Thursday 25th Aug to Sat 27th August
In Which the Wheels Fall Off Before we Even Start
I know that many people find it hard to understand why a group of sexagenarians and septuagenarians would ever contemplate undertaking a trip across Europe by bicycle. Most people our age are exhausted at the prospect of sleeping in an airconditioned tourist bus as it sweeps along a smooth autobahn, why on earth would we want to pedal bicycles up and down hills, into headwinds, through heatwaves and downpours ? While some might think that we could get enough excitement from a weekly round of bingo or by buying a new non stick frypan from the shopping channel, I am so pleased that we have surrounded ourselves with a wonderful group of like minded lunatics who actually are addicted to this type of travel.
I first got the idea of such an extended ride about two years ago and then proceeded to put together the detailed itinerary. By early 2015 the plans were ready and I put out an invitation to anyone else silly enough to join me on such a hair brained escapade. I had originally planned on a group of around 15 or so, but was quite overwhelmed when the first twenty places filled as soon as I shared the details. Over the next three days I had another 20 applications and I had no alternative other than to declare the adventure well and truly full. The problem then was to work out how to cater for a group that was twice as large as anticipated. Of course the answer was to simply pass the problem to Jaclyn and Dana at UTRACKS and let them battle with the logistics. It certainly did throw up some challenges, but somehow it looked like the whole thing could be actually do-able after all.
Over the ensuing eighteen months our participants trained (well some of them did) and prepared for the ride. Whenever we met together the main topic of conversation was what we were going to do on our Grand European Odyssey. Now the time for departure had finally arrived and the dream was about to be turned into a reality.
Such a venture is always a combination of dozens of individual links which have to work together to make a perfect finished product. Our first such link was “how to get the airport at Melbourne?”. Although we had many options – train, taxi, bus, etc, we decided to opt for the simplest alternative of booking a shuttle bus to collect us from our doorstep and deliver us to Tullamarine. The friendly lady on the phone promised that the driver would be there “right at 2.30 pm”. He actually arrived right on time at around 3 pm and then proceeded to make up lost time by doing his best Fangio impersonation all the way to the airport. A real white knuckle affair of passing everything in sight, bouncing over curbs and abusing fellow motorists all the way. It was not the perfect way to de stress before a long flight, but we did set a new record time for Pakenham to Tullamarine.
Since we had now arrived quite early it was too early to check in our luggage. Oh well, a good excuse for the first coffees of the day. We settled down for a coffee and a muffin while we waited for the others to arrive. Although most of our fellow riders were already in Europe, we did have the final six others who would be making the long journey with us. Although Maggie and I were flying with Etihad and the others with Qatar, our two flights were due to depart within a few minutes of each other.
When the check in desk finally opened Maggie and I were happy to be at the front of a very short queue. We rolled our baggage up to the smiling young man at the desk and handed over our passports.
“Is the plane full?”, I asked.
“No not quite”, he replied.
“Any vacancies in business class?”, I nonchalantly added.
“Yes a few”.
Well here’s my chance….
“Any chance of an upgrade?”, I asked, trying to look like the feebleminded elderly gent that I was.
“Yes certainly, but it will cost you $2200 each”.
“Actually we quite enjoy economy class” (lying comes easily to me).
After a few minutes more smiling and chatting to my new friend we finally negotiated our way into a couple of “extra legroom” seats (for a fee) and then went to meet the others. Within a few minutes our group had grown to 6, but there was no sign of the last two. It looked like the two had gone missing before the ride had even started. As it turned out, that was going to be a portent of sinister events to follow.
We returned to the coffee shop for another coffee. By this time we now had Gael and Gerry and Paul and Jan as well as Maggie and me. It was while we were drinking our coffee that Gerry decided to break something (fortunately it was news, not wind), but unfortunately it was bad news, not good news.
“ I nearly didn’t make it tonight”, he started.
I looked at him, waiting for the punchline. There wasn’t one.
He went on to explain that he had been caught in a flash downpour when driving his car that morning and the resulting flood of water across the road caused him to lose control and head straight for the nearest large tree. All 73 years of his life flashed before his eyes and he could not help but regret the fact that he had already paid for his upcoming holiday that was now going to be cruelly snatched out of his grasp at the final moment.
The car did hit the tree, the air bags went off, the car wrapped itself into a warm arboreal embrace, but fortunately Gerry’s near death experience was premature. There was no light at the end of the long tunnel, just a sore reminder of the seat belt’s impact across his chest. Apart from shock and sore muscles, he was OK, but certainly not the ideal way to start an extended trip.
I have to admit that Gerry’s account did unnerve me a little. It sounded like a close call and a reminder that things really can change so dramatically in the blink of an eye. I hoped that all the trip’s mishaps would be over before it began. As it turned out, I was wrong.
After passing through security and immigration very quickly, we met the two missing members of our team and settled down to wait for our respective flights. Maggie and I boarded on time, settled down into our pretend business class seats, stretched our legs out and braced ourselves for the next 13 hours or so.
Although I could never say that I enjoy these long haul flights, at least the extra legroom seats and the high headroom of the A380 did make the flight bearable. It was only when I switched on my phone at Abu Dhabi that I received a message from Douglas. It was more bad news. Apparently the Qatar flight that they were on was delayed no less than 4 hours at Tullamarine. This meant they arrived so late at Dohar that their connecting flight to Amsterdam had already left, leaving them stranded in the Middle East furnace at Dohar. If they were expecting a sympathetic ear from the people at Qatar they were mistaken.
What transpired over the next day was more harrowing than an extended stay in a Philippines’ Prison. The details are too horrible to include in this account, suffice to say that the group was divided into two subsets that were sent on a circuitous combination of planes and trains around Europe in an attempt to get them to the starting point at Bruges by the designated starting time.
