I am in Dubrovnik, Croatia, heading south down the Dalmatian coast in long-awaited sunshine. As it’s been a while since I posted, here are the highlights so far!
Central and southern France
Cycling through Northern and Central France was lovely in early February; sunny for the most part with cold nights (-5C or so) and fairly chilly days (2 or 3C). I pretty much made up the route as I went along, aiming to avoid the highest mountains of the Masif Central and arrive at the Mediterranean somewhere around Montpellier. During the first week I made steady progress, quickly getting into a rhythm of cycling 50 to 80 miles a day and camping wherever I found myself at nightfall. My life was simplified to finding nice roads to cycle, cheap food, free water and discreet camping places, all to the soundtrack of Nigerian synth soul-pop-funk legend William Onyeabor (courtesy of my good friend JB) – Fantastic Man got me through some hard miles during my first fortnight alone – great pedalling tune that!
The routine of ride, camp, cook, eat, sleep, repeat was exactly as I’d hoped, but it was a solitary existence. After a week of only speaking to supermarket checkout assistants and hiding out in the woods I was starting to feel a bit lonely, almost as if I was ‘on the run’ at times. A few miles into a dreary Sunday morning after a particularly late camp in farmland near Limoges I was trying to motivate myself to get a move on when a car that seemed to pass me quite slowly pulled in on the pavement just ahead of me. Out popped a smiling chap who asked me straight away if I spoke English and would I like a cup of tea, as he lived very close by. To my shame my first thought was, “I’ve got a flask of tea and I’ve only cycled five miles today”, but it was quickly replaced by recalling that the whole point of this trip is to take opportunities and chances and to see where I end up. Ten minutes after my first chance encounter, I’d found the side road where my accoster had driven ahead and come out on his own touring bike to welcome me to his home. Tadek, it turned out is a Polish chef who was supposed to be away on his own bicyle adventure in South America, but had had to postpone his trip for family reasons. Looking after his brother-in-law’s dog for a few days he’d popped out to buy pet food when he spotted me and thought he’d return some of the kindness and hospitality he’d enjoyed on previous cycle tours. A cup of tea was quickly followed by offers of lunch, shower, laundry, stay the night, stay as long as I like…! I managed to overcome my newbie’s instinct to crack on and enjoyed a rest day of the highest quality – three chef cooked hot meals and great conversation. It was brilliant to hear Tad’s stories of life on the road, lessons learned the hard way and generally chew the fat into the small hours over a couple of bottles of fine wine!
After a fantastic breakfast, Tad cast his eye over my gear and insisted on giving me several pieces of his own equipment that he thought I’d find useful on my trip, before wheeling out on his trusty Koga-Miyata to accompany me for twenty sunny miles or so. I left Tad in Le Dorat with an enormous sense of optimism and good will. It was a totally random meeting that happened exactly at my lowest ebb in the first couple of weeks, and completely restored my enthusiasm for this trip.
That day also marked the end of the fast easy miles that I’d enjoyed down through the Loire valley and Limousin region, as I headed up into sun-dappled, wooded valleys around Chateauponsac and camped in a hay meadow near the superbly named town of St Leonard de Noblat. As I approached the Montes d’Auvergne the terrain became hillier, the air chillier. Over-reaching myself as usual, I found myself 90 minutes from darkness on a thirty mile segment between snow-bound villages. By judicious application of emergency patisserie goods I managed to lay the power down and narrowly escaped a snow-bound wildcamp high up on the frozen plateau between Eymoutiers and Meymac. That served as a wake up call to the terrain ahead, so I decided to try the Warmshowers network for the next few nights to get me across the colder high ground as I cut across the edge of the Masif Central.
