A cyclelogue…A German adventure 2015

 

Bavaria 2015

This year we decided to go to Germany and cycle down the first part of the Danube to Passau on the Austrian border. This involved quite a long journey originally to get to the source of the Danube at Donaueshingen. We went via Harwich, Hook of Holland and then Amsterdam, staying here for a couple of nights. It’s actually a really long way  to the start of this river, right down in the Black Forest, and getting train tickets for 5 people with bikes can be a complicated business.

On the train from Liverpool Street to Harwich, bearing in mind that this train takes out cyclists for the ferry to an exceedingly friendly bike country, this was how our bikes had to travel.

bike seat

bike seat

Amsterdam is a great place to stay  for a couple of days, it’s colourful, eclectic and the people are super friendly. We were staying on a campsite 20 minutes out of the centre and one of the first things we saw was this amazing floating garden on one of the canals.

floating garden

floating garden

floating garden

floating garden

These are built on floating pontoons and have little garden sheds on them, vegetable and lots of mature plants. I asked a local about these and he said that the water was salty, and getting more so as water was let in through the dykes (for the fish) so they had to choose the plants with care. You had to get out to them by swimming or by boat.

The first campsite we came to was almost under water, the second one slightly less so…we had arrived in Holland on a particulaly wet weekend, but managed to find a patch to pitch our tents.

Amsterdam campsite

Amsterdam campsite

This campsite as you might expect was very young, but also well appointed. They had a pub on site, and cooking facilities which was just as well considering the rain. Arriving back from from the centre one evening we found a large van had parked almost on top of the tent……but the lads in the van were friendly and offered to help us move the tent! That night they partied hard…..and so did we in our sleeping bags.

Despite the torrential rain we had a fun couple of days exploring, dodging into cafes and bars whenever the rain got too heavy. At one point sitting with a beer we spotted this people powered cycle bus going past.

people powered cycle bus

people powered cycle bus

Obviously in Holland the cycle is king, and there is nowhere banned to bikes. Such a refreshing change. You do have to be careful on the cycle paths though as the bikes swish through at such a pace…..if you stopped suddenly you could cause a pile up. People everywhere give ‘backies’ to their friends, and there seems to be a technique for this,

Amsterdam backie

Amsterdam backie

the trick is to jump off when you come to traffic lights, and then when your friend has pushed off again as the light turns green, you let them get a bit of momentum and swing yourself back on, side saddle, causing not a wobble. Very slick.

Of course as most people know this is a very pretty city, and seems to be kept exceedingly tidy, especially in the central parts. This is a typical street.

Amsterdam street

Amsterdam street

We decided on advice from a waitress to go and explore North Amsterdam. You reach this by ferry which is free and crosses constantly from just behind the big rail station,

ferry to North Amsterdam

ferry to North Amsterdam

Of course there are as many bikes as people on this….and scooters seem to be counted as bikes, they use the cycle lanes and don’t wear helmets.

We weren’t over keen on this part of Amsterdam though, it still seems to be under development and is rather new and suburban…..however we discovered a brilliant cafe there called De Soepboer.

De Soepboer

De Soepboer

This place is absolutely up my street. Home cooked food by these guys, unpretentious and proper good ingredients, locally sourced and not expensive. It was so good we went there for lunch, then travelled back again for dinner. I would thoroughly recommend it if you find yourself here.

Pottering around for a couple of days was nice, and we saw lots of lovely things including these purple ladies,

Purple ladies

Purple ladies

who dress up in these fine outfits, and have weekends away together, just to have fun. What a very good idea. The shopping too is good and some of the notable things we saw were these tasty looking shoes,

sweet shoes

sweet shoes

and these curious cheeses,

Cheese (?!)

Cheese (?!)

very nice I’m sure….but we didn’t fancy one.

So now we were ready to board our train for Germany, and I had booked us on an ICE train which moves across the country very quickly….however to our dismay when we arrived at the station we were told that our bikes would not be allowed on the train and that was that. This is the trouble with booking online….I hadn’t thought there were restrictions on this train, it was not obvious on the site, but there were and there was nothing to do but to go and sort out another set of tickets. This took ages as all the trains were full, but eventually with the patient although at times strained assistant at the desk, we got ourselves booked onto a sleeper that would get us to our destination at around dawn the next morning. This meant that we didn’t lose any of our cycling time, although we did lose the cost of the first ticket, and consequently the ticket coming back from Passau to Brussels at the end of  the holiday as that was also one of these trains.

Anyway, first day of the cycle and we had to take a shot of the beginning of the ride,

Start of Danube (Donau)

Start of Danube (Donau)

It was a little chillier than we had expected, and we hadn’t had much sleep or breakfast…but nevertheless we were glad to be finally setting off and we fairly bowled along that first day. The whole trip was approximately 380 miles and we had 7 days to do this in, so that worked out at about 55 miles, or 80 km a day. This looked very doable on paper as the general incline was flat or slightly downhill all the way…..hmmm.

The first thing that we noticed were the amount of water birds and birds of prey that were everywhere. Storks, herons, red kites, buzzards etc, it was extrodinary, and we had only been cycling for 5 minutes when I spotted this storks next on a church.

stork nest

stork nest

The path took us across plains and through forests, all on good tracks that were easy to follow. After our 5am start, and a roll with jam for breakfast, we were quickly hungry and resorted to eating apples scrumped from one of the hundreds (thousands) of apple trees that grow across this part of Germany, in gardens, lining village streets even in fields. By midday however we needed more sustenance but struggled to find a shop open…it seems that monday is a shut day. Luckily we eventually found a bakery selling quiche before we fell off the bikes. I also discovered a bun called a quarkweckle in this shop. Oh my it was delicious….like tea cake, and I’m definitely going to have a go at making a sourdough version of these.  That day we managed to do our 85 km and reached the campsite at Sigmaringen, tired but pleased with how much we had done that day. In the evening we went out for something to eat, looking forward to the Bavarian eating experience, and found a restaurant which offered just that. This is when we first realised that maybe fine dining wasn’t going to be realised in this part of the country. We started with a salad from a buffet…which included, I kid you not,defrosted brussel sprouts in one bowl, and mashed potato in another. For the main course we had a steak which came garnished with a tinned pear filled with redcurrant jelly and a squirt of whippy cream on top…it was like they had popped the pudding on top of dinner!

Day two and another 85 km achieved….however we had a head wind part of the way, and the early rise and long day yesterday was starting to take its toll. Also on this leg of the journey were some unexpected hills….one of them so steep that we had no choice but to get off and push our bikes slowly to the top. When we reached the summit however we found a lovely bikers rest that had been installed by the 60 villagers,

shelter at top of hill

shelter at top of hill

this was really well equipped with drinking water, a bottle opener, a bin, cushions to sit on…everything the weary cyclist could need (except a vending machine with beer). There is also a guest book there to sign with messages written by people from all over the world who have also cycled this route. That night we headed for a campsite at Ersingen where we were informed there was a lake we could swim in. We got there luckily while the sun was still up, and enjoyed a refreshing if chilly dip.

easing our aches

easing our aches

That night we ate in the only place in town….and had the loveliest home made soup….but then another huge slab of meat served with spatzle….which is a german rather chewy noodle. The next morning I arose at dawn to see a mist covering the lake,

magical lake

magical lake

and turning it into a magical place.

Day three and off t0 Dilingen. The cycling was nice today and it was interesting seeing how the countryside changed around us each day. I had never realised how important churches and religion were in Germany. There are grottoes with the Madonna in everywhere,

Grotto to the Madonna

Grotto to the Madonna

and other things that I wasn’t sure about,

Grotto?