In the meantime Maggie and I had arrived at Amsterdam and had staggered to our hotel near Amsterdam Central Station. Our room was smaller than a compact refrigerator and had no air conditioning, but at least it was clean and convenient. After almost 40 hours in transit we could have happily slept on a railroad track. With the unseasonably hot weather we pulled off the heavyweight doonas and threw them to the floor, then climbed onto the top of the mattress and within seconds we were both fast asleep.
The next thing I knew it was 6 am the following morning. We got up and went for a short walk in the pre-dawn. The view of Amsterdam at this time was not the view that most tourists ever get to see. The streets were covered in garbage, upon which hordes of hungry seagulls were fighting over the best spoils. A few homeless tramps were still straggling around looking for a place to sleep. Although it was a somewhat depressing scene, it did give a fascinating insight into the daily routine of a typical city.
Within the next hour the garbage collectors went to work, the street sweepers drove along the footpaths and soon the whole scene transformed into the familiar sight that most tourists see every day. We ate our breakfasts, packed our bags and headed off on the short walk back to Central Station. Soon we were on the high speed Thalys Train speeding towards Antwerp at 300 kph.
The plan had been to meet the rest of the team on the deck of the MS Magnifique at 1 pm and I knew it was going to be a close run affair as to whether we would get there on time or not. I could not help but feel a little like Phineus Fogg on his way to meet the deadline after his trip around the world in eighty days. I imagined the clock on the boat ticking off the minutes while we were battling to beat the hour hand to the top of the face. All the while I was worrying about the fate of those who had unfortunately been “lost in transit”.
We changed trains at the impressive Antwerp Central Station and boarded a local train headed to Oostende. Compared to the Thalys it seemed very pedestrian indeed as it rattled and shaked its way from station to station. I looked at my watch, starting to get anxious.. It seemed like it was taking forever, but eventually we pulled into Bruges Station around 12.30pm. We had less than 30 minutes to navigate to the boat.
“Hurry up Maggie”, I yelled.
“I need a toilet”, she replied. I rolled my eyes. She went in search of a toilet. I waited (and waited and waited). She eventually reappeared with a sheepish look on her face. “I got lost on the station”, she explained as if it was perfectly normal. People just don’t appreciate that this is the sort of stuff I have to put up with all the time.
We bolted out into the hot afternoon sunshine, dragging our cases up and down footpaths, through parks, over bridges, through traffic and finally found the boat with about 2 minutes to spare. It had been a close call but my reputation for punctuality was intact. Now I could return my attention to the 6 lost sheep.
The rest of the afternoon was spent welcoming each team member and sharing stories of how tough the journey had been. “Our plane had been violently thrown from side to side and up and down – and then the real turbulence started”, someone shared. “Our flight was the worst in history”, someone else added. “We saw our pilot reattaching the right wing with gaffer tape”, I contributed. There is little doubt that the getting to the start line is by far the worst part of all such trips but, once we get started, the real fun begins.
Our lost six finally staggered up the gang plank – eyes blank, nerves completely shot, bodily functions all but ceased. They were not a pretty sight. I thought it best not to ask what they thought of Qatar Airlines.
Although it had been an eventful start to our adventure, at least everyone was finally here. I wondered what the next six weeks would bring.
After a beautiful dinner we had a late night guided walk around Bruges. I think it was amazing, but I can’t be sure because I was unconscious for most of the time. I stumbled back onto the boat around 11 pm and collapsed onto my bed. It went dark, I fell into a deep sleep. The adventure was finally beginning.
Sunday 28th Aug
In Which Bitter Battles Break Out at Breakfast
Our 2016 European Odyssey Ride is actually a four part ride, the first section (or “Prologue”) takes place between Bruges and Amsterdam. Our home for that first section is the aptly named Magnifique, a delightful and character filled timber barge. It can accommodate a maximum of 32 passengers and we have fully booked the entire boat for the Ghostriders. Since most of us have never done this sort of bike/barge option before, the first couple of days are obviously going to constitute something of a learning curve as we adapt to the particular challenges of living aboard a floating hotel.
On arrival we were introduced to our Captain Roy. Someone pointed out that he looked about 14 years old (I guess we really are getting old, when even other old people start looking young). We also met Tom who was to be our cycling guide and resident comedian for the first section. Tom is a tall, skinny young (everyone is) Dutchman with a Shirley Temple hairdo. His first briefing included a complicated explanation of sequences of numbers like the Enigma Code of WWII fame. Since most of us were too tired to take any notice, we immediately decided that the best approach would be to completely ignore all the maps and instructions and just follow him instead.
Our alarm went off at the usual time of 6 am and I was tempted to walk up and down the corridor, banging on all the doors. Surely they should all be awake by then ? Apparently they weren’t. Some seem to be able to sleep for much longer periods of time, thus wasting the best part of the day.
Breakfast was served at 8 am, an elaborate affair with starched white tablecloths and candelabra on every table (just like breakfast at home). We set down to dine on freshly squeezed orange juice, muesli, fruit, fresh bread, meat and a host of other treats. Ken obviously enjoyed the orange juice too much as he proceeded to fill an enormous beer glass to overflowing, thus almost emptying the entire carafe
“Only one glass”, she reminded Ken.
“Sorry”, Ken replied guiltily.
“And by the way, where did you find that huge glass?”, she added.
“In the big tray, behind the sink”, he answered.
“They are the unwashed beer glasses from last night”, she informed him.
Oh well we all make mistakes, we are old people after all.
Part of the daily routine is for each person to make up their own picnic lunch from a variety of ingredients. The idea is to fill a bag with your selected choices and bring it with you on the ride. We all happily started filling the bags with bread rolls, fruit, drinks, etc. But that was where the trouble started.
“I can’t find my lunch”, John started
“I’ve forgotten where I put my bag, where is it ?”, someone else moaned.
