Monday 7 September 2015

Backwards, towards Britain.

So,  as per usual,  I'm on a train,  travelling backwards.  I'm not sure why I always travel backwards. We've just crossed the river into Strausbourg,  and it would appear that everything has gone a little bit crap crossing to France from Germany.  It's nice when countries live up to their stereotypes. I wanted to write something every night, but I usually seemed to end the day in some sort of state of minor insanity,  meaning that uploading pics to Facebook was about as exciting as it would get. I find it hard to believe that two weeks and something like 830 miles has gone just like that. This was quite a different trip than previous.  I actually put my faith in Google Maps and allowed it to select a cycling route. I would never do that in Britain,  as the facilities are so shit,  but it actually worked reasonably well from France onwards.  French facilities were a bit meh, with a fair amount of broken glass. Flemish Belgian facilities were generally excellent.  French Belgian,  meh,  but at least clean. German, outside of cities,  generally terrific and often so smooth you could bowl on them.  In cities,  generally OK,  though God only knows why all the countries think it is a good idea to use brick on a bike path.  Brick,  which is disturbed by each and every tree route. The other issue with in town cycling facilities is that one normally needs to toodle along pretty slowly.  One because they are bumpy,  but also because Germans of all persuasions actually cycle. Very unlike Britain the drivers were nearly all considerate towards cyclists. Belgium was a bit scary though as people take their righthand rule very seriously. It is nice though to cycle in a place where it's completely unremarkable,  where families are out on multiday tours and oldsters out with their picnic baskets. As per usual I consumed a vast amount of salami and cheese (and schnitzel and cake) so I seriously doubt any weight loss has occurred!

Anyway,  after a brief sojourn in Bonn, I set south in mid summer temperatures (90s) and high humidity to Mainz,  103 miles south. That part of the Rhein is beautiful,  full of castles and very steep vineyards. Apparently it was the done thing, in the day, to live in a castle. The only minor issue on the day,  besides the heat and the humidity,  there was a very strong southerly wind.  So,  about 80 miles were into the headwind and the last 20 or so I was so dazed and exhausted as to not really care or remember how I got there.  There was a pleasant but not very interesting hotel in a residential area of Mainz,  itself not all that exciting seeming (though,  to be fair,  I was completely wasted tired by the time I got there). Slightly annoying was that the closest food was about a mile away.  Pizza. Very good pizza though,  sat outside on a sort of street square,  definitely the only person not speaking German.

The next day was much cooler,  with brief,  heavy rain.  Autumn had arrived,  just like that. A more sensible 65 miles down the Rhein and then up the Neckar to Heidelberg,  I spent the day mostly cycling amongst vineyards and cornfields.  Something I absolutely love about Germany are what I ended up calling the corn roads.  Basically they are little piddlyass roads with all but local traffic prohibited,  criss crossing the farm fields.  They are usually beautifully paved,  but I did end up on about 10 miles of dirt and one of them did turn into a grass track.  No,  Google Maps,  those are not cycle routes. So,  I ended up in Heidelberg, which seems to be made up mostly of gingerbread (or looks it) and has a very scientific looking (ugly)  university with loads of university students (American). Somehow it escaped the war,  which is nice,  as it saved it (except the university) from the frequent German curse of looking like Elephant and Castle. I walked around and did dutifully touristy things.  There is a nice castle as well,  much of which seemed to have been blown up several hundred years ago.  Makes it low maintenance.

The next day was about 70 miles,  to Stuttgart.  This ended up being quite hilly and I'd really not gotten enough sleep,  so I was a bit of a zombie for much of it. The countryside around Stuttgart is beautiful rolling farmland,  with a fair sprinkling of wind turbines (this being Germany). The suburbs of Stuttgart are unremarkable but pleasant.  The centre of Stuttgart is a complete construction disaster of detours and closed roads. They are modernising (burying?) the very ugly central train station,  which has generally made a complete mess and pissed off everyone. Eventually finding my hotel,  at the edge of the red light district (street?) I set off to find dinner. Mostly lost in the maze of 1950s streets (albeit full of shiny and expensive stores) I finally gave up and was lured in by the siren song of Starbucks. Not exactly international dining. Oh well.

The next day,  about 75 miles,  was split between riverside bike trail (slow and bumpy), gorgeous forested hills and smooth road, one detour around a closed road, pushing my bike along a pathway through a forest and about 10 miles of dirt roads through cornfields.  Not exactly a winner route planning job that day. The exciting highlight of the day was convincing a slightly injured mole that it wanted to leave the road, rather than eat my shoe,  then getting soaked in a very cold,  heavy rainstorm. I eventually pulled into the enormous metropolis of Gunzburg (on the Danube) just as the sun set, then ate the remainder of my food in the warmth and comfort of the room rather than venture back out into the cold and dark.

