A Travellerspoint blog

Turkish Delight

sunny 40 °C

Thessaloniki - salsa dancing on the seafront! What an awsome city. Waving goodbye to this and my friend Laure I set off for the Turkish border. My last few days in Greece were slow and arduous - a headwind hindered progress as I dropped the gears, dropped my head and ploughed through. Eventually a huge red flag could be seen, blowing proudly in the distance. Must be the border. There was a strong military presence from both sides, as soldiers with rifles lined the mile or so long bridge between the two countries. My visa bought and clearing customs, the immensity of Turkey opened up. The small rolling hills of Greece gave way to vast planes either side of me, and the dusty road ahead climbed up onto a plateau. Following this would have taken me to Istanbul, but with a population of over 17 million, I couldn't bring myself to crawling through it's endless suburbs, so I veered south for the alternative crossing at Eceabat. The prevailing north easterlies delivered me to the port in just over a day. I boarded the boat, headed for Asia! The channel was alive with traffic, with just about every size and type of boat vying for a pass. Rolling off my second ferry and a great satisfaction to cross a continent. I celebrated with a dripping slice of Baklava - this is one of Turkey's signature indulgences, and it beats Toblerone. Coming in many varieties, it's basically a sort of puff pastry, drenched in honey with a sort of nut based paste.....and it's ruddy fantastic! If you happen across some, try it.

The next few days was spent following the coast, freewheeling down dusty farm tracks, with the smell of the pine trees scenting the breeze. The land was carpeted with fruit and veg. Old a young where out in the midday sun picking tomatoes, and the occasional smell of apricots would send me sniffing like a dog. Surrounding hills were topped with villages, where the silhouettes of mosques would reign above.

Through the many Turkish villages I've enjoyed cycling through, there has always been one guaranteed feature - a quiet village square, bordered by old men drinking 'Chai'. They drink their tea black, usually with two sugar cubes, and unlike our buckets in comparison, in very small glasses. In the midday day heat it's surprisingly refreshing - soothing a dried throat with a bitter kick to end with. Everytime I somehow explain to them that we drink tea with milk, they laugh, followed with a gestures of disgust! - A topic or a point always becomes funny when you can predict the reaction!
Seeing me roll in, probably thinking 'who on earth and why'? They always ask me over, pulling up a chair for me and shouting an order at the top of their voice' 'CHAAAAIII'. The usual questions are asked - where am I from? Where do I go? Am I alone? Am I married? - the idea of cycling around the world solo after getting married! What is my job? After a little confusion I manage to communicate an answer, usually conveyed by some gesture. This followed by a few moments of quiet, until the next question. Sometimes it can be a little exhausting, especially after a tiring climb in the heat of the day, when all you want to do is deflate by yourself.

Choosing to take a more observational point, this time I set myself up on the side of a courtyard, surrounded by 3 tea houses. My ambling mind looking for amusement, like pieces on a board game, watching the old men to and fro from tea house to tea house provided plenty. When finished with his Chai one old man, equipped with his pipe, would get up and slowly cross the way to the 2nd tea house, greeting his newly arrived friend. Settling down with a fresh Chai, this would seem to upset the younger chap nearby, who would stand up and cross the road to the 3rd tea house, where he'd be greeted by the small crowd. Meanwhile everyone in the 1st tea house is watching this, mumbling between themselves. Then an short man with a beard would come buzzing in on his 125 to everyone's elation - he's obviously the popular one. As quickly as they'd disappear they appear, walking, on tractors or off donkeys..............
It's great to being inconspicuous.

Since arriving in Turkey I seem to have evened the playing field with my second nemesis (after thunderstorms), Dogs. They are even bigger here. The plains that comprise much of Turkey are roamed by flocks of sheep and their shepherds. Dogs are bred and employed to protect these flocks from the wolves, so they are big, very protective an can be identified by, if not the one chasing you up a hill, a collar of barbed wire - not even a joke! They are bad ass. It seems that best thing to do is to ignore your survivalist instinct by slamming on the brakes, dismounting on the opposite side of the bike and confront it by mimicking it's behavior - barking, maintaining eye contact etc.....everything but getting down on all fours. I also have a large stick which when raised adds further conviction. This stops them in their tracks, and they thankfully give up and turn around.

The southerly leg finished I turn east, now against the NE wind which I was so enjoying. One more day of coastal riding and, with the exception of the past day and a few in Croatia, it's a fond farewell to the sea. It's always busy, overcrowded, predictable, expensive, littered and generally unfriendly. It sucks basically. Now it's the Turkish mountains! I'm heading for Turkey's capital. At a much more modest size of 3 to 4 million, Ankara lies near the middle of Turkey, and as the crow flies would take me over some big passes. So I spend the next few days going up and down and up and down. I think most of us agree that one of the most annoying things about cycling is that the painful bit takes the longest and the fun bit the shortest. Well this was certainly that! But it's always worth it. There's so much more variety in the ride; the effort and the rest, the hot and the cold, the constantly changing scenery, the satisfaction of summiting a climb. The only downside is that the roads are often wide and busy. As Turkey is so mountainous the few avenues through carry most of the traffic. Occasionally a small winding road provides a peaceful escape, taking me through some sleepy villages, the only sound being the faint hum of a tractor, or the cackling of a pack of chickens.

But never escaping.....................

People of the UK, take a moment to consider how immensely lucky you are that you don't have to endure the pain of pestilent mosquitoes. Almost every night since I've left, just after sunset they seem to descend, or ascend from god knows where, filling the air with their droning hums. Forcing me to scoff down my pasta and ruining any possibility of star gazing I curse the little blighters. All preparations made for this moment (everything packed, bed laid, tent unzipped just enough to accommodate a flying human), I literally dive into the tent (nearly taking it down with me), zip up the hatches and observe them buzz and bounce on the outside of the mesh, just able to make out their blood sucking probes. Despite this military precision there's always a wretched few that have somehow infiltrated my inner sanctum, mocking me by buzzing in my ear. ARRRRGGGHHHH! So I get out the torch and spend the next 5 minutes spot lighting the inside, like some anti-air gun placement. Once I've found the little bastard I wait for it to settle. Have you ever tried to squat a mosquito against the flimsy inner lining of a tent? It's more like giving it a firm pat on the back, then it just buzzes off into obscurity. No. The technique is to prime your index finger for a quick flick, sneak up behind it once it's settled................... and BAM!! If there's a spec of blood then 10 points! Half an hour of this and the tent is finally cleansed - now I need the toilet...........