Grotto?

although I did like the look of this one…contemporary and rather mysterious. There was also a sort of grotto in this woodpile,

woodpile grotto

woodpile grotto

although it was to Hansel and Gretel rather than on a religious theme. That evening we cycled with relief into our campsite beside the Danube and had dinner in the campsite restaurant. This was manned by a buxom waitress in Barvarian costume (which you need to be buxom to carry off) who the lads found a bit scary. She persuaded us to have the house special which that night was pork and knodle.

a knodle

a knodle

yet another huge slab of meat, heavily salted to make a crackling, and served with a huge lump of what looked like dumpling on the side. The knodle is in fact stale breadcrumbs mixed with a sort of custard and boiled. I passed mine over….I was a bit stodged out by now. That night dinner sat rather heavily with us and we had an early start the next morning in order to be able the get the kms in. We started out however in a head wind, it was chilly too and after 15 km we stopped to make our morning porridge.

making porridge

making porridge

we had to hunker down to get some shelter but the food was very welcome by then. We struggled on for another 20km or so….but then H’s knees gave out, and it felt like we were constantly cycling uphill. Stopping for a coffee and to ease our aching shoulders in Donau Worth we discussed the possibility of jumping on a train towards our destination….and if this was within the rules. The we realised that actually there are no rules…it’s just us and we can do what we like…so we duly trained along for a couple of towns and cycled the last few kilometres in, stopping for a beer at one of the many bike stops come guest houses along the way.

bike stop

bike stop

That night we cooked out for the first time…wanting some fresh veg and a break from the constant meat and carb meals that they seem to love down here. Everyone got stuck in to helping out,

helping out with dinner

helping out with dinner

and we discovered a better way of cooking on our storm kettle, by moving it up on top of the kettle….we were able then to also have a little fire to sit around. Genius! It’s amazing what you can cook on a little stove with a bit of imagination…and we cooked like this for the rest of the week.

dinner

dinner

Whilst I had been shopping this week I kept coming across the most extraordinary eggs,

colourful eggs

colourful eggs

I dunno…I suppose to encourage kids to eat their eggs? Talking of which….we also came across this unusual type of kinder transport,

kinder transport

kinder transport

Great fun…….

In this campsite were some lovely little cabins that looked like they were straight out of Lord of the Rings,

Hobbit houses

Hobbit houses

Day 5 and we felt better after having had a more restful day yesterday, and knowing that part of today was going to be on a ferry. We set out to a glorious morning, sunny and more importantly with no wind. At coffee time we found a lovely Backerai (bakery)

Backerai

Backerai

and stopped there for a while enjoying the sun. These bakeries are everywhere and seem to be an important part of life. Many of them sell very good coffee as well as some of the best bread I have ever tasted.

lovely bread

lovely bread

Lots of it is sourdough, which is my preferred type, and there is often the most delicious, proper cheesecake, made with quark and without the horrible, oversweet biscuit base. This particular bakery had a whole range of perfumes in both the mens and ladies. I couldn’t resist and consequently left a rather over perfumed trail behind me for the next hour or so.

We flew along today on a chalky track by the river. The Danube has many faces and changes its appearance all the time,

The beautiful blue Danube

The beautiful blue Danube

It goes from being a shallow, gravel bottomed stream to a wide river, and then changes back again. Up until this point and beyond there was very little activity actually on the river, no boats and just the occasional fisherman. Every few miles or so there is a power station where they hold the water back and use it to produce energy. In fact they seem to have to sustainable energy sown up. There are few houses that do not have their entire roofs covered in solar panels, and you always know in which direction you are cycling by seeing which way the solar panels are facing. They grow sunflowers and corn which also are used to produce energy, and there are also many fields full of panels too. But, very few animals to be seen, no cows, no pigs and just a few sheep, so these are obviously all farmed indoors which is a shame. So today we continued along in an easy manner until we reached Weltenburg, the site of a huge monastery called kloster Weltenburg where they make an award winning beer.

huge beer

huge beer

This was actually the only time I had a beer…and this was a small one! The waitresses here were also dressed Baravian style, it seems to be a popular thing to do down here. Occasionally we saw some younger waitresses who wore it in a more contemporary way, and there are shops everywhere selling the full on costumes. So, this is the oldest monastery brewery in the world, they have been brewing here since 1050. At this point the Danube flows into a gorge, and it was here that we took the ferry down to the next town, rather than ride to the top of the cliff.

ferry through the Danube gorge

ferry through the Danube gorge

It was an absolutely lovely ride with gorgeous scenery and the entertainment of watching rock climbers clambering up the cliffs, and canoeists trying to paddle up against the current.

Day 6 and we left Bad Abbach where we had camped for the night and cycled into Regensburg for a coffee. Regensburg is really pretty,

Regensburg

Regensburg

Regensburg

Regensburg

and we would have liked to stay a bit longer, but it was chock full of tourists swamping the cobbled streets, so we decided to head off. On the way out I spotted this wall painting,

wall painting

wall painting

this is very common in this part of Germany, many, many buildings have these wall paintings and all the ones we saw looked in very good condition. It struck us that it must be tricky and expensive to keep these like this…but they are lovely.

By now the weather was really hotting up which was fab and the cycling was fine although after a while, going across another plain we hit more head winds. Luckily it wasn’t a long day, only 65 kms, and we found a lovely lake, with fish jumping and catching flies, to sit and have our lunch by.

dejeuner sur l'herb

dejeuner sur l’herb

That evening we reached Straubing. While we all collapsed into our tents at our usual 9.30 pm…Hamish took himself off into town to visit a group of lads playing techno in a carpark, and then visited the local pub where he found a team of dart players all wearing teeshirts with the legend, ‘Darts of Anarchy’ printed on them. That night he decided to sleep out under the stars.

under the stars

under the stars

Day 7 and our last day riding into Passau. This would have been another 85 km and although the weather was lovely, there was still a head wind, so again we hopped a train and cycled the last 25 km into town. The Passau campsite it right by the river and only 5 minutes cycle from the town.

Passau

Passau

Passau itself is lovely, and happily for me there was a pottery market on the centre that afternoon. I fell in love with the work of Maria Meier www.keramik-meier.de and although I lusted after a fantastic huge bread crock, I had to settle for a teapot,

Maria Meier's ceramics

Maria Meier’s ceramics

which Henry then had to carry in his pannier for the rest of the journey. But we did get it home in one piece.

That night we went out for our last meal to a lovely little restaurant called The Green Tree, tucked away down a side street.

The Green Tree

The Green Tree

It was a lovely evening but the food was much the same as we had had before….liver dumplings followed by a large slab of meat with noodles.

Next morning was our last day, and it opened with a beautiful dawn rainbow,

dawn rainbow

dawn rainbow

 

and because we couldn’t get on the booked ICE train, we had decided that the cheapest way to get us to the Eurostar in Brussels was to hire a minibus,

packed minibus

packed minibus

and pack ourselves and bikes into it. This was a super long drive up to Brussels, about 10 hours, and we made it with only 20 minutes to spare, thanks to the excellent driving of Mark and Ray.

So that was our German adventure. It was interesting but also, suprisingly, quite hard. You can’t always guarantee that a flat ride is going to be an easy one. We also need to build in more rest time…and slightly less km’s a day!

 

The Highlands 2014

Having done our last 3 cycle tours on the continent, we decided to explore our own country this year, and went up to the Highlands. The original plan was to cycle from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh….but we changed our plans once we arrived as we realised there was a better route to Inverness. This year we were 5 with the excellent addition of Ray, a great map reader and diplomat. The organisation initially to get us to our start point of Fort William was a nightmare…5 people with bikes seems an impossibility for any train service on the west coast….so we went via Edinburgh and Glasgow on the east coast service where luckily their capacity for bikes is 5 spaces.

So a day spent travelling to Glasgow and then up early the next morning to catch an early train to Fort William so that we would be in time to catch the steam train to Mallaig…..this is of course the Harry Potter train. It is listed as one of the top 10 most scenic train journeys in the world…but I’m getting ahead of myself as Glasgow to Fort William came first.

Glasgow to Fort William with rainbow

Glasgow to Fort William with rainbow

This journey gave us our first clue as to how amazing the scenery of the Highlands was going to be. It is so dramatic compared to the soft rolling downs of the south. From this point on we met just the friendliest people starting with the livewire of a conductress who checked and sold tickets on this journey.