I enjoyed superb hospitality with Laurent and family near Aurillac and Alice in the Vallee du Lot, and the kindest possible welcome into the family life of Hubert and Francoise Martin in Le Caylar (including a much needed rest day), and a most considerate last minute stay with Laurent and Anne near Sommieres. The amazing generosity and support of these kind people enabled me to cover much bigger daily mileages on the first rainy days of the trip, safe in the knowledge that I could ride after dark without having to find a camping spot. Two weeks after arriving in France I was now within striking distance of the Med, but decided to heed the advice of my hosts and cut east along the Durance valley and then the foothills of the Maritime Alps, to avoid the fast traffic on the busy coastal roads, where the density of expensive development between Montpellier and Nice would make wild camping difficult. I realised that I was getting a bit soft with the luxury of the Warmshowers hosting, so I went back to nature for three great nights wildcamping in the woods, campfires and wild beasts – lots of deer, a few noisy dog foxes, and a noisy, nosey bunch of wild boar that took an interest in my tent in the woods outside Cavaillon before something spooked them and set them off squealing; a startling sound to hear in the middle of the night only a couple of feet from my head. The next morning my bike computer clocked up 1000 miles since leaving Glossop – a milestone of sorts!
Soon after, from the vantage point of Grasse in the hills north of Cannes I got my first glimpse of the deep blue triangle of water that heralded the start of the Mediterranean leg of my journey. In less than an hour I had swooped down the twenty miles to the coast at Cagnes sur Mer and was cruising along the promenade through Nice enjoying the late afternoon sunshine along with hordes of other cyclists, joggers and strollers, ice creams in hand. The heady fragrance of expensive perfume and cologne wafted on the warm breeze (17C in Feb – get in!) as I cruised towards Monaco and wondered about my prospects for wildcamping in one of the highest land-value locations on the planet. I pulled off the main drag to consider my options in Cap D’Ail, a mile or so short of Monaco, at around 6pm. It was the best decision I made since setting off. Distracted from my phone-map by the spectacle of our great thermonuclear life-bringer dipping toward the salty blue horizon, I realised that I was obstructing the parking space of a camper van that had arrived while I was in my daydream. After I had shunted out of the way, the lady driver emerged to ask if I was on ‘le tour de France’? ‘Non, le tour du monde!’ I replied. Realising that the lady spoke perfect English, I explained my predicament and enquired about places I might camp. She confirmed that the Cote d’Azur would offer few if any any suitable hideaways, but that climbing up into the hills for an hour or so I might find somewhere, then adding as an afterthought, ‘or you could just camp in my garden round the corner if you like’!
Elisabeth took me to her beautiful house, twenty metres from the sea, where I was greeted by her husband, the mischevious and debonair Michel, charming daughter, Annika, and granddaughter Clair, along with the ever present Clipsou, the amazing wifi-enabled cat. As we weighed up the best place for my tent amongst the fruit trees and herbs, Annika intervened and suggested I might be more comfortable on the sofa upstairs in her appartment. I didn’t need asking twice! The sofa, it turned out later, was a fantastically comfortable double bed-settee with a view of the sunrise over the pine-fringed Mediterranean coast. I had arrived in heaven! During the next two days I got to know Michel and Annika over the wonderful meals that Michel conjured from the best local produce, including treating me to authentic moules marinieres for the first time in my life! I swam in the sea, updated my website and caught up on rest. But far and away the greatest luxury was to be so welcomed with good humour and warmth into this adventurous, multi-lingual (French, Swedish, English and German for starters) and fun-loving family. My only regret was that I got to spend only a couple of hours with Elisabeth, who departed on a skiing trip the morning after my arrival – I will always remember her as my Swedish saviour when I went wild camping in Monaco!
After a couple of blissful rest days with my adoptive famille I reluctantly headed along the coast, through Monaco, to Italy. Immediately it was obvious that Italy was far more densely populated and the roads much busier than in France. With a heavy heart I pedalled along the coast to Savona and over the snowy foothills of the Apennines into the Pianura Padana (the great plain of the Po river). This was an early, unexpected low point of the trip. Expansive scruffy villages and private land with ‘attenti al cane’ warnings making it difficult to camp wild; expensive prices in the shops; busy roads with aggressive drivers; the potholed asphalt often in a parlous state – ravaged by the harsh winter – and finally torrential rain all combined to produce a fairly melancholy state of mind for a few days (shortly before I posted my last newsflash).