After two or three days of cycling through the mountains I descend back down to the plains and the heat. The remainder of the leg to Ankara is more or less flat, with a few undulations here and there. Spending the afternoon relaxing in....., I push out to find somewhere to camp. This is always the best time to cycle. The sun provides a warm glow and the temperature is just right. I'm cycling up a shallow valley, following a river up stream - the deep green vegetation contrasting sharply to the surrounding desert brown, starting a few hundred meters away. I came into a small village. Some boys where having a kick about, and despite my exhaustion I summoned the energy to have a game with them. Being a fit cyclist doesn't necessarily make a fit footballer! The sun disappeared over dinner, and afterwards I was climbing in the dark, enjoying looking at the stars above. I guessed a good spot in the middle of the field. Neglecting my tent I slept out in my sleeping bag. After some time passed I awoke to two men approaching me, one flashing a torch. Still half asleep I managed to say hello in Turkish, introduced myself and seeing their uniform, offered over my passport. He glanced through it, and friendly but firmly asked me to pack up my things. I did so, and walked myself and the bike over to the vehicle. They told me to get in the back of the car. With no explanation as to what was going on I felt reluctant, but clearly didn't have a choice. With my bike shoved in the back they jump in the front and we drove off, the driver removing a machine gun that was under my feet. 'WTF is going on' I thought to myself. It was dark, remote, I didn't know who they where and they were both armed.
My mind began to run with possible scenario's. I managed to calm my thoughts with the idea that this or that would be very unlikely, and maybe they just want to give me bed : ). Passing through some gates we enter a large complex. We spend the next two hours in a small room, and my fears allayed, courtesy of Google Translate, it transpires that they are the Gardamine, and they took me in because of the wild pigs and wolves. Relieved, my small cell like room starts to look like a bad hostel room with a bed, and I fall asleep with hopes of a good breakfast in my mind. In the morning I'm invited to enjoy a breakfast of omelet, bread and olives with the senior officers! Score. I'm then taken on a tour, via a self propelling vehicle known as a car, of local historical sights. The officer then drops me off on the main road, where I resume my journey towards the capital.

The hospitality in Turkey has been like none I've experienced. Kindness and generosity is everywhere. I've been bought countless Chais, been handed whole bags of fruit and veg, with the owner refusing to take any money. I've been invited into peoples homes for meals, offered beds for the night, even spending an evening in a workers camp. Slowly grinding up a busy hill I approached a vegetable stall. The owner waved me in and pointed to the couch. Before long I was tucking into a spread of cheese, olives, bread and tomatoes, washed down with never ending offerings of Chai. Asking him where he gets his vegetables from he pointed to the field behind him.................. simple and totally logical.

I've finally arrived in Ankara, for the main reason of sorting out visas for onward travel. On the first day of this trip, an hour or so off the ferry I met two English cyclists returning from a 3 year round the world trip! In my then nervous state I felt a little envious. They met many cyclists on there way, but none who where going all the way round. Uncanny. It was like they were passing on the baton! Anyway, asking them what was their favorite country they both said Iran, and this is a fondness shared by others I've met who have had the privilege. So fingers crossed I can do the same. Last time I checked it was a no go as British citizens need a tour guide with them. My hopes are pinned on the recent opening of the British embassy in Tehran, though I remain doubtful. If not then plan B is Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, into Uzbekistan, then Turkmenistan and then not sure. Though this could bee expensive and time consuming. Letters of invitation, itineraries an pre booked accommodation are required by some, which simply isn't feasible for me. So plan C is Russia then Kazakhstan. I'll be buzzing around like a blue arsed fly between embassy's over the next few days.

Thanks for reading everyone. Pass it on and Fred get it in your magazine!

Btw I discovered a cool song on my Ipod. It's called 'Wine Wine Wine' by Jimmy Binkley. Check it out.

Tara if your reading I know you'll like it.
Bella, thanks for the Grange Hill theme tune.
Mike, enjoying my 80's Saxon.

Posted by Banana Spokes 07:48 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Tasty legs

40 °C

After I'd savored the delights of Split I resumed my southerly direction along the number 8 road, heading towards Dubrovnik. It was another cloudless day, and the road continued hugging the coast, meandering up and down, in and out and passing through some busy towns. I usually aim to be on the road before 7, but didn't quite hit my target this time due to......another bad sleep! Choosing to enjoy the evening atmosphere of Split, I made the classic mistake of leaving it too late to find a camping spot - a lesson I should have learned by now. Cycling around the suburbs I came across a not so well hidden deck chair. Too tired to continue I got out my mattress, liner and sleeping bag, made my bed and fell asleep to the sound of the breeze sifting through the pine needles. Like when reality invades your dreams, I awoke to the flashing of a torch, and someone kicking my bed - an unnecessarily crass way to wake someone I seem to remember thinking. It was a security guard, who cruelly, at 2 in the morning turfed me off what turned out to be a big hotel complex. Clearly a case of selective seeing the night before.

So as I was saying I'm usually up and going before 7, maybe with a loaf of bread for breakfast, or a some fruit, then head off, aiming for 30 to 40 miles before my next stop. By noon the summer sun is beating down so I stop for lunch, which is either another loaf or a bowl of pasta. My afternoon stints are usually a similar distance, followed by either a rice or pasta dish for dinner. As you can see, I'm struggling to vary my diet beyond a few simple staples, and for good reasons. My kitchen only has one hob, so only simple dishes are possible. A few basic ingredients (pasta, bread, rice, onions, garlic, tomato puree.....) are often the cheapest, whilst offering plenty of energy to cycle many miles with. And just a general lack of inspiration, especially when cycle on your own. It's seems to be a joke amongst cycle tourers that all we can think of to eat is pasta, pasta pasta! But meeting other travellers does help to inspire, and since I've managed to add a few other dishes to list.