All the way up we had sunshine and showers which accessorised the peaks and rivers of this area,

The dam at the end of a resevoir

The dam at the end of a resevoir

this was definitely not a journey to be reading ones book….the scenery took all ones attention.

Once we had reached Fort William we had just a little while to admire The Jacobite steam train that we were to take to Mallaig.

HP train at Ben Nevis

the Jacobite steaming past Ben Nevis

It really is a lovely train, and for those of you who know your Harry Potter, you’ll know this was used in one of the films. It has caused a great surge of interest in the train and the 20 mile journey, and now you have to book to get on. But it’s worth it.

The Jacobite

The Jacobite

1st class carriage

1st class carriage

Next time I will book in the 1st class carriage….it’s like being on the Orient Express.   Everyone of course is interested in the engine,

stoking the fire

stoking the fire

and the train driver had a couple of lads to stoke the fire for him. Looks like a fun summer job!

The journey takes a couple of hours, and you can stop at the Glenfillan Viaduct for cream tea in an old dining car on the way.

over the viaduct

over the viaduct

Crowds of people come to this point to watch the train going by, and taking photo’s out of the window ensures you get covered in smuts.  A little while later we rode past the island which is apparently Dumbledores final resting place.

Dumbledores island

Dumbledores island

OK, thats enough Harry Potter now.

So from Mallaig onto the Isle of Skye by ferry, and immediately off the boat was the Rubna Phoil Syke permaculture forest garden and campsite where we pitched for the night. It was a squeeze finding a place for our tents, but the ground was soft and peaty and the view from our tents was lovely.

View from our tent on Skye

View from our tent on Skye

After setting up camp it was a mere 7 miles cycle to find dinner…but we needed to stretch our legs as we’d been on trains for 2 days.

The next day was a long cycle in rain to the next camp site about 35 miles away. We managed to find a pitch which wasn’t waterlogged and spent the rest of the day drying out slowly in the local pub with a group of Dutch houseboaters….which gave us plenty of scope for conversation. Towards the end of the day the sky cleared and we had the most dramatic sunset outside that lasted  for about 15 minutes that everyone turned out to see.

Dramatic sunset on hill, Skye

Dramatic sunset on hill, Skye

and another

and another

Later on that evening a Scottish storyteller came to the pub, in full kilt and caboodle, to tell us fairy stories of the Isles. Even more interesting was the conversation with him later on about the history of the clearances, and the culture of the clans. Fascinating stuff, and it left us wanting more.

The following day bought sunshine and a chance to cycle round Skye and explore. We finished up by going to a series of waterfalls and pools called the fairy pools,

First sight of the fairy pools

First sight of the fairy pools

These are a popular place to visit and so beautiful,

walking by the fairy pools

walking by the fairy pools

but even though it was a sunny day,

swimming in the fairy pools

swimming in the fairy pools

we were the only ones swimming. It was freezing! But, the water was clear and lovely.

We had been going to cycle from Skye to Edinburgh, but at this stage we changed our plans and decided to take the Great Glen way to Inverness, after being assured by a cyclist working in the sports and climbing shop at Fort William that it was a good route for bikes. So to this end we cycled back across Skye and hopped back on the train to Fort William to start this 75 mile route.

Having been damp all day we retired to a pub down the road once camp had been struck, and had our first haggis and a game of darts. The haggis was delicious…..who knew?

dried out and having fun

dried out and having fun

and I trounced them at darts!

So off the next morning with the wind at our back (and the rain in our faces) and a quick stop to have a look around Inverlochy castle. The slow pace of cycling gives you a chance to come across places like this and learn a bit along the way.

Inverlochy castle

Inverlochy castle

This was one of the remaining towers left on the corner of the castle,

reconstruction of tower

reconstruction of tower

and this is an artist’s impression of how it would have looked at the time. I can’t imagine it was very warm.

We cycled onto the start of the Great Glen way through banks of the brightest pink rose bay willow herb,

rose bay willow herb

rose bay willow herb

it must be the soil up here that gives it such a glorious colour.  Onwards then to an easy climb alongside Neptunes staircase,

at Neptunes staircase

at Neptunes staircase

a series of 11 locks allowing boats along the Caledonian canal. This turned out to be the easy bit along the tow path, but even so, it was not long before one of the bikes picked up a puncture,

1st puncture

1st puncture

but a team effort soon got us back on the road. Bikes seem to pick up punctures very easily in the rain as small sharp pieces stick to the tyres, and it was a few miles after this that one of us got the most spectacular blow out, like a gun shot, on his tyre. This was tricky as we were now equidistant from the place we had left and the one we were going to, and there was not a town for miles, but we are nothing if not resourceful, and a fix was eventually invented which involved an old piece of inner tube wrapped around the tyre and wheel, with the back brake disabled.

necessity being the mother of

necessity being the mother of

Amazingly this worked and carried us along a forest track for the rest of the day…which was just as well as everytime we stopped the midges gathered.  H, who had been midgebombed in a big way on the Isle of Skye, had got himself some protection,

Mozzie/midge net hat

Mozzie/midge net hat

and we who had laughed when we first saw people wearing these….were not laughing now. We had to be able to keep going  for a while as the forest track went on for some time….and needing energy to keep us going we had to find somewhere to eat lunch out of the rain. Luckily this little shed wasn’t locked and we crept inside and tidied a space,

a welcome shed

a welcome shed

which gave us a nice place to stoke up…a port in a storm. Then we had to carry on….we had heard the tail end of hurrciane Bertha was going to sweep across that evening and we wanted to pitch camp before that happened.  A couple of hours down the track and the welcome sight of fields and canal opened up before us.

out of the forest

out of the forest

There was no camp site here, but the generous spirited  lock keeper let us pitch up on a piece of land, behind some flood boards.

just before the storm

just before the storm

We tied our tent to our bike too….just to make sure. Happily just on the other side of the loch was a boat bar,

Boat bar

Boat bar

and we were soon ensconced in a comfy armchair,

mmmm, cosy

mmmm, cosy

for the rest of the evening…with just a few metres to stagger  back to our tents. The storm came along as promised and the tents flapped around our ears all night, but generally held. A big thumbs up for Vango.

A soggy morning saw us up and away on our bikes to Fort Augustus where we had heard there was a new hardware shop with a section for bikes….by now we needed to replenish supplies and find a new tyre. The track now became a series of roots which we had to push the bikes over (cursing the chap who had told us it was suitable for bikes…mountain bikes maybe).  Eventually realising the rain was set in for a while we stopped for breakfast on an old iron bridge.

breakfast on the hoof

breakfast on the hoof

We had rediscovered porridge a couple of days earlier, and took to carrying a tub of soaking oats with us ready to whip up into a delicious breakfast.

bikers breakfast

bikers breakfast

Powered by porridge we kept on to Fort Augusta, but before we could get there Mark had another spectacular blow out…..on a different part of his tyre. Luckily we were only 4 or 5 miles away, and he was able to push his bike onwards while we went ahead and bought the necessary repairs. Kitted up with new tyres, inner tubes and an amazing lighter that comes on like a mini blowtorch, we set of for that evenings destination.

At last the sun peeped out, and by the time we reached Drumnadrochit and set up our tents, we still had time to hang everything out on the (electric) fence,

drying out

drying out

and get our kit dry. In the drying room were a group of German and Italian lads who had met up and were walking together. One by one their tents went into the dryers while they chomped their way through a couple of carrier bags of sweets and cakes.

That evening we had one of the best nights of the trip  at the local bar/restaurant, the Fiddlers Arms…a place that does some of the best cooking you’ll find,

the delights of single malt

the delights of single malt

And has a fine collection of single malts, some of which were duly savoured that evening.  Our last day on the mainland found us cycling up Loch Ness and towards Inverness. On the way we crossed,

Invermoriston bridge

Invermoriston bridge

the lovely Invermoriston bridge, where they bottle Iron Bru,

Iron Bru river

Iron Bru river

straight from the river……well it does look a bit like it.