“Is that it ?”
“No, I don’t fold the top like that”
“Are you sure ?”
“Why has (name removed) got my lunch ?”
“It’s not your lunch, it’s mine”
“(Name removed) has two lunches”
“Your lunch is bigger than mine”
“You didn’t really make an egg sandwich did you?”
“Not in this weather”
“That was your lunch, why are you eating it now?”
“Was that lunch ?”
“Is that your lunch, or mine ?”
“Oh, perhaps that was mine all along, I can’t remember”
And so it went on, and on and on.
I suspect that this will be another part of every morning. It is not easy trying to travel with a group of people who are all rapidly hurtling into senility and perpetual forgetfulness.
Somehow the lunches finally got sorted and we gathered with our bikes for the obligatory photoshoot before the ride itself got under way. We jostled for position alongside the boat, smiled to the camera and were finally ready to go.
Everything went well for about 200 metres before Douglas (aka Lucky Lee) complained. Surely he couldn’t need coffee already? The rest of our large group waited while Tom examined Douglas’ bike. Apparently it had “gone all funny” and could not be ridden. A new bike was produced and we were finally underway.
The first day’s ride was around 60 km and was a perfect introduction to this type of riding. For those who had not ridden the European style of bikes, they took some time to adapt to the upright posture and wide seats. “I’m not riding a ladies bike”, David moaned. “We all are”, I reminded him.
The biggest danger we faced on these delightful bike paths was the real probability of being skittled by a Flying Flem on a road bike. Since there are no mountains here, the only way the local boy racers can get their thrills is by flying along the narrow bike paths at breakneck speed. Anyone in their way is in real danger of being knocked into the canal alongside. This danger is made worse by the fact that they never use their bells or warnings to let us know that they are racing up from behind. We hoped that they would all be back at work tomorrow and the paths would be much quieter.
At least the weather was perfect – blue skies, a gentle wind and a temperature in the mid twenties. This was a huge contrast to the appalling day we had on the first day of our 2015 France Ride.
The main highlight of the day’s ride was the impressive medieval city of Ghent. We had a couple of hours to explore the old city centre I was pleased that they had obviously heard of our arrival in the town and had planned some sort of special celebration and market to welcome us. We certainly didn’t disappoint them and our bright yellow jerseys meant that we easily stood out in the large crowd.
Maggie and I joined with David and Carol, in search of Belgian chocolates and a cup of famous hot chocolate. We walked and walked but not a hot chocolate in sight. We got tired, but finally found a place promising the best hot chocolate in Ghent.
We ordered our drinks and sat down to wait. Unfortunately the anticipation was better than the product. The drinks tasted more like hot milk than hot chocolate. It was a big letdown. We also took the opportunity to try out some little cone shaped treats which were being sold all over the city. Apparently they are a famous feature of Ghent and we were told that they tasted like wild berries.
As we sat lamenting the hot chocolate we passed around the little purple treats, hoping that they would be really delicious. They weren’t.
“They taste like jam”, I commented
“Jam tastes better than these”, Carol added
“I meant toe jam” I explained.
We all burst out in hysterical fits of uncontrollable laughter, while everyone stared at the disgusting old people in the chocolate shop.
“Perhaps we should do a runner”, I suggested
“With these shirts we should be able to blend into the crowd”.
We finally augmented our hot chocolates by adding our chocolates into the hot milk and stirring them in.
The first day finished with another 10 km to our waiting boat. It was a relief to climb off the broad seat, lock the bikes and prepare for dinner. It really had been a great start and everyone did an amazing job.
Monday August 29th
In Which we Doddle into Dendermonde
The second day of any extended ride can always be a little trying in many ways. Bottoms that were punished by riding on an unfamiliar bike seat for many hours have to again front up (or back up ?) for another dose before the previous damage has healed. Grumpy old men (and even grumpier old women) have to start getting along with other, finally realising that they are going to have to live with them for the next 6 weeks. Some who found the first day’s riding a little harder than they expected may even begin to doubt whether they will have the stamina to complete the ride they have committed to.
My first look out the porthole at 6 am also showed that we would also face a new challenge – teeming rain. In complete contrast to the previous few days, the skies had opened up and the temperature had dropped. The decks were flooded with water. I wondered how the rest would react when they finally emerged from their nocturnal hibernation and saw what they would be confronting.
I needn’t have worried. By the time we had finished breakfast the rain had stopped and by the time we climbed on the bikes the clouds were already beginning to break up. The earlier rain had actually freshened the air to give us absolutely perfect riding conditions.
Like the well disciplined team that we were we formed into a lengthy conga line of riders and began our circuitous route around the Flemish countryside. It is always surprising how the nature of a region can change in such a short distance and already we could see a distinct change between the houses and villages we were riding through compared to those we had seen yesterday. Lisa also pointed out that the cows had also changed – “These cows have wider bottoms”, she pointed out with a straight face.Such a unique insight !
Somewhere around mid morning we pulled to the side of the road to ooh and ahh in front of a paddock of coloured begonias and roses. I had earlier discovered that, since the gears on our bikes were internal hub gears, we could actually change gears while we were stationary. I decided to put this to the test. I pulled up alongside Dave and asked to check his mounted GPS unit.
At the same time I secretly rotated his gear selector to Number 7 (the highest gear possible). I was curious to see his reaction when he started to ride away.
You could imagine how disappointed I was when he climbed on the bike and just rode away as if nothing had changed. I assumed that he must have seen my mischief and quickly selected the appropriate gear. It was only when we stopped for lunch about 10 km later that I found that the gear selection was still on 7 ! He hadn’t even noticed. When I asked him he merely said that he “thought his legs were a little tired”. Either he is excessively strong or unbelievably stupid. The reader can decide which is true.