Struggling to find a safe place to pitch my tent at dusk one night I finally took fate into my hands and knocked on the door of a remote farmhouse (the only one without a security entrance gate, and with a light on). The old couple who lived there spoke no English, and I have virtually no Italian, but once my intentions were understood they let me camp in front of their house, and insisted I eat my meal in the warmth of their kitchen. Lino, a retired lorry driver, and his wife lived entirely in one room of their dilapidated buidling (the aforementioned kitchen) along with two dogs and various rodents for pets, with very little by way of comfort or possessions. We each shared what little we had and communicated as best we could. If I understood right they were being forced to sell the house in a couple of weeks. Lino wrote his name and phone number on a scrap of paper and indicated that he was concerend about my wellbeing and that I should call him if I ran into difficulties and he would come out in his old Alfa Romeo. It was a very moving experience to meet this kind, gentle couple who had clearly fallen on hard times.
In a bid to get through the tough patch of dreary scenery – endless muddy fields awash with flood water, every drainage channel a running sluice of brown water, rivers swollen to bursting – and difficult road conditions I checked into a cheap motel to dry out and make contact with a Warmshowers host in the romantic city of Mantova (some or other film with Claire Danes and Leonardo di Caprio was set there apparenty :). This gave me a target mileage to aim for and something to focus on. That night I stayed with Antonia, a young architect and fellow bicycle traveller who was remarkably relaxed about letting me make myself at home in her beautiful studio apartment while she was out for the evening.
Recharged and refocused, I put in another big day along the fast flat plain to reach the idyllic home of Alberto and Sabrine in Piove di Sacco. An oasis of home grown vegetables, loving family atmosphere and home comforts, my stay with Alberto and Sabrine was another turning point in my journey so far as they were already hosting another adventure cylist who had arrived the day before. Taneli Roininen had set off by bike from Helsinki in October 2014 and pedalled his way through 65 days of rain (out of the first 100 of his trip), through Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, the Atlantic coast of France and the Spanish Pyrenees, then a route very similar to mine across northern Italy. With similar no-flying ideals and a shared background in emissions accounting, we hit it off immediately and decided to try travelling together for a while.
After an easy day of errrands and being tourists in Venice, before camping out in the eerily tranquil city park in Mestre, I hitched onto the Taneli-steam-locomotive lead out train and rode north to stay for a couple of nights at the home of Markus and Ariana up in the mountainous region of Friuli*. Of Finnish extraction and a keen cyclist and fisherman himself, Markus had spotted the details of Taneli’s trip on the Finnish Fly Fishing Forum and invited Taneli to stay if he was passing by. While the Finns talked fly tying and trout spotting, I caught up on rest and ate like a king, as Ariana produced an endless menu of wonderful Friulian specialities and cakes. Thanks!
* seeking water en route to Markus’ we encountered Rachele Lugnani and her mother out walking, who took an interest in our adventure and brought us to their nearby home for an impromptu three course home cooked lunch. Thank you!
Well fed and well rested, and with my love affair with Italy once more rekindled after meeting such lovely people in Mantova, Piove di Sacco and Celante, Taneli and I then struck out for the Austrian border along a ‘rail-trail’ cycleway. Feeling adventurous, we decided to attempt a higher than planned crossing by following the valley we wildcamped in to the pass. The lower valley began as a beautiful spring cycle outing but soon became increasingly suited to a day of ski touring. After half an hour of on-off snow, the road ahead was visibly snow bound above a 1000m. Who knew? We enjoyed a slap up three course picnic meal at an out of use Alpine summer farm for our troubles, before a long descent back to where we started and eventually the next day crossing into Slovenia. Austria will have to wait until next time.