That night we were going to wild camp, and we found a place just by Loch Dochtour a mile or so from Inverness. It was a great site, and we found some soft bracken to hide ourselves in,

wild camping

wild camping

 

Chanterelles

Chanterelles

this made for a lovely soft bed, but we had to pay for it over the next few days, removing ticks from each other like a group of monkeys. However, it was all worth it as we found that we were in the best place for Chanterelles,

camp dinner

camp dinner

and that night had a dinner of venison sausages with wild mushrooms and whisky mustard…….and whiskey.

Next morning with surprisingly no hangovers we cycled into Inverness, and enjoyed an hour in the well kept botanic gardens, and found a whiskey shop to replenish supplies (the lads were getting into their stride now) before cycling over the bridge,

from the Bridge over to the Black Isle

from the Bridge over to the Black Isle

and onto the Black Isle…..which isn’t really an Island…but sort of, a bit confusing. On the other side we stopped for (another) scone,

another scone

another scone

at a most lovely little teahouse, with this as a view.

looking out from teashop

looking out from teashop

And, while we were there, Dolphins were jumping out of the water which they do apparently at every high tide. The teashop is up for sale….and I found myself tempted, and then remembered I’m a southern softie.  Imagine this every morning though.  Every now and then this curious vessel passed by,

solar boat

solar boat

and it turned out to be a self built, solar powered, aluminium boat which the owner uses to take visitors up and down the waterway.

The campsite that night was on the edge of the sea, and dinner was in an eccentric pub run by Americans,

glorious pub

glorious pub

with yet again fantastic food, and a bar just for drinking whiskey in. This bar though had a huge range of beers and a 70’s Pacman machine. The standard of food in Scotland these days seems to be high…..we only had one poor meal on the whole journey.

Just on the edge of the Black Isle is situated the weather station Cromartie which all R4 listeners will know. We had to go and take a look, and had a long 6 mile climb the next morning to check it out. We found a thriving little town, with the Island of Nig next to it which makes up oil rigs….which probably explains it’s liveliness,

Cromartie

Cromartie

Verifying how good the local cafe’s were by sampling (another) scone, we started our uphill climb back to the campsite and were rewarded with one of the best and longest downhillers ever….it went on for miles and fired us up for the last leg of our journey back across the bridge and to the last campsite. At 5.30 the next morning we set off for the train back to Edinburgh and, having the road to ourselves was able to get a great picture of Inverness,

Friar's Bridge

Friar’s Bridge

from Friar’s bridge just before the city woke up.  A wonderfully scenic train ride across the Grampian’s tempted us back to Scotland again one day…..maybe for a canoe ride down the Spey.

It was an interesting time to be in Scotland, just before the big vote. Interestingly the Yes voters seem to be more vocal on the streets, but this picture taken on Inverness high street probably tells its own story.

will they or won't they?

will they or won’t they?

Before we went to the Highlands people kept remarking on the weather, midges and hills. And yes they were all there but what people forget is that the country itself is so stunning that all that fades into the background, well as long as you can dry out betweentimes. The food was great, some of the best we have had, and we all tucked into black pudding and haggis which came us a surprise… to some of us anyway. People were, to a man, as friendly as can be and things were much cheaper! I can’t wait to go again and am already planning to get some instruction in a Canadian canoe so that we can try out the Spey or the Tweed.

 

Cap de la Hague 2013

This year we decided to explore another part of Normandy, and not one that we had visited before. Normandy is a huge county, the biggest I think in France, and is divided for administration into two departments, higher (haut) Normandy and lower (Basse) Normandy. Right at the very tip of Normandy, sticking out into the sea, opposite Devon/Dorset, is the Cap de la Hague, this is in the region called Cotentin. We decided to cycle from Cherbourg, all around the coast to the Cap de la Hague, loop back around the tip and come back from Barfleur all along the landing beaches. Living in Normandy I find I have become increasingly interested in the lives of the people here during the occupation, and I thought it would be interesting to see the parts of Normandy where the landings actually happened.

Going on a cycling tour is always exciting. Previously we have always organised hotels to stay in and places that we want to be each evening, but because in France there is always a campsite nearby, we decided to let the map and the days unfold, and just chose our start and end point. We have realised that it doesn’t matter how long you stare at a map for, studying the contours, trying to miss cliffs etc, it is always completely different once you start. Also, you spend the first day or so learning how to interprete the map and getting your eye in. On the first day something that we took to be a cycle path turned out to be a beachside walk  on sand and we had to turn back as touring bikes loaded with luggage soon sink in the sand.

Anyway, day one we started out nice and early from Cherbourg into a glorious, sunny day with not as much headwind as I had feared. Within minutes we had cleared the main town and come upon some sea forts at the end of causeways which you can walk out to,

 by the viewing point to the forts was a sculpture of text about the sea,

which gave us a happy 10 mins of translating before we were driven on to find our first coffee. This quickly establishes itself as a rountine each morning and gets you out of your tent and onto the road. Sometimes you find a cafe in no time at all, and sometimes it’s a long and arduous climb for an hour or so before a cafe hoves into view. The price difference for the same order each morning is incredible too. (coffee day one…5.40 eu). Fired up by our coffee we sped on along the coast, getting used to the weight at the back of our bikes, and getting used to being in the saddle. We realised before very long that this is a particulaly quiet part of France. You have to actually want to come here to be here, you don’t just pass through it,  consequently, the nearer we got to the end of Cotentin, the more sparsely populated it became.

The coast along this part of France reminded everyone of Cornwall. The beaches are sandy, the sea is turquoise blue (at least in this lovely summer) and, I imagine because of the soil, there are multi coloured Hydrangeas everywhere.

At the foot of a hill we came upon Port Racine,

this is the smallest harbour in France, and it is exquisite. Because it is so small the boats are moored on lines, and there is a chart on the wall to tell you who each line belongs to. The wall surrounding the port is perfect for jumping off into the sea,

and this was the first swim of many during the holiday.

A dip, lunch and we were off again, shortly to stop for an interesting exhibition at a Manor along the road.

The colours of these images was startling from the road and we had to go and take a closer look. The one above is called, ‘In the eye of the mermaid’.

   and most of them were painted onto the wings of gliders.

at the top of the hill we climbed up the body of an old windmill and looked back towards the way we had come.

Before much longer we had reached the Cap de la Hague, the real starting point of our journey,

as you look out to sea, you can see the silouhettes of all the Channel Islands on the horizon, Jersey, Guernsey, Aldernay and Sark.

There is a causeway from the lifeboat station to the lighthouse which you can walk out on,

and we all took much pleasure in this, though it would be scary on a stormy day, as would this part of the world I would imagine. There are dry stone walls built around all the fields to keep the cattle protected, and the houses are built low and close together to offer protection. The climate however is mild (apart from the winds) and although right down at the Cap the landscape is low growing scrub and windswept trees, in the rest of the area a little further away, there are a huge amount of vegetables grown.

As we made our way across the marked cycle path (!!!) towards Jobourg,

or rather pushed our bikes along it, we suddenly found loads of hang gliders soaring above our heads,

then finally we made it down to the beach and a campsite at Vauville for our first evening meal. This we had to cook ourselves on our storm kettle as there was nowhere to buy food from…luckily we had thought ahead and bought a few provisions along the way,

so we were able to have a fromage blanc stuffed melon with all sorts of other things tucked in there, followed by,

a glorious Eaton Mess using the same melon shell. When you are on the bike all day long, food becomes even more important than usual, and you enjoy every mouthful.

Day two  (coffee 14.60 eu!)