It was on to Munich the next day.  About 80 miles.  Quite a lot of rolling farmland with properly scenic Bavarian towns.  Then a very long, boring ride into the suburban flatness of western Munich. Munich itself I like a lot,  but the western suburbs,  mile after mile of concrete nothingness. An ode to 70s functional. On Saturday, as Mike was working and as I'd had to cut off the first day,  to Dover,  I cycled up to Tegernsee, in the Alps foothills.  About 80 miles total through chocolate box gorgeous little towns,  sweeping green fields,  miles of forest,  Bavarian off the tourist brochure.  I made it to the lake,  had a sandwich,  froze my knickers off admiring the view,  then retreated to the warmth and comfort of a mostly deserted ice cream shop before mostly coasting the 40 miles back to Munich.

Yesterday I did a lot of nothing,  though I did manage to gym and run (as one does after 800 miles)  and eat more schnitzel. Today it was up at 415 (awful), disassemble bike at the train station in Munich,  reassemble it in Paris,  then get home and back to work tomorrow for a punishing four day week before heading off to Stockholm on Saturday. (Terrible,  I know).

It is,  however,  time to start thinking about the when, where and how of the next phase of life I think. I did definitely come to this conclusion on this trip. Anyway,  that's enough typing for now with my thumbs on a tablet...

Friday 28 August 2015

Dover to Munich. Verviers

Well,  two days,  167 miles and two completely different experiences. Yesterday morning I started off in Ypres in the rapidly descending gloom. Mostly,  it pissed rain yesterday.  A lot.  It was cold and windy and generally horrid. One could imagine how the green and pleasant fields could rapidly turn into a complete quagmire.  Even stepping a few feet off the road collected a generous amount of mud,  now stuck in my pedals. I didn't stop much yesterday,  save to eat. I mostly put my head down and cycled,  just trying to get to Brussels.  It wasn't a little bit of rain or a sudden summer thunderstorm,  it was sheets and sheets of water,  bucketing in a very businesslike manner from a slate sky. The roads were lovely and smooth.  The cycle paths sometimes astounding,  even in the middle of nowhere. It all passed in a blur though. My waterproofs resisted for about 30 miles,  then became quite amenable, welcoming even to the rain. I had a lovely lunch huddled under a highway overpass. Anyway,  I made it to Brussels in the end,  with its lovely,  not insane at all drivers,  tram tracks and completely nonsensical massive intersections. I have to remember here that people take their traffic on the right has the right of way rule very seriously and will just whip out without looking. I had a very nice dinner with Alex.

This morning was cool and dry,  autumnal. I set off in Brussels rush hour traffic,  which is a delight and managed to not get run over by any trams. I set off to the southeast,  across a lot of rolling countryside not unlike southern Minnesota or the east of England. Rolling countryside,  of course, means it is actually continuously uphill. Big difference going from Flemish to French speaking Belgium,  the bike lanes disappear. I ended up giving up on my planned route today when bumpy concrete turned into cobbles turned into dirt, and made it to the end with a combination of Garmin and winging it. The weather was perfect though.  What I was not counting on was it suddenly getting extremely hilly,  with 25% grades at mile 75, just after Liege. Countryside not dissimilar to Devon.  Actually,  Liege and Verviers remind me a bit of the Belgian equivalent to western Pennsylvania. You can tell there was a lot of money here,  just from the number of amazing buildings,  but it is all a bit rough around the edges. It's also very French,  which to me feels much more foreign than Flemish. Anyway,  I'm staying tonight in a fantastic room in an old mansion, once owned by a wool magnate. The guy who runs it seems a little eccentric,  has several cats and greeted me at the door in a straw hat.  He has many objects d'art and is currently hosting a wine tasting beneath my room,  which I'm hoping doesn't go late.  He did invite me but it seems like all his friends,  who speak French and are all a bit fabulous.  I decided that might be a bit too excruciating, had my dinner in town and am now in the room, being a blob, and thinking I should use the hair drier on my bike clothes I washed so they aren't damp when I put them on in the morning.  Oh the life of the rich and famous...