Geof was an American chap, cycling around the Adriatic sea. I met him in a town between Split and Dubrovnik. we hit the road together and enjoyed each others company for a few days. He was a sports event organiser, and in between work he would head off to various locations around the world for a few weeks on the bike. Heading into Dubrovnik we battled a headwind, adapting some Tour De France (ish) wind breaking to ease the effort. Past a towering cruise ship, up a hill and in amongst the masses, here we said farewell. Time for some lunch. The shuffling battalion of tourist where seeking out any sufficient shade from the midday heat. I eyeballed a free bench in the distance and made a hasty break for it, doing my best not to catch any of the many ankles with my peddles. As I neared I sensed the desires of others to obtain the same sitting spot (sharing isn't really an option with a fully laden bike), so I upped my pace and just about made it. I sat down victoriously, unable to resist a silly smug smile as my rivals stood in front of me, dispirited and lost. I celebrated with some chocolate spread and bread, watching the boats bob up and down in the harbor.

Just as I was making friends with one of the local cats, Martin, a Dutch cyclist said hello. After exchanging the usual details of distances, times and directions we teemed up and made a break for some countryside relief. Martin was well tapped into the hospitality side of cycle touring, and I was more than willing to tag along. That evening we rode into Marko's place, a Warm Showers destination. Warm Showers is essentially an online directory, offering cycle tourists places to rest their heads for a night or two; like coachsurfing, but for cyclists.

One night at Marko's turned into four. Mechanical doings, a lazy day down at the beach and eating food takes time! Marko, a compelling character, had lived an interesting life. When he was young he left Croatia, bound for Canada. He blagged himself a right to residency and made himself a living in the paint industry. We spent the evenings listening to his life stories, all half glazed over by many bottles of cheap local wine. Here I also met 2 Germany cyclist. Fredericka and Jan where cycling to Istanbul. When the our lust for the road returned we all hit it together, the 4 of us heading for the border of Monte Negro.

My singular preconception of this country was based on it's small appearance in the Bond film Casino Royal; The shot of a train traveling through some hilly countryside painted a nice picture. I was also aware that we'd be following the coastal road, which I feared would follow the trend set in Croartia; over crowded and over built, which it was. To be expected I suppose, so we filtered into the flowing traffic and meandered our way. With the land falling down to the sea on the right, and climbing into rock to our left, camping spots where in short supply. However, thanks to the bilingual talents of my fellow travelers we enjoyed two nights of idyllic camping. The first was on an ideally flat field, the noise of the road falling away with the land. Next morning we enjoyed a breakfast of freshly picked figs, handed to us by some friendly locals. Tender and sweet, they where delicious.

After a bracing morning ride, sharing the road with trucks, motorcycles and cars, we stopped for lunch in a shaded spot in some woods. Martin put his phone on charge, placing the solar panel not far away in a sunny spot. We cracked open our liter tub of chocolate spread and broke the bread. I went for a little walk afterwards, and on returning from my scout, the news came. Both the smart phones and the solar charger had been stolen. Thinking about it it wasn't surprising; it was a busy area, and they were out of our sight. With little to be done, we got back on the bikes and peddled on. An afternoon of generic coastal ridding was followed by a cooler camp in the mountains. Our hosts where an elderly German couple, who generously gave us their front lawn for the night, and supplied us with beer and food. My ability to converse was hopelessly marginal as he didn't speak English. 'David Beckham'! I would shout, which he seemed to like. All night he referred to me as 'Tony Blair', which I didn't like.

New day, new country. We enjoyed a lazy sunny descent into Albania. Crossing the border, the poverty of Europe's poorest country was immediate; Children no older then 8, dressed in ragged clothes where walking alongside the rows of waiting cars, kissing the wing mirrors in the hope for some money in return. The poverty disappeared with the border, and a simple, lazy, pastoral existence soon surrounded us. Enjoying the quiet road, it soon became apparent that we'd left the tourists behind. Tatty novelties where replaced by real functional necessities, and the locals where super friendly; we'd cycling past petrol stations, where the attendants would throw us a big wave, shouting 'Hello, where are you from'?. We all sat down for a cheap Pizza in Shkoder, then cycled into the evening with a glorious tail wind, passing small wooden stalls selling fruit and veg, enjoying the glow of a setting sun.

Next day we headed down a busy straight road for the capital of Albania; Tirane. On our way in we're overtaken by a keen young road cyclist, zipping past us with a fading 'HELLLooooooooo.....' Unable to resist his challenge I just about chased him down. I asked him if there was anywhere to camp in the city, and after taking us to a tap to fill up our water bottles, he lead us to the biggest park of the city, which lay next to a big lake. Thanking him he headed off, leaving us to enjoy the last night of the 4 of us together. We exchanged details and enjoyed a hearty dinner of cheesy pasta. The nest day our local friend joined us for a farewell coffee, and after some goodbye hugs and words, Martin and I left Fredericka and Jan; they were continuing south along the coast towards Athens. We joined the motorway out of the city, which gradually narrowed as it climbed into the surrounding mountains. Boys selling tubs of blackberries would chase after us, shouting their price of 2 euros. Martins chain came off, and before long he was surrounded. He re-engaged his chain, cycling out of the the gathering without any blackberries. A thunderstorm and a descent later we said goodbye in Elbasan, and after a week of traveling with others I was on my own again, my mind fluttering between memories of the last few days and thoughts for the coming ones.

Now I was heading East and inland. The road slowly began to ascend, and the valley tightened into a gorge. Again, camping spots where tricky, and I eventually settled for an OK spot, situated between a river and the road. Some local boys where out fishing, so once my tent was up and my things organised I went to say hi. One of the them spoke good English, so he translated for his friends. They seemed surprised that I was happy to simply camp out in a foreign country. 'Dogs', one of them exclaimed. I had noticed many stray dogs since entering south eastern Europe - perhaps this is one element I overlooked.
Sure enough it was. The next morning I awoke to the sound of a dog barking right outside my tent. It froze me solid............. Not making a sound, the barking soon stopped, and I waited half an hour just to be sure. Quietly opening the zip, I peered out to see if it was clear. Behind me, about 20 meters away a large, long haired spotted dog, the size of a female deer was sniffing about. I quietly zipped the tent back up and resumed my waiting game. An hour later the coast was clearly, so I quickly packed up and hit the road.