Our first night spent in tents was a slightly restless one. We’d had a lovely paddle in the sea the night before, but as the tide came up the sound which we thought would be restfull during the night, turned out to be too loud and filled our dreams with water. The campsite was on sand dunes in a bay, surrounded by lagoons and with the sparkling lights of a nuclear base at the far end of the bay. So, up the hills to find our first exceedingly expensive coffee in the morning, and then later on we found a Deli serving roast chicken off the spit (a very sunday thing in France) which we ordered for our lunch. While we were waiting for it to cook, we stopped at a bar for another coffee when a man rolled up in a car. He was so drunk he staggered across the car park and into the bar to order a bottle of Pastis. When he came out again he got back into the car and stalled it 3 times. I couldn’t watch this any longer and went over to have a word with him, but he just looked at me blankly and said ‘Quoi?’  We asked the people in the bar if they knew him, but they just shrugged and looked embarrased. What can you do? Luckily he wasn’t going in our direction.

This was one of our hardest days on the bikes as we were looping around the spit at the end of this bit of France, and we had to go over many hills to go back to the opposite coast. We found ourselves pushing our bikes almost as much as we rode them. However, along the way we came across a folly to a horse,

all built using various dimesions of 6 apparently,

 

and a glass museam, and although it was tiny, it had some interesting things in. There wasn’t much glass there, but there was plenty of the history of the place on the walls. They had made all the glass for the palace at Versailles as there is much sand in this area. They did have other things on display though,

notably these hats which were made and worn by Normandy women right up into the early 1900’s. I asked if they were for weddings, but I was told that No, they were their sunday best. Goodness. They also had a lot of farm equipment around including this lovely cider press,

which would have been found all over Normandy as this is still the main cider making region of the country. Finally shortly after visiting the museam we found ourselves finally going downhill towards the coast and onto an easy road towards our campsite. Two minutes away we found the most fantastic restaurant called Le Moulin which served the delicious and unpretentious local food and was not at all expensive. This was the perfect end to a hard day, and we even found a little more energy for a night time ride down to a local beach, before falling into our tents for a straight 9 hours sleep.

Day 3  (coffee 6.20eu)

Into Barfleur for coffee and breakfast,

This is the area where all the mussels and many of the oysters for the region are grown, and the towns all along the coast are groaning with seafood restaurants. We then cycled around to the St Vaast de la Hougue and found it to be such a beautiful place that we decided after the previous days hard cycling, to take the afternoon off and spend our time here instead. Just off the coast of this pretty town is Tatihou island that you can walk out to when the tide is low.

However, when it is not, you can take a strange amphibean boat which has wheels to roll over the rocks.

This island has a long history, and again it has had a fort built upon it for defence. The Battle of Barfleur was fought around here in 1692 when the Dutch and the British fought the French and Irish as William of Orange had deposed James 11 from the throne and Louse XIV, his cousin, wanted to put him back on the throne. There are many artefacts on the island recovered from ships sent to the bottom of the sea.

To the side of the island is another fort which is now abandoned and used as a bird sanctuary.

The island is a marvel and we spent a few happy hours there wandering around the walled garden filled with succulents, echiums and other exotics and we climbed up into a solid tower built at one end and found this marvelous ceiling,

and then from this room, we could look through the windows back towards the mainland.

That night we found ourselves in a fish restaurant eating hot oysters and lobster.

Day 4  (coffee 6.20 eu)

A zippy night, people in tents around us seemed to pulling up and down their zips all night. However we found a lovely morning coffee and then had a ride along a long flat road through quiet countryside and along rows of oyster beds out in the sands. These were towards the first of the landing beaches, Utah beach in fact, and they are a series of long, golden beaches with almost no one on them even on a hot sunny day.

Later there was tough ride around Carentan and down through Isgny (where all the lovely butter and cream is processed) to Grandcamp Maisy. Here we stayed on a large campsite with many semi permanent camper vans complete with washing machines, tellies and microwaves. How the French do love to rough it. Again we found a hotel that served a fabulous meal for around 25 eu, the best bit for me was sitting watching the sun go down over the sea and the dessert plate!

Even with all the chocolate and a sip of the coffee, managed a good nights sleep.

Day 5  (coffee 7.30 eu)

A quiet coast road into Calvados proper, then we dropped down onto Omaha beach, stunning and again no one on it bar the tractors towing fishing boats out to the sea,

these landing beaches are the American ones, and you can tell. There are many memorials all around, large and splendid,

and you can hire jeeps, eat in an American restaurant etc. By comparison, the British and Canadian landing beaches are quiet and understated, in terms of memorials. We had been reading stories of the soldiers throughout our trip, and I was interested in the story of the soldier who parachuted down and landed on the church steeple in the film ‘The Longest Day’. This happened in St Mere Eglise and so we cycled up there and found this memorial to the soldier,

he was up there for two hours before being captured by the Germans. Happily for him he survived the war and returned home, coming back here in 1969 presumably to see this image of himself swinging forever from the church steeple.

From there we cycled on into Bayeaux, a stunning town that I will definetely go back to. There was a great local market in full swing, and we bought ourselves a most tasty lunch,

Cantal cheese, unpasturised butter, sourdough bread, home grown tomatoes and cucumber and vine grown peaches…you just can’t go wrong. All eaten in the shadow of the Cathedral.

Of course we went to see the tapestry after lunch, and really were prepared to be a bit disappointed, but it is brilliant! You have a little machine to take around with you which explains in detail each part of the tapestry and the story is mesmerising, as is the attention to detail of the embroiderers. I would have liked to have spent even longer in there, and will make a point of seeing it again. After this we went of to a farm museum close by. Although the farm is no longer operating, it has been kept as it was, and happily somebody filmed many of the family who lived here in the 1950’s as they were churning butter, making bread, pressing apples for cider etc. I found it absolutely facsinating. These farms were relativly well off and produced nearly everything they needed for the family, staff, and to sell. Specific days were set by for cream, butter making, bread making etc.

Some of the equipment there would have been innovative in its time,

such as this Porsche tractor, but the fact that so many men were lost in the war meant many of these farms were unable to continue.

Day 6  (coffee 7.30 eu)

A ride down Gold and Juno beaches and on into Deauville and Trouville. I had been looking forward to an afternoon around Trouville but it was August 15th, a big french bank holiday and the town was crammed. This was too much for us after our ride through such an unpopulated part of France, so we pressed on up the steep hill (another push) and found to our relief the most amazing campsite at the top of the hill. This was called Chant des Oiseaux (the same name as my road) and was a terraced cliff so that every single pitch had a dramatic view out to sea,

This was the view from our tent,

this was their little private beach at the foot of the cliffs,

and this was the sunset from their cafe later the same evening. This campsite is on the road from Trouville to Honfleur, and I can’t imagine a nicer campsite anywhere.

Day 7  (coffee 10.50 eu)

After a relaxing afternoon we had an easy ride the next morning into Honfleur, stopping for coffee in a sweet little town on the way called Villersville where we found this funny cartoon on a wall,

Honfleur as I have written before is a stunning town, full of galleries and restaurants, but not the easiest place to buy food if you want to make your own lunch (except when the market is on), so on finding only one, small lone supermarket, we had a strange lunch of cheese, tomatoes and anchovies wrapped in a slightly sweet pancake. Still, the view was nice,

and anyway, we managed to get a table at our favourite restaurant Le Vieux Clocher, and had the last of our wonderful holiday meals,

a Pork and Apple concoction…yum. Next day, it was a ride over the Pont du Normandie (exciting on a bicycle),

and a train from the unscenic Le Havre,

back home. Now, all we have to do is decide where to go next year.

AMSTERDAM TO PARIS 2012

 

H has a big birthday coming up, and to celebrate this fact, we decided it would be a good idea to go on a cycling tour…to dispel any idea that he was getting old of course. So, that is what we are doing..3 countries in 3 weeks, Amsterdam to Paris…finishing on his birthday in Paris.

We wanted to make it a bit of an adventure, so we are staying with Warmshowers and Couchsurfing hosts, and camping with perhaps some wild camping inbetween. We have taken a tiny, 2kg tent, a Storm kettle for cooking, sleeping mats, bags and just enough clothes for any type of weather.

So….off we went;

25th Aug

Breakfast in Amsterdam, 11am, a bowl of creamy yoghurt and a coffee.