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Dover to Munich. Ypres

OK,  I admit to being a dork.  I've been trying to figure out how "leper"  becomes "Ypres", totally not getting that it was actually "Ieper", which,  admittedly,  looks exactly the same in quite a few fonts.  I still can't pronounce it properly and completely get why the British called it "Wipers". Honestly.  Foreign people with their silly foreign names. It always gets me going across western Belgium how serene and completely ordinary it looks.  It is very hard to imagine millions of people dying in a quagmire and the little towns (now complete with plenty of places to buy Miele ovens and Audis) pulverised to dust. I went to the Last Post (when the woman at the B&B mentioned the Last Post being at 8 I somehow thought she was talking about,  you know,  the last post, which I thought was an odd thing to say.  God I'm terrible.  Luckily I didn't say anything.  Anyway,  the solemn occasion of the bugler playing was somewhat lessened by the throng of tourists with bleeping cameras on selfie sticks. Wow,  that almost as reverent as starting and ending the two minute silence with the fire alarm at work.  So,  yeah.  I was supposed to start yesterday,  but, being me,  I put everything off until the last minute.  It got late,  I got stressed and the weather was complete shit. I decided to start today instead from Dover. Up at 530 for the 10am ferry,  which didn't leave until 1130. Apparently the PA was broken.  Really. This after standing outside in the rain,  waiting to board,  for 40 minutes.  Nice.  Thank you,  DFDS,  service with a smile. I did get to have impure thoughts about the single and only attractive person on the whole ship,  fortunately decked out in motorcycle leather,  so that almost made up for it.  Almost.  The rest I'm pretty sure share most of their chromosomes.  Not a pretty sight. Landing in Dunkirk is a bit like landing in Mordor,  a scrubby,  sandy industrial area with the occasional flame shooting out of a tower.  Very welcoming on a bike.  However,  even this Mad Max countryside has better roads and less trash than England. How sad.  Bike lanes too.  It all gets a bit more cosy feeling crossing into Belgium.  More trees on the roads,  more trees,  a lot more streets lights.  Also a lot more concrete or cobbled roads.  Bad Belgium,  bad! Anyway,  must get to bed so I'm not a dribbling wreck tomorrow...

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Pedaling amongst idiots

I love cycling more than anything, I think. I can think of few things that give me such a sense of inner peace and serenity or that allow me to satisfy my need to always explore. That said,  I don't much like cycling in London, and I like it less and less as time goes on. Unfortunately, in the effort to get more people cycling,  which I support, they have been entirely unsuccessful in getting past the very strong "me first,  fuck you" attitude that is so prevalent here. It's really only London. Everywhere else I've cycled in the country there exists the feeling of some sort of camaraderie I'm used to amongst cyclists,  but not so much in London and almost never at rush hour. I was cycling through the City this evening,  which is always a nightmare of dodging pedestrians, taxis and buses,  when I see this guy on a Boris Bike crossing the road at an angle from my right. At the same time,  traffic has stopped and a pedestrian walks out from between parked buses. I stop,  as I don't want to hit the pedestrian. The guy behind me,  a rather pudgy man in a sweatshirt wearing headphones, runs directly into my back tyre. Rather than apologising,  he starts yelling at me for stopping for the pedestrian and says something about I'm not supposed to wait for pedestrians as it says it in the Highway Code. I say that one is always supposed to wait for pedestrians and that he hit me from the back because he wasn't paying attention and that it's his fault,  as that's how it works. He starts arguing again so I say you don't cycle much,  do you,  CLEARLY,  to which he gets up in my face and says oh yeah,  what's that supposed to mean,  to which I reply you are exactly the sort of stupid fatass who gives cyclists a bad name,  fatass. He says,  oh yeah,  well my bike's not broken (nor is mine,  and his weighs as much as a Buick, so I would expect it would be fine). At that point though the light changed so I zipped off. I hope he gets hemorrhoids.