After breakfast the road continued it's incline up the narrow gorge, with thick vegetation to the right. Just as I was ruminating on my morning drama, another large dog came running out of the bush, barking aggressively at me and bearing it's teeth. As it ran up beside me my initial instinct was to kick it in the mouth (this may seem harsh but these aren't domesticated pets. They are large, aggressive and possibly carry rabies, so take no prisoners is the best approach) but this would be like handing it a bone, so I just focused on cycling and tried to ignore it (a hard thing to do). It continued to chase me from the side, and I started to veer into the other lane where there was an oncoming lorry. Very kindly it was a this point that it decided to leave me be, turning around and running away. Steering myself back into my lane, I could now concentrate on cycling on the right side of the road. Note to self - get some sort of deterrent (pepper spray's illegal in many countries).

Finally reaching the summit at midday, I crossed the border into Macedonia, where a large proud flag was flowing in the breeze. Descending down into Struga I sat down at a restaurant and enjoyed a big juicy kebab - 'a balanced diet' I thought. Another climb for the afternoon, up a lush and refreshingly cool valley. I could hear a barking dog up ahead, so I stopped and armed myself with gravel from the road, laughing at the idea of filling my pockets with stones on a climb. Turning the corner a large white dog was preoccupied with something in a bush. Whether it saw me or not I don't know, but I simply cycled past, and to my surprise it took not the least interest. FEWF.

Half days ride and I was crossing the Greek border, their modestly sized flags paling in comparison to the single Macedonian parachute. The mountains ranges soon veered off either side, and I enjoyed the scenes of a wide valley. Fields of different crops spread to the mountains, and the jets from water cannons rotated near and far. With a fond familiarity It reminded me of rural Norfolk.

Choosing not to chance my existence with any stray dogs, I scored a camping spot in the garden of another Marko. A little hesitant to say yes at first, he soon warmed to the idea and let me in. Just as I was priming my stove for dinner, he pulled up in his truck and produced a plastic bag. Inside was a bunch of grapes, some tomatoes, half a loaf, cheese and some fried eggs, all prepared by his wife for my dinner. I couldn't thank him enough. I felt like Bacchus, sitting under the grape vine enjoying my delicious diner. 'Coffee for breakfast' he shout as he drove back to his house.
I joined him and his wife in the morning, enjoying his animated and lively told tales. I hit the road with more grapes, tomatoes and a bottle of oil for mosquito bites - very useful.

I finally reached the city of Thesoliniki that afternoon. Nestled between the mountains and the coast it's Greece's second largest city. The sea front has been very nicely decked out as a walkway. Locals taking their time, walking or cycling, enjoying scenes of the bay, backed by a faint silhouette of Mount Olympus rising into the clouds. I've been here for just under a week now. Laure, a lovely French girl has put me up in her flat, and between movies and good food I've been prepping for the Middle East. Getting bike spares, sorting maps and checking out visa requirements (Blahhhh).
Sadly Iran is off the cards due to visa restrictions, which sucks. So it's going to be an up and down route through many countries, until I reach SE Asia. I reckon Visa's are gonna be the biggest challenge here.

Until then, Greece, with it's slow pace and fresh food..........

Posted by Banana Spokes 03:07 Archived in Greece Comments (1)

Getting my bike stuck inside Lidls

Doh

sunny 38 °C

From Salzburg the plan was to cycle north to southern Poland, then turn south east and cycle more or less straight to Istanbul. But due to a few complications it wasn't to be. Back to the thinking board, and I soon decide on cycling the irresistible looking Eurovelo number 8, also known as the 'Mediterranean route'. I would join it in Rijeka, where it would take me south east along the coastline. Just south of Montenegro I would leave it, heading inland across a mountainous looking Albania, and with a quick skit though Macedonia, I'd rejoin the coastline in Greece, finishing in Istanbul. So that's the new plan! Let's see how it goes.

Having spent a week in Austria, with it's vast mountainous vistas, it's crisp clear rivers and overpriced supermarkets, I was happy to get going. But of course, not without another Austrian storm. Having learn't of my paranoia for camping in thunderstorms, I decided to look into this perilous combination. Following a little internet research it seemed that the code to go by was basically if it's stormy, head indoors (I assumed a tent did not constitute 'Indoors'). I asked a farmer if he had a shelter I could sleep in. He grinned, and after helping him fix his tractor, we headed up the hill and back to his house. We spent the evening drinking beer, sharing a few jokes and watching the terrific display of lightening, as it slowly crawled across the valley. He told me of a time when he was caught out hiking in a thunderstorm. He was following a ridge when a lightening bolt landed 50 meters away, spitting small bits of rock and apparently leaving a hole the size of a small car. This only increased my sense of comfort as I bunked down under the timber roof of his carpenters workshop.

For all the unpredictable events and variety of possibilities which makes traveling so enjoyable, there are always the more familiar and essential processes inbetween; eating, brushing teeth, cycling! And this monotony characterised the next few days. A couple of big climbs, a few denials for shelter following more thunderstorms, and many passed cows later, I collapsed on the Austrian-Slovenian boarder, suffering from post climb exhaustion (a bone grinding 24% in some places!). The only suitably flat piece of land I could find was a tarmac square behind the border office, where I shared my peripheral space with a few suspect looking tissues - YUCK! A quick up and out, and a tasty valley decent for breakfast.

Today would take me through Slovenia. I was interested to see what this country was like. No doubt partly due to it's recent inclusion in the EU (2004), transformation was all around; Large houses popping up. New, shiny, modern SUV's on the road, and the occasional, featureless concrete retail park, punctuated with the familiar marks of capitalism - McDonalds, Hennies, Lidl's........... 'But no Tescos', I noted. Yet whatever this may suggest, Slovenia had a captivating charm. It was environmental pristine, and small, quite villages would sit comfortably within the hills, surrounded by sensitively cultivated fields of crops. Old farming practices where evident everywhere. Farmers were tending to their fields with antiquated equipment, and old timber framed racks would be draped with drying hay. A few locals where more than happy to point me in the direction of Ljublijana.