The Ceramic gardener at a cafe in Amsterdam

Sitting on flowery cushions outside a cafe, by a canal…and it is so quiet. A result of the lack of cars…..but OMG the bikes! I can’t get over the bikes. There seem to be more people cycling than walking, and there is the constant ting a ling of bike bells.

We arrived at the Hook of Holland early this morning on the extremely well priced ‘Rail and Sail’ from Liverpool St station. Cycling across London Bridge, it struck me how iconic the skyline of London has become in the last 10 -20 years. I used to think Paris had it for building style in N Europe, but after seeing the Shard yesterday for the first time, cycling past the Gherkin (which looks more like a lipstick to me) and seeing the Olympic signs suspended from Tower Bridge, I felt proud of how London looks these days.

Well, anyway, so far we have cycled a total of about one mile. We took the train from the ferry, through Rotterdam and on to Amsterdam, watching the countryside go past. First impressions are that it is as flat as you’d expect. Fields bisected with little dams and dykes and lots of horses and cows grazing. I also got a very exciting glimpse of fields stripey with flowers in bands of gorgeous colours. I really hope we get to cycle past some of these in the next few days.

Meanwhile, sustained by breakfast, we can go and check out this city.

Painted sheds…..clockman

Painted sheds….Ironing lady

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These sheds run along the back of a flea market where there are all sorts of wondrous things to buy. Always leave a little room in your panniers because you never know when you may need to purchase some purple cut-off dungarees.

Musical boat

Amsterdam is just the best place for sitting around and watching the world go by. You never know what is going to happen along next. While we were having coffee, this boat came along playing Oompah versions of Abba songs.

Town house…Amsterdam

The houses are very well kept…not just in Amsterdam but everywhere we went. Many of them grow Wisteria or other climbers over the front of their houses.

Pontoon Houses outside Amsterdam

There are of course many houseboats in the city, but on the dykes leading in there are many of these houses built onto pontoons. Small boats and bikes are used to get around.

Dyke maintenance

Everywhere the Dykes are being heightened. As water levels rise, the Dutch have to keep a weather eye on the water table…they are probably the best in the world at water measurement…..they have to be. See the level of the house behind this dyke.

Two windmills

Obviously there are many windmills in Holland….but these days they are mainly of the modern kind. Many of the older ones are rather preserved in aspic and we only saw a couple which were still working….one at a distillery.

Sculpture by motorway

Even the motorways have cyclepaths running alongside, and this sculpture has been designed and placed alongside the path with a little picnic area close by.

 

27th Aug

Don’t ever let me complain about how wet it is in Normandy, because now I think to understand wet, you must have been to Holland. Here it is wet below and above. Perhaps that is a little unfair as today we have blue skies, but yesterday we spent the day sweating inside our wet gear as wave after wave of torrential rain fell. Luckily we were not on a cycling day as we had decided to spend another day in Amsterdam, and our Warmshowers host was kind enough to let us stay another night. So we cycled up the River Amstel back into the middle of the city, and spent the morning dodging rain in cafe’s. The afternoon was spent at the ”Hortas”‘the Botanical gardens which are small but charming.

Amazing Owls head butterfly which looked more like a reptiles head

Especially the butterfly house. Each Sunday through the summer they put on a free concert in the afternoon, and on this day it was 4 glam ladies playing Tango music.

Lovely Tango ladies

What a lovely way to spend the afternoon.

We’ve not really had the chance to experience Dutch food yet…there does seem to be a lot of processed cheese and meat around, but I’m sure it can’t all be like that.

28th Aug

Found a CCC (caravan club) last night to pitch our tent. So far there is not much option for wild camping…and the Dutch all say it is strickly Verboden..and anyway, it is all a bit wet. The campsite was full of elderly people with campervans….but so friendly.

We collected ingredients for a nice dinner and cooked it on our storm kettle, after hunting down a bit of dampish kindling. We smoked our neighbours out, but no-one complained. The Storm kettle is great. It was bought for us by friends and has been used mainly at festivals up to now, but now it is having a real test. With a bit of imagination, cardboard and twigs…..you can concoct a really nice meal.

The amazing Storm Kettle

Organic burgers on Rocket with creamy mustard sauce, mange tout and mini corn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This morning after having rain in the night, and not much sleep, we resurrected under a hot shower and quickly boiled up a cuppa with some cardboard in the Stormkettle. We packed up our bikes under the shelter by the showers, and was given a lovely cup of coffee by the campsite manager. Everyone stopped to say hello, and tired as we were, we rode out with smiles on a wave of good wishes.

Coffee and cookie

 

In Holland and in Belgium, every cup of coffee comes with a cookie or a biscuit. Sometimes home-made. The coffee is also really good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29th Aug

3rd proper day in the saddle, and feeling it tonight. We’ve been heading into the prevailing wind for the last couple of days which is hard on the shoulders….it also means you don’t feel the sun so much, so we’ve got slightly burned faces and have had to buy some of that horrible sun tan lotion. Interesting day though. Spent last night in Rotterdam with a lovely Warmshowers lady, Vera, who lives in a very nice flat near the centre. She looked after us really well, fed us a typical Dutch meal of potatoes mashed with Purslain and fried fish. We are always ravenous on this trip and really enjoy eating good food.

Rotterdam is sort of as I imagined. A large sprawling city with no real heart to it as it was bombed out during the war. The rebuild is a monument to Mammon, and not very interesting unless you have a fondness for C+A or H+M. But it was worth going there to meet Vera.

Giant Rig

The ride out was more interesting as there are massive dockyards where everything is giant scale.

Cycling around gives you the chance to notice the small things that you might miss otherwise. Riding through some back streets I came upon this cheerful garden,

Ceramic roses in garden and buttons on a tree

And just down the road were some electricity boxes with various scenes painted on them….makes a change from Brightons Cassette Lord.

Painted Electricity box

 

and another

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are now riding over the penninsula’s of Zeeland…fingers of land that stick out into the North sea. We rode over tracts of land that cross large expanses of water…they are mainly huge bridges with sluices built all along the side, and areas of sandy land that are used recreationally.

10 things I have learnt about Holland.

1. Everywhere is bikes and dykes…and you don’t have to wear a crash helmet on a scooter

2. Coffee is good and always comes with a cookie

3. Everyone seems to be so friendly

4. They have lovely unpasterised farm cheese which is almost as good as our best cheddar

5. It is so quiet because so many people are on bikes

6. Herons eat rats…..and there are a lot of Herons

7. There are a lot of Hares

8. There are a lot of birds of prey

9. Everywhere is joined up by numbered cycle paths. The cycle is king here..there is no where where you cannot ride a bike. Through industrial estates, along the top of dykes, through housing estates, across the water, by the railway, on sand-dunes, across marshes and so on and so on. And..it is so flat it is just such a pleasure to be on a bike.

10. Everyone speaks English and defaults to it if they realise you are not Dutch…this makes life very easy.

31st Aug

Crossed the border between Holland and Belgium somewhere around lunchtime through a little town called Sluis (pronounced Slous) and Oh joy! the wind is coming around behind us.

8.8 km bridge….keeping out the North Sea

Yesterday was hard cycling into a head wind all day, and then across an 8.8 km bridge that crosses the North sea, in a torrential downpour. But, we ploughed on and by the time we had got to the other side we were able to have lunch on the sand-dunes in sunshine..and everything dried out. This is the area for all kinds of watersports and the O Neil sign is flying everywhere showing that this is the area for trendy surfer dudes.

Here is water, water everywhere, and you cross it in many ways.

Little ferry

Often it will be on one of these little ferries which chug back and forth every 20 minutes or so.

We’ve been wondering why so many elderly people have been flying past us, bolt upright on their bikes, while we are gasping over our handlebars…and then we twigged, they’ve all had their bikes electrified, bloody cheating I call it!

We arrived in a small town just north of Middleburg to stay with Jan Willem and his family, our next WS host.

JanWillem giving us a whistlestop tour of Middleburg at 8.30.