Monday 20 April 2015

Backward, eastward

And I'm back. On a train as usual.  Travelling backwards,  as usual. Actually,  I was thinking about that. I think actually I am more likely to travel forwards on my way out and backwards on my way back. Of course, now that I've noticed that I can never actually tested it,  as I will have contaminated the science. Oh well. I will probably live. Anyway,  I've spent the last two days cycling around southwest England,  which is definitely my favourite part of the country. Green and hilly and friendly. I've decided I should give Bristol another look as a potential post London place to live. I actually think David would like the south west as well,  as it is absolutely full of places to hike,  amazing beaches and places selling overpriced bits of doodah, sort of England's answer to redwood burls. It certainly beats the crap out of the southeast,  much of which seems to be full of London's detritus. So,  yesterday I took a mid morning train to Castle Cary,  which sounds grand but isn't. I was supposed to have been on an earlier train,  but my amazingly attuned nighttime noise detector was set off by R and Co getting ready to go out on a Saturday night. Much whining ensued and I had to get a later train ticket and shorten my ride. The upshot of that was that I had to improvise some of the route and ended up on some loser roads. Also,  I discovered an important factoid on the train,  which is that you should never tie even a loose knot on the holding straps when the velcro doesn't work as that very loose knot becomes a very tight knot and you can't get it loose and you get stressed and your hands shake and the train driver comes and yells at you for making the train late(er) and you split your thumb nail and you want to tell him because it hurts but that sounds a lot like I broke my nail and he has to cut the strap with his Swiss army knife which seems to have been done a number of times before and the whole thing is just really icky. So,  starting on little sleep and with a train fiasco and a sore nail, yesterday admittedly passed a bit in a blur. I did,  however, have the fun of getting to buy acrylic nail varnish at a superdrug in Yeovil, a small, rather ugly town that seems to have a small,  rather ugly genepool.  Anyway,  eventually I got near the south coast. The British coast is funny. It sort of sneaks up on you. Rolling fields and farms,  fields and farms,  random towns,  some craptastic and some quite cute and oh my God it's like someone just bit off the end of the country! There are several subtle signs though of increasing coastaliness if you know where to look,  however. An increase in VW camper vans or trailers towed by improbably small cars. Random campsites in farmers' fields (why?),  large cliffs with larger wet bits beyond...  So,  eventually I went sailing down a screamingly steep hill into the very cute town of Sidmouth. An interesting thing about Sidmouth, beyond the feeling of fading glory,  is that it seems to be a UKIP haven. On my whole ride I saw no posters for Labour,  but it was only when I got near Sidmouth that UKIP started to appear. There did seem to be two foreign people working at my hotel and one guy who wasn't bleached white and old,  like the rest of the town. I could see there was a palpable sense of foreign danger. There was also a guy working at the hotel with a handlebar mustache who was thick as a brick and possibly a poof. I am glad UKIP will be there to bring things under control. Anyway,  my room,  in one of those cool old leany overy don't the floors creak a lot kind of British hotels,  overlooked the water. It was kind of nice hearing the waves (and the occasional car) and I actually slept pretty well on my little single mattress with the annoying springs. Today.  Well,  today was about seeing if I could completely exhaust myself on hills. I was supposed to cycle from Sidmouth to Plymouth via Exeter and Dartmoor. However,  I kind of forgot that Devon tiny roads are often roads in only the most general sense that they usually have a start and an end. Sometimes,  however,  they turn to dirt (rock) for no apparent reason,  causing you to have to completely improvise your route and quite often (usually) they are going up or down 25% grades just because they are there and let's put some potholes in just for fun. Oh,  and the other things about moors is that they exist outside of normal physics in that they don't actually have a top. They just have various states of increasing despair as you realise that 1200 or so British feet in elevation translates into about 9000 Swiss feet because they have normal mountains and proper roads. Still though,  Dartmoor is gorgeous and I must go back. I didn't make it to Plymouth though. I turned around after having the world's slowest panini in Moretonhampstead and headed back to Exeter (which you would think would be all downhill based on the fact that the other way was all uphill,  but as there seems to have been some earth movement it wasnt). Exeter apparently used to have some magnificent architecture,  but the Germans and the local Council redecorated and so most of it is now rather square and utilitarian. The city drink seems to be fortified lager. It's charming. From Exeter I made the fatal mistake of allowing the Garmin to pick the route to Tiverton. The nice thing about Exeter to Tiverton is that one can go up the river valley, admiring the lush,  rolling and very tall hills on both sides. Garmin felt it very important to maximise the view and made sure I experienced all of the very tall and very steep hills. So,  by the time I got to Tiverton,  after only 65 miles,  I was pretty sure I wanted to die. Tiverton is a small station and the single person working there also has to direct trains. As I was travelling with a bike,  which usually requires a bike reservation on this line,  I had to wait at the tickets counter,  getting increasingly nervous as the arrival time drew near. Finally the guy came back, about 4 minutes before the train was to arrive. The woman in front of me thought this would be an opportune time to buy a group of super saver ticket for next week on a complicated route. I finally suggested to her that maybe she could wait until those trying to make this train had made our purchases as the guy behind the counter wasn't going to. So,  she finally stomps off,  everyone else just makes the train and now I'm still travelling backwards,  a lot closer to London than before. Not a bad two days,  really.