Much like the surrounding countryside, Ljublijana had a charming modesty, and made me think of a smaller, less busy Venice. The main river, lined with cafes and restaurants, took tour boats up and down, passing under the many stone arch bridges. Heading out I cycled down a wide sunny street which had lots of interesting little shops, all meticulously dressed concerning their various fashions. Pavements, a gleaming river, heat, people, dogs, cats, pigeons, shadows, carrrrrrssss ...... The quiet suburbs where lulling me into to afternoon daze.............

BUSY ROAD!!! Move your arse and wake up..... Still many miles to make. Following an arduous and boring afternoon ride, I stop to camp in a quiet village. I have a chat to two young friendly locals who assure me that behind that hill is a perfect camp. What follows is the worst night sleep, or rather lack of, that I can ever remember. Firstly, I unravel my tent to discover the rank remnants of 3 squashed slugs - they literally smell of what I can only describe as garlic and poo! And look pretty similar too. Having done my best to remove the viscous sludge with grass, I fall asleep. BANG!! It's raining, and a blasted thunderstorm is more or less overhead. Choosing not sleep in a tent in the middle of a field I grab my sleeping bag, step out into the rain and head for the nearest shelter. Turning on my torch I realise it's actually a giant beehive shelter! Thoughts of being chased by angry bees through a thunderstorm prevail, so I pluck up the courage to ask my two young friends if I can stay in their garage. Having been reassured earlier that if there's anything I need, don't hesitate to ask, I knock briskly on their door. It's 2 AM. Very unfortunately their father answers the door. Clearly shocked at the sight of me, he stands their in his white briefs, and despite my best ability to communicate my immanent doom, to my amazement he refuses me shelter, and shuts the door. Frankly pissed off, though understanding of his reaction, I head down the road and find a half built house. This'll do. I fall asleep in my sleeping bag on a concrete floor, thankful I'm not in that tent.

Down to Italy today, spending the afternoon in the port of Trieste. But before I do I stop at Lidls for some goodies. I always park my bike inside the entrance porch area; there's always lots of room and the bike is more secure there. Having enjoyed surveying the now familiar items in the air conditioning, I purchase my things and exit the building. I walk up to the entrance to retrieve my bike, but the doors don't open. I realise what has happened with a sort of stupid inevitability. Today is Sunday, and the shop closes at 3 - it is now 5 past. An Italian lady comes out and declares many words to me in a displeased tone, then walks off. I stand there, hoping one of the staff will realise what I've done. 10 minutes later, once the shop is emptied a member of staff retrieves my bike, opens the door and passes it to me. We share amused smiles.

Boasting the largest square that opens onto a seafront in Europe, Trieste, with it's tight back streets and sea breeze was a refreshing change from the hills. After enjoying a lengthy bathe in the sea, I head south east, across some hilly farmland and my second border of the day, into Croatia. After a brief search and a few questions by the border police, I sail down a winding road, into the most serene, quite and almost heavenly town I've ever been to. With it's slight breeze in the afternoon sun I couldn't help but stop, cook up some pasta on one of it's many park benches and muse on nothing in particular.....Buzet was situated a long way from anywhere, amongst rolling countryside, and it was simply a place and time that was utterly fantastic.

Next day is spent cycling towards the Croatian coasts where it is met, after passing the most impressively high chimney I've ever seen. Not something I usually get excited about, I couldn't help myself, so I stopped, and took a photo. Round the corner and there lay the Adriatic sea, with the hills of the Croatian coastline on the far side. My first post Chilled (my tea loving friend who joined me through Italy) brew and a few croissants later, I whizzed through Rijeka, looking for the much anticipated Eurovelo 8 cycle route. Sadly it didn't materialise, so I found the number 8 road instead, and headed south east towards Split, with what felt like half of Europe.

After an OK sleep in a town I rejoined the road, and after not very long slowed down to say hello to an Asian man with a backpack. Turns out he's walking from Istanbul to Spain, carrying everything he needs. He was 110 days in, and about half way. Awsome! He was both inspiring and encouraging in his originality, and after exchanging some photo's and undergoing the usual travellers conduct of offering water, we said farewell. When I was cycling in the Alps I also saw a Frenchman walking to Alaska, pushing a pram full of his belongings. I wonder where he is now....

2 days of being on this road and the constant drone of ostentatious German cars is getting a bit much. I head inland for some respite, and come across a hill top town. The main street is enjoying the morning sun, with stalls selling lush, fresh colored fruit and veg, and a few cafe's cater for relaxing locals, quietly conversing amongst themselves. A scene of simple pleasures ..... A lady offers me a few tomatoes to enjoy for my lunch. As I wonder down I notice a sign on the wall proclaiming a 'tourist free zone'; a sentiment I fully appreciate, especially as I'm writing this in the very popular tourist destination of Split. I can't help but think that once somewhere becomes a popular tourist destination, it's spirit is somewhat lost. The old, functional purpose goes, displaced by a mere aesthetic appreciation - like an outdoor museum, the droves circulate to take in the walls and towers, where they now exist for the cameras. From a locals perspective this seems as sad as it is inevitable, but I suppose the changing of the season provides some relief. I am of course, guilty of all of this. So may the hills remain!

Dubrovnik is next. Lots of swimming and cycling to be done, and pray, no more blasted thunderstorms.

Really looking forward to Albania - I hear good things.

BTW apologies for all mistaques and bad grammer - my laptop doesn't given me longish, so it'sa rush!

Posted by Banana Spokes 06:36 Archived in Slovenia Comments (0)

From Avignon to Salzburg

all seasons in one day

After a relaxing stay of good food and swimming, it's with heavy legs that my friend and I pull onto to the road, bound for the Med. Chilled has joined me for a 2 week cycle to Salzburg in Austria, traveling along the Mediterranean coastal road until Genoa, where we turn North, through the Alps and towards the finish line.