His charming young son Daniel welcomed us in as a thunderstorm burst upon our heads. It was a good time to stop cycling for the day. Dinner was rustled up and we had a great evening chatting with them all and a good nights sleep while the wind and rain raged outside. This morning the wind direction had changed and the weather forecast for the next week or so is good…yay!

Now we are sitting with a cuppa in the very pretty city of Bruges after we found a campsite not more than 5 minutes cycle from the centre. There are horse and carts everywhere taking tourists around and it is a real mix here of French ish and Dutch ish ..thats Flemish I suppose.

Later

In a den of eniquity somewhere in the depths of Bruges. We’ve had cherry beer at the Bauhaus..suitably scruffy for us and then eaten at a tiny place with home cooking..T’Gantspel. Leek and potato soup, pork casserole and salad, all for 9eu..beat that! Cycling around we spotted steps going down into a cellar and discovered a cavern called t,Poatersgat with over 60 beers for sale. Don’t know if we can try them all but I’m starting with the Lindemans Framboos…suitably pink..hic!  Goodnight.

1st September

The easiest days cycling yet. We’re bowling alongside the canal that goes all the way from Bruges to Ghent with a cyclepath alongside. The sun is up, the sky is blue and there is no wind….bliss. Stopping for coffee by the riverside, we notice there is a mix of French and Dutch, but mainly Dutch. Last night in the little restaurant, the owner told us that one needed to speak 3 or 4 languages here, Dutch, English, French and German….blimey, how much does that put us to shame?

The cafe here is busy this morning as there is a market today. Not coffee for most of the clients here though, beer and cigarettes are the breakfast of choice, and with beer cheaper than tea or coffee at times it’s not suprising.

3rd September

Somewhere in the last half hour, we passed an invisible line that marks the Dutch part of Belgium from the French. Houses are a vendre instead of te koop and villages Bienvenue instead of Welkam.

We cycled down from Ghent yesterday after spending the night with Tine and Tim from Warmshowers. They were a very accommodating couple and we got our wahsing done, our tent dried and a lovely dinner and evening out. Gent (I know I keep changing the spelling…but so does everyone else) is much larger than Bruges with a large cobbled centre full of old buildings, canals and of course tourists.

Rickety house over canal

A window in Bruges

We found a Design museum but only had half an hour so literally ran around it.

Roundabout in Design museum…Bruges

Good collection though. In the evening we went to see some music in one of the squares and then off for some more cherry beer. Mmmm..cherry beer.

Sunday morning after a quick trip to the market, Tim cycled us out to the river we were following for the morning. Tine and Tim had done a cycle tour to Turkey, China and Iran for  six months last year…making our trip seem like small beer, but it was great hearing about it. It is really amazing how far and for how long some people take off on their bikes.

Tim and H

Anyway, with a slight hangover off we went, and soon, like an oasis, a cafe appeared,

a sunday morning hairy dog

 

and today the coffee arrived with a liqueur on the side…it’s a Sunday thing in Belgium apparently. No complaints from us.

 

 

 

This afternoon bought a change as we parted from the river and for the first time on this tour we had to start using our gears and tackle some hills. A bit of a shock to the system it has to be said……and some of the hills are cobbled which is a nightmare on a loaded bike. We were still following the Fiestroute numbers which took us uphill and down dale and we ended up doing 52 miles by the time we got to our campsite (35 had been planned). Everything was closed so we had to break into our emergency tins of Mackeral and liberate some sweetcorn from the fields for dinner. Today we cycle on the map instead of using numbers and we are moving across the country quicker, but on busier roads.

4th Sept

A warm bath, comfortable bed and smoked pork chops for dinner…a delicacy of the Ardennes…that was our wonderful evening in Braine l’Alleud with Fabienne and Luc. Their daughter Camille gave up her bed for us and we were made to feel very welcome. All this hospitality along the way has made this a very easy trip.

This morning we cycled out past Le Butte de Lion,

Le Butte de Lion

This is where Napoleon met his Waterloo……..it’s a very impressive monument.

The countryside now has a familiarity to it which we have both found very pleasing….we had sort of missed it without realising. It’s a rolling downland with plenty of wooded areas and even though it is making us work hard, cycling up then down, we are happy in it. Not sure the Belgian drivers are as careful of cyclists as the the French ones are though. Onwards towards Namur today, hopefully picking up a river halfway there to finish the day on the flat.

5th Sept

A whole morning by a river again and as we come down into South Belgium the countryside is changing around us. The hills are steeper and covered in trees and we have just cycled past a strangely beautiful gravel quarry scooped out of the side of a hill. The houses along the riverside are lovely and very obviously monied.

We’ve been seeing a lot of Japanese Knotweed in the last few days. There didn’t seem to be any in the areas we visited in Holland, and I think it would be a disaster if it got up there. But it is as pernicious here as it is in Normandy and Britain. It obviously thrives by the waterside which then carries bits of it down to grow by the riverbank further down. It is SO invasive you wonder why they don’t keep on top of it……perhaps they can’t….but we have cycled past whole banks of it where nothing else can grow.

6th Sept

Some miles are shorter than others and this morning we have been flying through them. We have reached our lunchtime destination by coffee time so we’re going to take a detour down to Chimay near the French border. This will be our last full day in Belgium as we cross the border tomorrow into France.

We thought we were having an easy day yesterday…until we came upon the spectacular Citadel at Dinant and realised we had cycled the wrong way….bad interpretation of our map.

Citadel at Dinant

However the sight of the fortress hewn into the hillside was worth the detour. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and it went on for quite a way, looking out over the river to originally defend this part of Belgium against the French. Anyway, we had to turn back, but happily found a cycle path along an old railway track that took us exactly where we needed to go.

We had one of our most interesting visits last night with a couple of twin brothers, Jean and Felix Roulin. Felix is a sculptor of some renown and his old house and field outside are full of his work, mainly in bronze.

Felix Roulin   www.felixroulin.be

Jean has been a Curé and a monk all his life, working in Rwanda for many years before coming back to Belgium. Now he is retired and living back at the old farmhouse with his brother. It is an amazing place although as with much old French property, a nightmare of restoration.

The farm of Felix and Jean

Felix has a foundry here also. H didn’t want to leave this morning, he felt quite at home. Still, move on we must, places to go, people to see and happily the road surfaces have improved. The last two days have seen whole tracts of road paved with bloody cobbles. Sometimes, half way down a hill, at full speed, you come across them and end up rattling down into the town with chattering teeth, shaken bones and panniers hanging off the bike.

Cobbled roads…the worst sort

We’ve just had our first coffee in nearly two weeks without a cookie, we had got quite used to them. One of our WS hosts said that the difference between French cyclists and Belgian ones was that the Belgians had to lift their beer guts onto their bikes. Well, I don’t know about that but we have noticed during our cafe stops, how many pissed people there are, drinking the strong Belgian beer. This is often during the morning. There are a lot of ‘Fritures’ and some of the supermarkets have little to buy that is truly nutritious. Most depressingly this morning we were at a local market and it was 95% cheap clothing and crap food and in the middle 2 or 3 stalls with proper food like local grown veg and dairy farm products. All over Europe it seems that while we have the capacity to grow good, nutritious food, it’s the rubbish, processed stuff that is being pushed.

7th Sept

Cold night had us shivering in our sleeping bags and then at 2am we had a visitor in the tent.We heard something snuffling around outside, and then something bumped into H in the tent. He sat bolt upright in a second and there by his hand was a hedgehog. Now there is barely room for the two of us in this little 2kg tent..we don’t so much sleep in it as wear it..and there is certainly no room for a hedgehog who thinks it has found a cosy spot for the night. So, H tried to push it away, forgetting how spiky they are, and then ensued a battle with a reluctant Hedgehog and H with a torch…..eventually it went. Next morning H found it had been into a rucksack, in the tent, and scoffed a very good cheese. Little blighter!

This morning we had our first coffee in France, and we’re having another now back in Belgium as the road we’re on criss crosses the border. We finished our day early yesterday in Chimay and took a much needed afternoon off from cycling. Chimay looks as if it may have become a bit run down and is now being reconstructed with some European funding. Today we’re detouring off again to a place called Sars Poterie…where I’m hoping there will actually be some pottery. Tonight we’re staying with our last WS host on an organic farm.