Slovenia and Croatia
In my naivite and minimal route research, I hadn’t actually noticed that a visit to Slovenia was required in getting from Italy to Croatia. For a country that I hadn’t even spotted on the map, Slovenia was a small but beautiful delight. Cheaper than Italy, great roads and the stunning Julian Alps made for a few great days riding, following Taneli’s extensively researched ‘redline’ on his GPS, which took him through every national park in the Balkans!
After a week of wandering together in the mountains, I was ready to return to more purposefully heading south to eventually get to my friend’s in Greece, so Taneli and I amicably decided to part ways and planned to stay in touch and hopefully ride together again in Turkey or elsewhere in Asia. At sunset a couple of days later on the Croatian coast, as I checked back up the road to make sure it was safe to cross into a side road to find a place to camp out of the wind, I spotted the unmistakable silhoutte of ‘Mountain-mad Tanu’ bearing down the road apace, apparently having undergone some kind of epiphany above the snowline in the intervening two days and realised that he can’t bear to be without me! Ha ha! Seriously, it was great to see him again especially as that night making camp involved constructing our very own high altitude base camp using massive rocks to secure the tents against the ferocious bora wind that came howling down off the Velebit mountains to the coast.
Next morning made for the most terrifying riding I can recall as the insane gusts of wind blew and swirled from every direction with no telling when or from which side the next random blast would come. Add to this the frequent lack of any perimeter barrier on the cliff edge road (riding on the right, heading south…) and the many viaducts we had to cross, several times being blown to a halt or having to walk the bikes across bridges over gorges where the turbulence was strongest. The deep cuttings were an exhilarating treat amongst the high-tension riding that morning, as wind funnelled into a great wooshing jetstream that propelled us uphill, accelerating rapidly without pedalling, then ejecting us at high speed from the rock channels giddy and feeling about as close to the effortless soaring that the griffon vultures in the area enjoy on calmer days. At 2pm we were about ready to throw the towel in for the day (although of course the wind would have sent said towel to Sicily tout suite!), when without warning the wind disappeared and left us becalmed waiting for the ferry to Pag island. Asking for water at a house in the tiny ferry port of Prizna, we were rewarded with not only essential aqua but three shots of strong Slovenian 30-year old grappa from the kind residents. On an empty stomach, followed by a quick beer and wolfed late lunch on the late afternoon ferry to the island, the alcohol gave an even more unworldly feel to the moonscape that greeted us on Pag.
The Velebit mountains from the moonscape of Pag
So began our Croatian odyssey of island and peninsula hopping, camping in olive groves, cherry orchards, beside rivers and sea. Korcula island was a particular verdant delight, with a coast road like something from Jurassic Park. Somewhere around here Taneli’s tireless devotion to cutting weight eventually rubbed off on me and I made a ruthless cull of 4kg of non-essential kit (although quite how Taneli can carry full fly-fishing kit and still have about half the weight of my gear remains a mystery – he did send his waders home in Sibenik, I suppose, after carrying them unused for 5,500km!).
Which brings us to Dubrovnik, pearl of the Adriatic, home of Tyrion Lannister and pretty spiffing spot to take a couple of rest days, wash everything and catch up on correspondence. So with a belly full of ice cream and happy memories of sunset beers at the buza, Taneli and I are about to embark on the next leg of our trip together to see my old university flatmate in Greece – by the end of the month hopefully. The improving warm weather and constant interest from the coastal back-roads in the last week has meant that our daily mileage has taken a nosedive, but since my Cateye Adventure cycle computer pinged off my bike somewhere near Venice never to be seen again, I have determined to stop worrying about the numbers and enjoy the quality. Smiles not miles! But we seriously do need to put some miles in all the same if we’re ever going to get to Greece before Easter. Again, naively, I had not reckoned on quite how mountainous are the next countries, Montenegro, Albania and Greece. But my bike is now much lighter and my legs stronger, so Elina, be warned I am on my way!! x
Bok! (as they say in these parts).
PS – for loads more great photos and video footage check out Taneli’s Instagram site: www.instagram.com/gonebikefishing