Our destination for the day was the pretty town of Dendermonde and we found our barge moored on the outskirts of the city. Since we arrived around 3 pm we had plenty of time to shower and catch up with overdue laundry. It had been a thoroughly delightful day.
Wednesday August 31st
In Which I Catch a Red Faced Bike Thief Red Handed
There is little doubt that, when planning a six week bike ride across Europe, we will encounter every type of weather along the way. When you are a cyclist you must continue to ride in both fair weather and foul. While some are content to cocoon themselves away in air conditioned buses, the long distance rider has no such defence against the elements. The upside of this is that there really is nothing quite so sublime as cycling alongside a river in the early morning, when the sun is still low in the sky and the air as fresh and clear as crystal.
Once again we awoke to a perfect morning. Although my backside was still very tender from riding on an unfamiliar fat bike seat I was keen to get rolling. I wheeled my bike to a suitable start position and waited while the rest of the peloton formed around me. Soon we were all raring to start. Tom lead out and the rest of the yellow shirted riders lined up behind in a long conga line
I had decided to take up a position near the rear but, before I could start, I could hear Gerry was not happy. “Where is my bike?” he called as he was getting increasingly more anxious. It looked like someone had been at the bikes during the night and stolen one of them. Not a great start to the day I thought. I rode around the vicinity helping Gerry search for his bike, but it could not be found anywhere. Fortunately there was still another (presumably spare) bike remaining in the car park. “What number is that one ?” I asked Gerry. “Number 27”, was his reply.
Number 27, Number 27, why did that sound familiar ? Probably because it was the number of my bike. To my utter shame I discovered that I had been merrily riding around on Gerry’s missing bike, helping him look for the thief. I swapped bikes, trying to pretend that I had done it on purpose for a joke, but it was not my brightest moment. The morning had already gotten off to a less perfect start when I was too slow to grab a roll from the basket and then had to set off without any lunch. Maybe I was still in the middle of a sulk when I picked the wrong bike.
Finally Gerry was astride the correct bike (and I was back on mine) and we set off in pursuit of the rest of the group.
The first few kilometres wound back and forth along the meandering river bank. The sunshine gradually dispelled the chill of the evening and all were in very high spirits as we chatted and pedalled our way along.
A short distance along we came to riverside sanctuary where there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. It was surrounded by a peaceful cool haven of shady trees and flowers. A small booklet allowed riders and walkers to record their prayer requests. Another feature of this lovely place was an outdoor toilet behind a 1 metre high screen. It was possible to take a relaxing “comfort break” sitting here surrounded by the beauty of nature. Rome might have the Sistine Chapel but only Belgium has the Cistern Chapel.
Out lunch stop was a large outdoor rest area where we met quite a number of fellow cyclkists from other bike/barge tours. David was a little appalled when he discovered that the Gent’s toilet was an open urinal where all the passing ladies could walk by only a few feet away from the men passing. The embarrassment was so much that he found that he could not get nature to take its course. In fact his bladder only decided to fully release its contents a couple of minutes after he had hitched up his shorts.Life is like that sometimes.
Our destination for the day was the large city of Antwerp.
Although it does have some older sections, it certainly could not be called a Medieval City. Many of the sections were obviously only constructed quite recently. It appeared to a relatively clean city but I could not help but feel that it was a little too austere for my liking.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the city centre before riding the short distance to our boat which was moored in the nearby huge port. This short ride was made all the more interesting by the fact that it took us directly through the red light district. Even in the mid afternoon all the shop fronts and doorways were occupied by scantily clad young (and some not so young) women trying to sell themselves to passersby. A somewhat sad side to life in the big city.
That evening we all dispersed to various restaurants around the harbour area. It was a beautiful warm evening and a wonderful opportunity to get to know some of our fellow travellers better. It had been a terrific day, even with the less than perfect start.
Wed 31st August
In Which a Mutiny is Planned
Today started with an extended boat ride out of Antwerp, through several locks and alongside massive port facilities. It was fascinating to watch the way that the water is controlled inside the locks in order to raise or lower the ships inside. Since we seldom see such goings on in Australia, several of our participants decided to stay out on the desk so that they wouldn’t miss anything. They didn’t.
While we were safe and dry inside the lounge, Pauline stood proud on the prow – just in time to catch a veritable deluge of slimy green water cascading down from the huge gate. It left her completely saturated, and also left the rest of us in hysterics.
She stood on the deck with the water dripping from her clothes and pretended that it was all planned that way.
Today was the day that we crossed from Belgium in Holland and our first impressions of the new country were that it was sparsely populated and very waterlogged. And yes, it was also VERY FLAT. No wonder that the Dutch have spent much of their history trying to devise ingenious ways of surviving in such adverse conditions. The entire region is crisscrossed with an elaborate network of canals and drainage channels – and yes there are also large windmills all over the place as well.
Our first lunch stop in Holland was at a lovely hotel/cafe by the bike path. I almost accidentally left without paying the bill (serves the owner right for trusting the memories of people our age). A little further away we passed through Willemstadt – a prosperous looking town with a marina full of pretentious large boats. It soon became obvious that people who own such vessels never actually sail them – they just sit on the decks drinking and smoking and trying to impress those who pass by.
It was somewhere along the way that Lynda happened to spy a bike shop
She immediately stopped and announced that she “had to buy something”. She rushed inside and returned a few minutes later with brand new pair of cycling gloves. Apparently she had lost her previous pair somewhere and need a replacement. It was not until the end of the day’s ride, when she took off her helmet that she found where she had packed the original gloves. They were safely inside her helmet and she had actually been wearing them on her head for the entire ride.
We found our familiar boat waiting for us at the wharf in Dordrecht. In Holland’s wealthy past this town was actually the second largest city, but now its position has been overtaken by Rotterdam. After a superb dinner of salmon and mashed potato we went on an evening walk around the city. It was yet another perfect, warm summer’s evening with the northern constellations twinkling overhead.