The first day is spent meandering through a quiet French road. In the heat of the day we settle down on the verge, next to a church. The midday heat is so intense, and there is little breeze to provide even the slightest relief, so we rely on heavy perspiration, shade, and naturally - Tea! Putting the heavily contested 'tea cools you down' argument to the test, we boil up a roadside brew. Certainly failing to convince the bemused locals, no doubt wondering why on earth these two wierdos are making a hot drink in 40 degrees, Chilled and I resolve on the perhaps stubborn belief that tea does cool you down, whilst also providing an excuse to knock back half a packet of biscuits.

The passing of the shade awakes us from an afternoon snooze, and we struggle back onto the hot French lane, further meandering through the arid but splendid countryside. Great precipices of rock shoot out of from the top of the dense Oak woodland, and the relentless buzz of the Cicadas surrounds us.

A irritating clicking sound slowly develops from my front wheel. We stop and borrow some tools from a local garage. After taking it apart we learn that the bearing cone inside the hub has cracked, essentially mangling the inside. Already on my second major mechanical failure, I wheel it into the next town. After trying every bike shop I finally source a cheap second hand wheel from a very friendly and helpful bike mechanic. Lovely! Wheel see how long it lasts.

With a fantastic tail wind providing an almost effortless leg to the coast, it is with a strong sense of relief that we escape the still inland heat, and reach the Med. A nice brew of Earl Gray and a swim. The agreeable water temperature permits a run and dive - no awkward, arms in the air looking like a monkey getting into the water. Though I admit the painful stony beach reduces the elegance slightly.

We spend the next 3 to 4 days traveling East along the coastal road. We share our views with mania a yacht, of every size and extent of extravagance you can imagine (including the largest of them all - the Russian owned 'A') - quite the contrast to our bikes, beards and token plastic bags rattling off the back in the passing breeze. Such is the wealth and popularity of this region that after not very long we notice a trend. We'd enter a town, our path lined with hotels on the left and an extensive army of beach goers on the right. As this subsides the road would then climb, traveling out towards the edge of the bay. When Chilled and I finally breached the top, drenched in sweat but excited by what was to follow, the road would then descend into the next bay, faced with another larger town, much like the one before.

Enjoyable for a while, but then enduring to escape this pattern we pushed hard for the Italian boarder, only to find that there is little difference. A rather nasty tunnel entrance leads us into Genoa. Pushing through we head North and inland. Knowing what's coming we charge ourselves with a hearty lunch of fruit, cheese and of course, bread, and head off at a slow and cautious pace. As the valley walls close in the road begins to climb. We stop and briefly talk to a local who tells us with a beaming smile that we are at the foot of a 16k climb. Aware that this is Chilled's first pass on bike, we begin slowly. Climbing together, we pass the second grave of a professional cyclist that I've come across. We bear down to it, and as time passes so does the tarmac. Many minutes and sweat drops later, the hill tops appear to be nearing, and the valley floor reluctantly vanishes behind the ridge of the road bellow. The sun is going down and the air cools as we get higher. Finally we slowly peddle to the top, and enjoy a camp amongst a pine forest, where the cool air provides a refreshing change from the heat of the Med. We rest our heads with the enjoyable thought that we start the day tomorrow with a long decent, down into Parma.

Well, not quite. The downhill is very gradual, and a frustrating headwind picks up with the heat, so we are faced with the disappointing task of having to cycle downhill - something I stubbornly believe I shouldn't have to do on a bike, especially considering the climb which was necessary to get us there. Exhausted we roll into the seemingly peaceful and picturesque town of Parma, stopping at Lidl's to refresh with a cooking tin of tea and a large packet of biscuits - I eat so many that I feel sick. Bluh ......

Onwards north through Italy, and we breach the Alpine boarder along the lovely lapping shores of Lake Garde, a huge fresh water basin that plays host to windsurfing, kitesurfing (getting itchy already), sailing, and a whole manner of activities. Sights of family's enjoying some summer time together; feeding ducks, relaxing in restaurants and trying to appease their screaming children with molten ice creams. As we are blown north by another tail wind, the bare faced, almost vertical slopes of the surrounding rock increase in scale, suggesting the onset of some nasty mountain passes - Clearly, a trip to lidl's is required. Post sugar binge, we peal ourselves off the wall from our heavy slump, head north, and are surprised, as much as we are delighted to find that a bike path, built along an old railway, provides us with an easy and traffic free route through the mountains.

Through Trento and Bolzano, we follow the valley East, and come across a charming little cottage, with a friendly old lady who hands us a bar of chocolate. There's a flat patch of grass, a picnic bench, a water fountain and well rounded pine tree to complete the scene. The ideal camping spot, we set up the kitchen and get going. Then we a joined by another cyclist, who is middle aged, drunk, and very annoying. He sits down and pours out some whiskey from his water bottle, clearly stating his intention to stay with us for at least a while. He shouts to us from across the picnic bench tales of his life, elaborating with gestures and acting. I realise that as my wine goes down I start to enjoy his lively and animated company. But our consumption is disproportionate, and we are soon back to our original difference, and he is annoying again. After stories of things stolen, we bunk down with bikes locked, and Chilled struggles to relax into a deep sleep.

A swift exit the next morning, we push on to the alpine town of Lienz. The day is warm, with blue skies filling the deep valley, contrasting with the lush green hills that climb up from both sides. A brief stop in Lienz, we head straight North to Salzburg, and an easy valley accent quickly turns a little more fraught. An approaching thunder storm chases us up the valley, with flashes of lightening and rumbles of thunder poking a big stick at us. The thought of riding a steel bicycle through a thunder storm adds to the sense of urgency to get to the top. The storm is winning the race, hiding the view of the valley behind it's thick veil of rain. We get to the top just in time, trundling into the top village where we await a lift through a 5k tunnel.

In the van, the sense of moving uphill faster than 3k an hour, with no effort required is a delightful novelty, where I watch the switch backs disappear behind land and rain. Delusional with visions of a clear weather valley on the other side, it is with sad realisation that we get out of the van into to the same storm that we left in the previous valley. We bed down on a tarmacked wind break, provided by a snack shack near the exit of the tunnel.