8th Sept

Recovering after a hectic night on the farm. It’s a lovely place…hectares of organic veg and a brilliant family.

Samuel working on his parents farm

H in the tomato polytunnel

Housemartins (?) in the barn

It was all a bit like The Waltons, in France, on speed.They’re working all hours and never stand still. We just turned up and got on with it, and I cooked dinner for everyone with produce straight out of the garden, such a nice thing to do and right up my street. By the time everyone had got their jobs done and sat down for dinner it was gone 9pm, and then they’re up again before light to load the van and get off to the market. To an outsider coming in it all seemed as if the amount of work needed was overwhelming yet at the same time I felt the same reluctance to leave as H had done from Felix and Jeans place.

A lovely surprise in Sars Poterie, a fantastic museum of glass with a breathtaking exhibiton of glass sculpture called ‘Journal in time’ by Anne-Claude Jeitz and Alain Calliste. I was totally blown away by it and couldn’t decide which of the photo’s to put on the blog….so I have put lots of them.

Glass circle of Fox heads, feet and swinging person

This was the Piece de resistance. It stood about 6ft high (yes really!) and is made in 2 pieces. I asked how they had transported it (always aware of the nightmare of moving ceramic around) and they rolled their eyes and said with great difficulty.

Glass book with carrots

Glass couple

Glass foot on grass with ladybird

This exhibition is on until Febuary 2013 and if you have any interest at all in glass it is a must see.  http://museeduverre.cg59.fr

This is some of the work from their permanent collection:

Glass bowls

Glass person playing flute

Glass men

It seems that Sars Poterie is a centre for glass as there is an ‘Atelier’ not far from the museum with a Glory hole, which offers residencies for glass makers. We did actually find a pottery, and ended up buying some porcelain cups which we now have to transport for the rest of the trip….but at 5 eu each they were irresistible.

Anyway, the cock crowed at silly o clock this morning on the farm…it wasn’t even nearly light, stupid thing, so we are a bit thick headed today. Never mind, the sun shines and off we go.

9th Sept

So yesterday we were in Le Nord/Pas de Calais and today we are in the Ardennes…I think, and we are having a day off. We arrived at the campsite last night at Rumingy to find it abandoned, so we had our first night of wild camping, albeit in plain view of the village. A local lady, Charlotte, gave us a big bottle of water and we set up our tent. H was a bit nervous, he thought we were going to get moved on, but after the local police car drove by, had a look, then drove on, he relaxed.

A lonely tent

This is a village that looks on its last legs. Many of the houses are up for sale and the only businesses open are a tiny patisserie and a bar. We stopped for a beer here, they only had one beer on offer, and chatted to the owners grandson, Benjamin. He said they only had 3-4 customers a day now, but when he was young the place had been buzzing. I don’t know why it is so different in one part of France to another. Over here in Seine Maritime, there seems to have been a massive amount of housebuilding in the last 10-15 years, and yet not more then a few hours away villages are dying off.

Anyway, after our last two disturbed nights a 9pm sleep was called for but again with the cows, rushing river, ringing bells, barking dogs and low base from a party somewhere, it wasn’t the most restful night. So, up with the Lark and off to find some food somewhere. Normally in France the stores are open Sunday morning but then closed until Tuesday, so we were looking for somewhere to get 2 days supplies. We rode through a couple of villages at sunrise then success….a village with a Spar and a cafe…sorted! After a reviving coffee and a sneaky wash in the loos we thought we would press on to todays campsite, then 10km later we came into the prettiest place, Signy l’Abbaye, with a proper Auberge, a municipal campsite, a cafe by a river and a store that is open on mondays. Too irresistible…we calculated that we could easily make up the km tomorrow and so we stopped….and it feels SO good.

A view of the Ardennes…a place renowned for its food

The campsite we are on is a municipal one, and while these can sometimes be a little basic, this one is great. You just set up wherever, and if and when, someone comes along to collect about 5 eu….it’s so cheap. Together with hot, clean showers and a little river running through through the grounds, this is the best one yet.I’ve realised on a tour like this, more time off needs to be built in and so we are taking full advantage and are now sitting at the Auberge de l’Abbaye with a cup of Nepalese tea and a warm choc pudding with home made black cherry sorbet which is even more delish than it sounds. And all is right with the world. This Auberge is stunningly pretty, the menu is mouthwatering, they have rooms upstairs and the prices are not city prices. We want to come back here one day for a weekend and to eat our way through the menu, punctuated with walks through the nearby forests.

 

11th Sept

After our wonderful Sunday (and two more puddings at the Auberge in the evening) we headed down towards Reims across the Champagne region. I am having to time this quite carefully as 2 friends are ‘accidentally’ bumping into us at Reims cathedral and will be cycling back to Paris with us, so I have to be sure we all arrive at the same time.This region has vast, flat tracts of land. I’ve never seen such huge skies. It is a massive agricultural area but we’ve seen no grapes yet. Mainly beet and sunflowers. It is all a bit of a monoculture and reminds one of the big fields across middle America. Luckily it has not been too windy this morning as I would imagine the wind would whip right across this land. Hopefully , later today, we’ll get our first glass of Champagne.

A small part of Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral is stunning….in my opinion better than the Notre Dame in Paris. It is so tall I couldn’t get it all on the camera.

Modern abstract windows

There is also a stunning range of stained glass windows inside the cathedral that they have commisioned over the years,

Window by Marc Chagall

Including this amazing one by the artist Marc Chagall.

14th Sept

We made it! 800 miles, 1,100 km and we sailed into Paris along the Canal de Lourque, with Hamish and Mark who had cycled in with us from Reims. So now it is 7.30am  friday morning and I’ve found a cafe to have a cup of tea while everyone wakes up, and I am just enjoying being back in Paris where everything started for me a long time ago. Like any large city, nothing ever stays the same yet I feel more comfortable here than I ever have in London. We were met in Paris by some more friends yesterday and last night we all went out to a typically Parisien hot spot called Chartier www.restaurant-chartier.com

Chartier

 

 

This place is so popular that you have to turn up and queue to get inside. We were there for nearly 40 minutes before we got in (it’s easier if there are only 2 or 3 of you) but it is a good natured queue and once inside the place is absolutely buzzing and the staff although run off their feet are all friendly (and that’s amazing in itself in Paris!) The food we had was good and cheap…although if you ever find yourself here…do not order the Andouilette! It is an enormous place, all wood, big hanging lights and tiny drawers in all the walls.

 

 

 

So, to arrive here from Reims we cycled on through the Champagne region which is one long river valley which goes on for miles, with rows and rows of vines stretching up into the hills.

 

 

The vines from that well know Champagne

Champagne vines

At the base of all the rows of vines are rose bushes which suffer from the same diseases as the grape vines, so it’s like an early warning system..if the roses are healthy, chances are the vines are healthy. The champagne grapes are black….I had no idea. They are small and very sweet….I had to taste them obvs so I could report this, however this does leave you with very sticky hands on the bike..slightly unpleasant, serves me right.

The day our friends met up with us in Reims was the day the rain arrived too..we had been extraordinarily lucky up until then. So we all had to cycle to Epernay in torrential rain. Never mind, the next day the rain held off and we had a full days ride, up and down the Champagne hills to La Ferté sous Jouarre.

So now here we are in Paris, with a whole day and evening off,

Painted building by the Canal de l’Ourque…a cycle path that leads into Paris

Hamish on his bike (only joking H!)

and although we are all creaking a little, we have just had the best time. Being on a bike, all through Europe, people have just been so friendly, I think that is the main thing that we will remember from this trip, I don’t think we ever stopped once to check our maps and somebody would come over and ask if they could help. Perhaps cycling tourers are the new knights of the road, certainly everyone is interested in where you have been and where you are going, and they always seem willing to help you on your way. We are already planning the next one.

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