It was also about this time that a few of us came to an interesting discovery. Thanks to Europe’s intricate network of rivers and canals, it would actually be possible for the Magnifique to take us all the way to Budapest. All we would have to do is take Captain Roy, throw him overboard and then take control of the boat
Paul had once hired a Bull’s Cruiser at Meetung, so we already had some experience about driving boats. I had a working GPS and a couple of walkie talkies. I am sure that we had a range of other skills among the other passengers so it would not be hard to form a working crew. Could you imagine the fun we could have on our pirated vessel as we took it across the continent ? It would surely reach the news services and capture the imagination of elderly citizens the world over. We also figured that, at our age, at least we wouldn’t have to languish long in prison. It would be thoroughly worth it.
It had been yet another wonderful day
Thursday September 1st
In Which we Get Surrounded by Daleks
When you talk about Holland, the first thought that comes into most people’s minds is a windmill. Up until today today the only windmill I had ever seen was in my children’s book “The How and Why Wonder Book of Windmills”. It seems the Dutch have been blessed with such a flat and low lying country that they have to spend almost all of their waking hours trying to preserve their fragile little piece of territory from being completely swamped by a massive inrush of water.
I well remember hearing my grade three teacher telling us about the little boy who saved his nation by sticking his finger in the dike. Of course at the time, I thought it was a true story and I thought that there was a statue somewhere to commemorate his bravery. Now I am shattered to discover that none of it was true.
Although there was apparently no brave boy with his finger in the dike, the rest of his nation did their bit by inventing wind powered pumping machines to keep lifting the water from the low lying fields and depositing into the higher canals.
A couple of hundred years ago there were thousands of these incredible engineering works, but now only several hundred remain in use.
Our day began with a short trip on the waterbus from Dordrecht to Kinderdijk.This is one region where the landscape is still dotted by rotating windmills, even though nowadays their function has largely been replaced by large electric pumps. It certainly makes an interesting sight seeing these towering structures scattered across the paddocks. I could not help but think that they looked a bit like giant Daleks on the rampage. I could almost hear the dreaded cry of “Kill, Destroy, Annihilate” emanating from the nearby monsters.
We learned that every remaining windmill is actually inhabited by a family – the windmill is their home. The head of the house must be a certified miller in order to legally live there. We were able to examine the insides of a typical windmill and see just how minute the millers must be. After all, the beds are only about 4 foot long. At least each bed was equipped with a compact en suite toilet in the form of a china chamber pot at the foot of each bed. I tried not to think too much about spending the night accompanied by the smell of warm urine, but I suppose it did act like a sort of hot water bottle on the coldest winter evenings.
It is also worth adding that the name “Kinderdijk” comes from the account that a small baby was found floating in a small basket in the floods at this point. Accompanying the baby was a cat that was carefully making sure that the basket did not tip over.
As we were about to head off from Kinderdijk, we discovered that our tally of riders was down by one. A check of names revealed that it was Lynda who was missing. Some time later she was discovered doing some gift shopping in the souvenir shop. With all the sheep finally back in the fold we were able to continue our journey.
It was another perfect day for cycling. The early morning clouds soon disappeared, the sky turned blue and another lovely tail wind blew us along our way to the north. I have to reluctantly take the credit for yet another triumph of impeccable planning.
Morning tea was at the small settlement of Schoonhaven, although the toilets were not kind to any men with bashful bladders as they had large windows just above waist level which meant that you could maintain eye contact with the large group of people who were standing just a few metres outside the toilet, while you were trying hard to get something to take place a little lower down
A lot of the day’s riding took place along the tops of huge dikes. The narrow bitumen track on the top provides a great bike path, but it also serves as a road for vehicles as well. As we rode along my mind started to hum the well known Monty Python tune “Always look on the bright side of Life”. In deference to the local conditions I did alter the words a little-
“When you’re very old and inclined to do things wrong
Remember as you’re pedalling along
Look straight ahead
Or you’ll likely end up dead
And – Always Ride on the Right Side of the Road.
Always ride on the right side of the road, da da da and so on”
About 10 km further on we left the top of the dike to take another toilet break. Maggie and Douglas did not think they needed to stop so decided to conserve energy by stopping on the top of the dike. Since we could not coax them down we decided to play a cruel trick on them instead.
Instead of heading back up the road to the top of the dike we rode off in the opposite direction, wondering just how long they would delay before taking off after us. When they finally started to panic and came down to catch up to us, we calmy U turned and rode back to them. Fortunately they saw the humour. It is little moments like this that help to make such long distance rides so much fun.
As we approached Vianen we passed through a succession of settlements where just about everywhere was crisscrossed with drainage trenches, all filled with stagnant green water. Douglas almost got to test it out as a swimming hole as he suddenly took a sharp turn to avoid a collision and headed directly to the putrid water. It could have been nasty, but somehow disaster was narrowly averted.
We finally arrived at the familiar waiting boat at around 5 pm. Our pit stop for the evening was the town of Vianen.
Friday September 2nd
In Which we Arrive at the City of Bikes
The final day of any ride is always tinged with a mixture of elation and sadness. In some ways it is a wonderful feeling to complete the task that we have anticipated for so long, yet at the same time I don’t think that anyone really wants it to finish. We really were blessed with a fantastic group of riders and we all enjoyed (just) about every minute of the ride from Bruges to Amsterdam. For several of our riders it was their first ever adventure with the Ghostriders and I really hope that it won’t be their last.
This final section was only about 50 km in length so we knew that it would not be too onerous, especially as our familiar tailwind was still blowing steadily to assist us on our way.
A short distance along the way we stopped at a working cheese farm to observe how a small (100 head) operation functions.