Awakening to another descent, we puff up with layers of t shirts and waterproofs and make a steep descent into a misty valley. Chilled is in Tour De France mode, as he races past me, head down and clenching the drops of his handle bars. I choose to enjoy the effortless sensation, freewheeling into the next town with a more upright posture, still feeling half asleep. Salzburg is an easy ride down a valley, so we spend a gloriously sunny day following the river and the railway downwards, reviewing the last two weeks with 'best and worsts'.

The last night is terrifying. What starts as another usual camp, descends into stormy chaos. Lying in my tent, my fingers are stuck in my ears as I can hear a thunderstorm approaching from over the ridge. The lightening illuminates everything, and I can feel the thunder ripple up the valley, rumbling the ground beneath me. I lye in my tent, wondering if I'm going to die, and I later learn that Chilled is doing the same. The sense of doom is aided by our foolish choice of campsite - directly under some electrical pylons. Just when it seems the storm has passed...........FLASH!! and CRACK!! A bolt lands no further than a few 100 meters away, followed by the most ear piercing crackle of thunder.... Convinced that that must be all the lightening in the universe spent, I collapse into a deep sleep, frail, aged and emotionally exhausted.

Happy to awake the next day we cycle out of the northern perimeter of the Alps, and finally into Salzburg. We are welcomed by a many great buildings, plenty of parks and novelty puppets of Mozart displayed in shop windows.

Here I say goodbye to Chilled, who has made the most fantastic cycling pirate I've ever had the fortune to spend two weeks with. Chilled's girlfriend Ellie has come to meet us, and we enjoy an evening in a restaurant together, telling tales of the road.

YAAARRRRRRRRRRR!!!

Posted by Banana Spokes 12:14 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Tres Bon, Tres Bon

It's been a while since I've updated but apparently internet cafes don't really exist anymore! A big entry, but enjoy! (force yourself if you have to)

sunny 36 °C

Having arrived with time to spare for my ferry, I felt indulging in a large haddock and chips was an apt way to say 'farewell England'! Especially with the many miles which lay ahead. The ferry arrives in Dieppe at 4 in the morning, and with little sleep I wobble off the front ramp, through border control - where an unforgettably attractive border guard checked my passport - and collapsed in a bush on the side of the road. Having refreshed my optimism I grabbed my things and cycled south along some busy roads, headed for Paris. It took two days to get there. I managed to stray onto to the the l'Aveue Verte - the London to Paris bike route. With no traffic to worry about I meandered along its quite path, enjoying the passing of the beautiful French countryside. The rolling hills where punctuated with great church spires, scenic villages and a few grand chateaus.

Perhaps unsurprisingly since my arrival I've developed an addiction to Baguettes, and am averaging a glutinous 3 day. 'You'll ride it off' I here you say! But alas, that doesn't appear to be the case.............

I reached the Seine West of Paris, and followed it upstream, arriving in the capital after two days. It was incredibly hot and dusty, but of course, charming in it's detail and awsome in it's grandeur. I took a breezy ride alongside the river, enjoying a postcard experience of Paris amongst a setting sun; young couples indulging in a bottle on the bank, artists selling their tourist novelties on the side of the road, and the frequent opening of a square, offering a bench to sit on where I can have a bite and a much needed snooooze.......................................

THE TOWER!! After an exhausting but spirited cycle through the chaos that is Parisian traffic, I collapsed in front of the Eiffel tower, awaiting the light display which occurs on the hour. There was a great crowd gathered on the lawns, and every time the sparkling lights of the tower illuminated everyone would erupt in an impressive cheer. I was too tired and not drunk enough. Realising at this point I would not get out to a farmers field to set up camp, I had no choice but to slither off into one of the bushes, and after avoiding a few enclosed area's which had obviously provided an alternative to the overcrowded public loos, I settled down to sleep, with a spectacular view of the Eiffel tower beneath the stars.

Time to make miles. Head out of Paris in the rain, and after an eventual escape of the sprawl I was relieved to climb up onto an immense plateau of farmland - vast, flat and stretching way beyond my sight. I was heading directly south, towards Orleans, where I'd meet the greatest of French rivers - the Loire. I went to an internet cafe with the intention of writing this blog entry, but was defeated by a French keyboard and a short temper. Note to self - get laptop sent over. Across the bridge then onto the Loire bike path - one which would take me South East, towards the Alps.

I enjoyed the company of a few cyclists over the coming days, including an old French man who spoke not one word of English - this would be the test! Conversation was a struggle, but we managed a few brief episodes. I came to realise, comically I thought, that due to my hopelessly limited French I would always revert to the same ending detail, namely the the size of whatever was being discussed. 'Grande?' or 'petite?' I would say, referring to trees, fish, bridges, locks (we were following a canal); anything I could point at and say in French. He was a wonderfully humble man, and after exchanging a few items of fruit, he turned around and cycled his way back home. His house was 'petite', I seem to remember.

After an easy 4 days of enjoying the flat bike path from Orleans I reached Roanne, and after fruitlessly considering taking on another French computer, I headed for the first of many testing passes - the Col du Pilon, at 727 meters. Speeding down the other side and leaning into more hairpin bends then I can remember, I free-wheeled into the Rhone valley - considerably hotter, drier and more arid than then one I'd left behind.

'The Birmingham of France' is how my friend Tom just referred to my next destination - I trifle unfairly I should add. Lyon was as charming as it was necessary. The whole of my drive chain was completely worn down - something I failed to notice before I left, and something which needed to be sorted pronto. Unfortunately, as my bike uses an internal geared hub the tools which I required to the job where A. Not in my pannier B. Expensive, and C. Hard to find. Luckily I was able to locate a Rohloff specialist, who also happened to be a bicycle frame builder, and after taking me to the back of the shop to show me the impressive mechanisms and creations of his expertise, he sorted me out with everything I needed. I then proceeded to a relatively wide stretch of pavement, and spent the next 2 hours blockading the progress of pedestrians with tools, bike bits, and panniers.

Job done. Off to a park bench to make dinner. Whilst slurping down my usual concoction of pasta, raisins, curry powder and onions I was approached by a lady, and after taking a interest in my story she called up a German friend of hers who had a spare bed. The next thing I know I'm walking to his apartment, situated in center of Lyon, and am treated to a much needed (an understatement to say the least) shower and bed for the night. I wake to the glorious combination of a croissant and freshly brewed coffee, and after exchanging a few travel stories with my friend I head off again, south.

