn (about 1000 miles). I wonder if Konskie has joined the ranks of the growing number of towns that claim to be the geographic centre of Europe? I know the Guinness Book of records currently recognises Girija in Lithuania.
One of the many benefits of being a member of the cyclists’ hospitality group Warmshowers has been the open door to meeting people across national and cultural divides, sometimes people with whom you share no language in common. This happened during my two nights in Warsaw.
I was very kindly invited to spend both nights in Warsaw with Olexandr (from Ukraine) and Ira (from Belarus), despite their busy mid-week timetable, and despite the fact that Ira speaks no English (though fluent in Russian and Polish). Olexandr, on the other hand, speaks four languages very well, and has a working knowledge of two others. Another important ingredient in their lives is the fact that Ira is expecting their first child in January. It was a delight for me to sleep on their couch, and learn so much about them as people, and as expatriate residents in Poland.
When I planned this journey, I left open a couple of options, and one was my final destination. My first choice was Prague, which geographically would be WSW from Warsaw.. The other was Bratislava in Slovakia, which is going more southerly from Warsaw, swinging to the SW in Slovakia. As you can see from the title of this post, I have decided to head south to Krakow. So, what has been the catalyst for me taking option 2?
Well, you have probably guessed the wind direction might have something to do with it. I reckon I have had more than my fair share of strong headwinds on this journey, and I know the weather gods have had it in for me. Every time I have changed direction, the wind has too….but, crucially, never in my favour. Looking ahead, if the BBC weather app has got it right, the wind should be roughly from the west in the next several days, which doesn’t mean a tailwind as I head south, but more of a crosswind. The only way to get a tailwind behind me would be to head due east to the Ukraine…..and that is not an option on the table.
And finally, had I been a few cms taller, and not seen this ‘no right turn’ sign coming, I would most certainly have incurred a painful head injury….I almost excused them the dangerous blunder when I saw the warning followed by an exclamation mark (!) assuming they were wsrning of the danger, but no such luck. When I looked it up on the translation app. this is what I got…..
…the warning was simply to alert me the cycle path was about to join the road. Hey ho…..
But I have to say I was very impressed with the network of cycle-paths in Warsaw. It took me 20km to clear the city traffic this morning, but I never once had to cycle amongst the traffic, always on segregated cycle routes. The irony is that, had the city not been destroyed and rebuilt with wider streets and avenues, there would never have been the space to develop the cycle network. Hmm, I think there is a message in this for UK cities…..I’ll leave you to figure it out.
Warsaw is a hugely impressive place, but it is largely down to its two separate histories: before WW2 and after. Every museum I’ve visited (and there are not a few) and every street and square I’ve walked through have constantly referenced the ‘before and after’ periods of the war, and their impact on the very character of the city, indeed, the very character of the nation has been considerable.
Bear in mind that Poland had been a monarchy until the end of the 18th century, then it had been occupied variously by other nations, until it lost its new-found independence when the Germans moved in, in 1939. By the end of the war, it had been 90% razed to the ground by the Germans as a reprisal for non-cooperation, and had lost most of its population, especially the Jews. So all historical references hinge around both before and after the war and, frankly, it’s resurgence from the ashes has been truly impressive.
As I write these few words sitting in the courtyard of the Royal Castle, a guide is talking to her group and emphasising, probably not for the first time, that Warsaw had been completely destroyed in the war. The locals are genuinely proud of their history of survival, and they are eager to tell you.
So tomorrow I head out for the next leg of my journey, and my direction just may be governed by the direction of the wind…..watch this space….