I think the owner’s name was “Colby” (a pretty suitable name I thought for a cheesemaker) and she showed us how the baby female cows are given an opportunity to produce milk, while their unfortunate male siblings are taken on a one way holiday to the veal factory. I looked at all the cobwebs on the roof and the cow manure underneath and wondered whether standards for hygiene in Dutch farms may be a little slacker than the pristine sheds I have seen in Australian dairy farms.
Colby did show us all the correct way to slice cheese with a Norwegian cheese slicer. “I want one “, said Maggie. I bought two, expecting to also be given a set of steak knives (but there weren’t any). With the new cheese slicers in my pannier we set off again towards Amsterdam.
One essential feature of all such group rides is the daily appointment of the “Sweeper”. The role of the sweeper is to always ride at the rear of the peloton and take care of any stragglers who have dropped behind or lost their way. You might imagine that the job of the sweeper is not a very popular one, however I have had no problem in getting volunteers. This is probably because being the sweeper also brings with it the privilege of being custodian of one of our CB radios. I am usually the custodian of the other radio and this enables me to be notified of any problem (crash, puncture, photo delay, etc) that may be holding up riders at the rear
I can then alert the rest of the group to slow down or stop, until the stragglers are reabsorbed into the group.
When we stopped for morning tea Pascale produced something of a surprise from her pannier. It was one of the CB radios. Now how did that get there ? Of course I first accused the sweeper of having been careless with one of my valuable radios, but the sweeper (Gavan) immediately showed that his radio was still safely in his care. This was starting to get embarrassing. Now where was my CB ? It was no longer in my pannier. How could that happen ? At first I accused Pascale of blatant theft, but I suspect that the real reason was much closer to home. Since all the bikes look very similar, the evidence was pointing to my own personal incompetence. Apparently I had packed the radio into the wrong pannier by mistake at the start of the ride.I grabbed the radio back, packed it into my pannier, and tried to pretend it didn’t happen.
We all knew what a complete nightmare the bicycle menace of Amsterdam constituted, even though Tom had promised that it was “quite easy from this side”. It wasn’t. We soon found ourselves battling with a sea of bicycles and also about 400 runners doing some sort of fun run. I suppose such challenges are one reason why the population of Holland is steadily decreasing.
We dodged and weaved our way along the teeming path and then proceeded to cross a huge bridge ( a bit like the West Gate Bridge, but just for bicycles). If this didn’t kill us all nothing would. With bicycles coming at us from every direction, I wasn’t really surprised when a tiny (very tiny) little car also came driving along the path as well. Why not ? After all it looked a bit like the tiny plastic car my grandchildren have such fun in, except this one had an engine.
By a sheer miracle of nature and a temporary suspension of the laws of probability we all avoided fatal accidents and actually arrived at the Magnifique in high spirits, It was time for congratulations and hugs as we parked our bikes for the last time. Thirty riders started and all thirty riders finished this first section. We now have a short break before resuming our Odyssey Ride to Budapest. Some 9 riders will be leaving us in Amsterdam, while others will be joining us for the next leg.
After our final dinner on the boat we climbed aboard a rocking wooden boat for a cruise around the elaborate canal networks of Amsterdam. A gentle rain started falling and I reminded everyone that this was the first rain we had seen since we left Bruges a week earlier.
One of those doing her very first Ghostrider Adventure was Betty Taylor. I had known Betty and her husband Phil for many years and had often invited them to join us on a trip. It was hard to believe that they had finally gotten sick of my perpetual nagging and agreed to come along to shut me up. Betty captivated us all with a beautiful poem that she had written about the trip and the people that she had shared the adventure with.It almost sounded like they were glad they had come along. I never ceased to be amazed at the diverse sets of talents that I find in every group of people.
Thanks so much to all those who shared section one, you are all champions.
Editor’s Postscript – Betty’s Poem
After months of trepidation
The day had finally come
We were to meet on the Magnifique
The promise of lots of fun
A welcome hug from Dennis
Made us feel right at home
I knew at that moment
Our fate was set in stone
The months of lack of training
The fear of falling off
All melted into oblivion
The barge was far from rough
Candelabras on the tables
White table cloths all pressed
Exquisite floral crockery
The barge was beautifully dressed
The crew were all so friendly
And work so very hard
Captain Roy at the helm
Ingeborg on the guard
Chef Raymon left quite quickly
Chef Peter saved the day
Jens always in the background
Aida helping without delay
And now we come to our guide Tom
A presence beyond words
His curly hair a relative
Of sheep of many herds
Perhaps that’s why he is so good
At dealing with the group
He rides up front
And we all follow like a little troupe
There’s Lou up front
Who likes to speed
He also likes
A very good feed
And at the back
Our sweepers all
We occasionally need
To give them a call
But fit young Douglas
Manages to ride
Back and forth
To be our guide
And Dennis Milling
Is always there
When turning corners
To make us aware
Of the direction we’re going
The twists and the turns
Managing the traffic
The bollards and curves
Then there’s Pauline and Gonnie
Teaching us their ways
Helping us out
With a Dutch word or phrase
There’s Janna our queen
Always on the move
With endless energy exploring
Wanting to improve
And smiling John Hill
The friendliest of us all
Who says hello to everyone
Even the birds that call
Pascal is always the joker
And Mary’s full of grace
Royce is the quiet thinker
While Peggy sets a cracking pace
Fran is always smiling
And John R loves to sing
Lisa’s always helpful
Carol loves a fling
Maggie’s chief photographer
And Geoff knows how to dance
Gavin’s our belly dancer
And Brigitte was born in France
Diane does lots of research
David’s the butt of jokes
Which he accepts good naturedly
From all the cheeky folks
Ross is one of the quiet ones
Like Ken and Paul and Jan
The sensitive,caring,creative group
A must for any clan
Rhonda loves the bushes
Gael and Gerry are a pair
Lynda loves her windmills
Dennis wants us to be fair
So now the sea of faces
Have all become our friends
So thank you Dennis kindly
We’re sad our trip now ends.