In a week and half I meet my friend Tom (Chilled to some), in Avignon - he's joining me for a few weeks on the road. But progress was quicker than expected, so I could afford a lengthy detour. Pondering exactly this as I cycled out of Lyon, I caught a glimpse of what I believed to be Mt. Blanc, off to my right. The great mountain passes of the Tour De France went through my head, and after stopping for a brief glimpse of my map, I have a route planned. Like a moth to the flame, I veered east, towards a great mountainous wall that is the Alps. My bikes dam heavy - makes perfect sense! The initial stages were long and flat, cycling up though a number of valleys; the looming threat and excitement of the winding roads growing ever closer. On my way out of the lovely walled town of Chamberly, a man asks me to the verge. The second of my showering experiences, they treat me to an evening of great company, champagne, and an introduction on map to the infamous climb that is Mt Ventoux.

Having enjoyed the luxury of a bed for the night, the next day I said farewell, and headed towards the pass of Cormet De Roseland - 1968 meters. On the map it's a small squiggly white line. Easy! Not. 5 hours after the start of the climb, the road was still weaving up ahead of me. Averaging 9 percent gradient, I'm climbing in the dark, amongst the silhouettes of pine trees and mountains, with a few doted lights scattered across the distant hills. My efforts were not helped by a bout of mild dioreah, but 6 hours later I reached the top. Too tired to put up my tent, I fall asleep just in my sleeping bag. There's a quiet, cooling breeze amongst a cloudless sky, and the faint clanging of cow bells...........bloody marv!

Second climb, and the beast - Val d'Isère. Charged up with 2 baguettes and half a liter of jam I take it on with fresh spinning legs. A lovely steady valley climb quickly turns into a ghastly series of switch backs, topping out into a steep valley which is funneling a head wind - every cyclists nightmare! After much swearing, cursing, and the occasional slamming of my fists on the handlebars I reach............ half way! Chewing on my third baguette a lovely bird shits on my head - I resolve to consider it a good Omen for the final push. It's on my head and hand. I finish my baguette. Off I go. A cyclist approaches me from behind and is clearly locked on to me. Determined not be overtaken I up my pace. He ups his. Then I can feel it - the jam kicks in! Adding a few mph to my pace I manage to out run him and reach the top, pride intact after only being overtaken by a few lycra clads (that's OK - they have carbon fiber bikes). 2770 meters and a tremendous victory for myself. The reward is a breathtaking view - snow capped mountains, with deep valleys falling away either side. A quick check of the brakes and I push over the threshold, whizzing down to a lovely pitch by the side of a river. Italy lies over the next mountain.

Next day begins with a relatively small 700 meter climb, followed by the most amazingly long decent across the boarder into Italy. Just in case there is any doubt of where I am, a group of about 10 Ferrari's is flexing to an eager crowd at the boarder - one of which is an Enzo, though rather sadly driven by an old man. Down into Italy the temperature rises dramatically, and I can't help but notice a red mist sitting on top of the valley. This only adds to the heat, and exhausted, I summon the energy to get on my bike and make a break for France. A climb later, I pass through the French towns of Briancon and Gap, descending back down into the Rhone valley. A nasty dry head wind hinders my progress, and I spend much of the next day collapsed under a row of trees, waiting for the heat, and hopefully, the wind of the day to pass. As it subsides I cycle to the next town for dinner. Following the usual display of food preparation - involving the use of an inappropriately large knife, a local lady comes up to me and hands me a bag full of fruit and vegetables - Thank you very much, just what I need! I head down the road and set up camp by the side of a big lake, and enjoy a fresh water swim.

The next day I spend meandering thorough hills. The sky's a clear blue, and I'm enjoying another day of sun. As evening falls the air cools, and the shadows from the hills grow across the road. The villages are quiet and the roads are empty. I spend the next few twilight hours cycling on, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Ventoux. It's impossible to mistake. It rises up to just short of 2000 meters, with a huge lighthouse structure on top. After looking at my map I realise I'm further than I thought, so I go down a small path and set up camp in a field.

Right. stand up, stretch off, go through the usual morning ritual and head down the road. After a small climb, BAM! There it is. It looks like I've almost broken even with it's summit. But that would be too easy. Dam! It is with a sad heart that I enjoy another hair raising decent, only to ascend 1300 metres-ish, instantly afterwards. It's a steady, long climb, averaging 6 -7 percent for 20 kilometers through pine forest. Then again, BAM! the trees suddenly disappear, the midday sun appears, the road kicks up another 4 -5 percent and the summit is visible - and the distance is agonising! I put my face down, unable to look at the climb ahead. Sweat drips off my chin and onto my bike. A look up - the road gets steeper and the summit doesn't look any closer. Head back down, peddle on. Slowly but surely the switchbacks pass, and the tower at the top gets closer. I pass the memorial of Tom Simpson on my left - the English cyclist who died from a heart attack at this very point, 40 years ago. Last push, no gears or water left. aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhHHHHHHHHHHH ........................ ARRIVE!! A very nice couple offer me fruit and nougat for my efforts, and the lady pours a bottle of water over me. The view is worth it all. The next mountain top looks to be half the altitude of where I'm standing, and visibility across the Rhone valley and the flanking hills is spectacular. A quick photo in front of the summit sign and I'm off! Down the steeper side, the switchbacks come quickly and sharp. I manage to overtake a few cars. 30 minutes later I wheel into the bottom town with a big grin and wet eyes, having ingested many flies on the way down.

All the passes done for now. I've spent the last few days relaxing with Tom's wonderful mad Auntie, Kim, her charismatic husband Pascal and her lovely family. Chilled arrived yesterday and discussions of our route have begun - Med bound then east towards Italy. But for now, great food, wonderful company and a pool! Time for a swim.....

As this is the my first lengthy entry I'm trying to refine my writing style -I know tenses are little all over the place, but I think that adds to the readability. Please send my any feedback, suggestions etc.......don't be shy, it all helps. I intend to update weekly, and thanks for reading!

Posted by Banana Spokes 03:13 Archived in France Comments (0)

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