Thanks for a great holiday
Betty and Phillip
Saturday September 3rd
In Which Carol is Saved by a Friendly Teapot
Our first full day in Amsterdam began with our final breakfast on board the Magnifique. Since the boat would be taking on a new batch of passengers within a few hours, it was fascinating to see how the whole transition process took place. While we were in the dining room enjoying our final breakfast, the crew were already stripping the beds and preparing the linen for the next occupants.
At this stage our team was splitting into multiple components. Some would be leaving the Odyssey Ride completely, others would be making their way independently to Donaueschingen and the rest would be scattering to hotels around Amsterdam.
Our preferred hotel was the Amsterdam Hotel Wiechmann, situated right on the intersection of two canals and about 1 km from the city centre. We had last stayed there in October last year and really loved the place.
While it is not a modern hotel, it is steeped in character and has a glorious outlook on the canals and the bike fuelled chaos that is Amsterdam. The front window has a very distinctive display of china teapots and inside the lounge room is an eclectic mixture of other memorabilia (including a canon and a suit of armor).
Since there were 12 of us who would be staying in the same hotel we decided to book three taxis to take us from the boat to the hotel. We gave a final handshake and wave to the Captain and crew and bundled our gear into the taxi for the short ride to the Wiechmann. It cost us each 5 Euro, but it was well worth the money for the saving in energy and shoe leather. I was also not confident that the wheels on some of the bags would withstand the punishment of a 2 km walk on cobblestones.
It is a comforting feeling to arrive at a hotel and find that your booking had been correctly received. It was even more comforting to find that my computer remembered the WiFi password from my previous visit and that we were to stay in the same room we had used last time. It really was like coming home.
After climbing the staircase to our room on the first floor (you do not “walk” up Dutch stairs, you really do climb up them like a ladder) and dropping our luggage in the room, it was time to take a walk around the city.
While the women decided to walk to the Rembrandt House and soak up some culture, it did not really appeal to the men in the group. After a little discussion we decided to visit Gunther Van Hagen’s famous display of dissected human corpses instead. I was sure it would be an uplifting experience as the theme was “The Happiness Project”.
Thus David, Ross and myself headed back into the centre of the city and the Bodyworlds Museum. On the way there I couldn’t help but hum along to myself that well known song “We’re off to see some Gizzards”. On arrival at the ticket office I presented my senior’s card (actually they took one look at me and took my word for my age) as well as the discount coupon from the hotel and thus secured a rare “double discount”on the entry price. David and Ross, being not so bright, missed out and paid the imbecile’s surcharge instead.
We spent the next hour wandering among the exhibits of preserved bodies doing some amazing things, including two amorous cadavers who were forever preserved in the act of procreation. Other displays clearly demonstrated the damage done to the lungs by smoking and the terrible effects of alcohol on a drinker’s liver. (Judging by the vast amount of smoking and drinking that the Dutch seem to perpetually engage in, it seems that not many of the locals have actually visited this museum).
Actually the whole display was very tastefully done and left an indelible impression of just how wonderful our bodies are.
We had arranged to meet the women back at the hotel at 1 pm and we were there with a few minutes to spare. The women were nowhere in sight. We waited. And waited. Still no sign. Eventually a phone call from one of them was received. Apparently they had got lost along the way and had no idea of where they were. They told us not to wait any longer. We didn’t. It was time for lunch.
Much later in the afternoon, when the ladies had finally returned, Maggie and I headed once more to the centre of the city. Maggie was determined to see the Banksy Exhibition and I was just as determined to find a quiet, secluded spot to have a cup of coffee. She went to the exhibition, but as for the quiet secluded spot – forget it. We had arrived at Amsterdam right in the middle of some sort of drunken bacchanalia. All over the city were seas of noisy young people, many in fancy dress and ALL in various stages of intoxication. Those that were not busy swallowing beer were swinging their cameras around on the end of long selfie sticks. There was a very real danger of losing an eye (and probably your wallet as well).
Since I am not a fan of crowds of people, this was definitely not my type of scene.
I was really glad that our hotel was on the outskirts of town, rather than in the middle of this maelstrom. When she emerged from the exhibition I told her that I had seen enough for one day and that it was time for dinner. Somehow we managed to find the same little Italian Pizza Shop that we discovered last year and had a wood fired pizza dinner.
When we arrived back at the hotel the others were still deciding where to go for dinner. It was somewhat of a relief to be able to tell them that we had completed our exercise for the day and would be going to our room instead.
While I love Amsterdam, I definitely could not spend too much time in such a crowded place. When we were here last year it was much later in the year and the crush of tourists had already disappeared. The tragedy is that, for many tourists, this is their only experience of Europe. I was so glad that we will soon be back on the bikes and in the relative solitude of the bike paths and back roads.
The next morning we heard that Carol had gotten a little lost on the way back from dinner. Well actually very lost. She was convinced that the canals had been shifted and wandered around for ages looking for the hotel sign. It was only when she finally saw a line of teapots that she knew she was safely home. It is worth reiterating that the most important thing to always note when in any unfamiliar city is the name and location of your own hotel. Look for distinctive landmarks and features that will guide you back home (or better still – buy a GPS).
Sunday September 4th
In Which Ken Illegally Cooks the Raisins
One of the lovely features of the Wiechmann Hotel is the beautiful little breakfast room, right on the corner of the ground floor. It is a joy to enjoy breakfast each morning while watching the hundreds of bicycles pass by just a couple of metres away on the other side of the window.
Maggie and I had a slight sleep in and were a little late arriving for breakfast. We found the rest of the team were already there, thoroughly enjoying their first meal of the day. The array of foods includes a large toasting machine and an array of breads and other condiments. The only restriction, written in large BOLD PRINT above the toaster is “DO NOT TOAST RAISIN BREAD IN THIS TOASTER”. I had visions of melting raisins falling into the insides of the machine and causing irreparable damage. Although it looked pretty clear to me, you could understand my surprise when I found Ken Lister merrily tucking into a large stack of freshly toasted raisin bread.
He looked slightly guilty when I mentioned that he had broken the first commandment of the breakfast room.
Since we had already had enough of crowds, Maggie and I decided to walk away from the centre of town to the Vondelpark. This is a huge area of parkland, bike paths, shady trees and tea rooms. We had spent time here on our previous visit to Amsterdam and loved the relative quietness of the area. We watched the numerous joggers, walkers and cyclists while we enjoyed a coffee and cake and then walked back towards the nearby Museum Complex. When I saw the huge lines of people waiting for entry, it took all of about 3 seconds to make the decision that I was not that interested in going inside. When I see hundreds of people all heading the same direction, something inside me always makes me want to go in the exact opposite direction. I have never been one to do something, just because everyone else was doing it.
I heard some music coming from nearby and decided to follow that instead. It led me to a blind accordionist who was playing with exquisite skill. It was hard to believe that he was only playing an accordion and not a church organ. This also gave me the ideal chance to empty my wallet of all the coins that had been accumulating there over the past week.
I emptied the entire contents into his tray, pleased that I could now close the flap on my coin compartment.
Near the Rijk Museum is the diamond centre of Amsterdam. The impressive cluster of buildings that constitutes the Coster Diamond Conglomerate is probably a regular visiting location for the rich and famous, but it is also an interesting place to watch diamond cutters actually doing their craft. Another attraction is that it is free to enter (and it is never crowded).
Maggie and I entered through the secure checkpoint and spent some time watching the workers inside. Unfortunately, because it was Sunday, it was a little quiet inside. A snappily dressed salesman sidled up to us and started to do his well rehearsed spiel about the value of diamonds. I nodded my head sagely as he explained colour and facets and gave me a loupe to examine a huge shining diamond. I tried to squint through the thing but couldn’t see a thing. “It’s beautiful”, I lied. “It is for sale”, he explained.”I only like the larger ones”, I answered. He didn’t believe me, but proceeded to usher us through the various parts of the sales rooms, past huge glittering showcases full of overpriced stones.
Somehow I was not really surprised when he quickly lost interest in us and directed us towards the cubic zirconium cheap copies at about 40 Euros each.
Maggie tried on a few rings but quickly discovered that the sizes were only made for very small fingers. It was obvious that the main customers were cashed up Chinese visitors.
It was only when we were out of the building that I noticed that there was a large stain down the front of my trousers from an unfortunate accident that had happened while eating a pizza the previous night. I guessed that probably gave a good indicator that we would not be in the market for any 500,000 Euro sparklers anytime soon.
By this time we were starting to wilt so decided to start to make our way back towards the hotel. We had not gone far before I noticed a well dressed young woman leaning up the side of a doorway. There was something not right about her. She seemed unaware of her surroundings and was simply staring blankly into space. As I watched she slowly slid down the wall and slumped to the ground, surrounded by a puddle of her own vomit. Although some might try to paint a rosy image of legal drug taking and excessive drinking, I think that the reality is less than perfect. I really didn’t know how to respond to this unfortunate young girl, but judging from the indifferent attitudes of the other passers by, I got the impression that such sights are common here.
I was glad to back at the hotel and some quiet time in our room to think about the events of the day. There is no doubt that Amsterdam is a captivating city with some amazing characteristics, but I was ready to move on. I could not help but feel that I wanted to be back on the bike, exploring some quiet bike path, far away from the jostling, selfie taking crowds.
Tomorrow we will be back on bike, but not the type that require pedalling. We have arranged to hire a bunch of Vespa Scooters to explore the countryside on the outskirts of the city.Although none of us have ever ridden a scooter before, we have seen pretty silly looking people riding them, so it can’t be too hard. I will let you know how we go.
Monday September 5th
In Which we Embrace our Dark Sides
I am not sure who came up with the original idea, but I gather it was some sort of collaborative effort between Maggie and Pauline. “Let’s spend a day riding scooters around Amsterdam”, she suggested one night while I was putting this trip together. I have never been game to even hire a bicycle in Amsterdam, so why would anyone in their right mind even consider riding a motor scooter anywhere near the craziest city on earth, especially when none of us had any previous experience on any sort of motor bike?
On the other hand, we have proven numerous times in the past that we are always up for a challenge. After all it was the Ghostriders that climbed to Kopra Ridge in the Himalayas right in the middle of a blizzard and it was the Ghostriders that abseiled from Table Mountain in Capetown in the world’s highest abseil. Prior experience counts for nothing when we all have enough copious amounts of foolhardiness to take on just about anything.
Besides I was already sick of the mad crowds in the centre of the city so it would be great to get away from the crush of tourists and selfie sticks, even if it is was at the peril of our own lives.
Eleven of us packed our helmets and walked to Central Station to catch the regional bus to Landsmeer. This is a small satellite town about 15 minutes from the centre of town. We purchased our tickets (so much easier than our own Myki muddle), boarded the modern bus and were soon deposited in the main street of this lovely little town. Once again the weather was absolutely perfect for this type of activity (blue skies and a temperature in the low 20s).
We found the office of the Scooter Experience and saw a yard packed with dozens of scooters. Maggie was pleased that most of them were red, because apparently everyone knows that the red ones go faster.
Leon, the owner, asked us if we had ever ridden motor scooters before. “Motor what ?” I replied. He looked a little anxious and went on to explain that we need some degree of skill to ride these contraptions. He did not seem impressed by the fact that we were cycling to Budapest and were thus incredible sporting specimens.
We were then forced to fill in pages of legal indemnity forms, none of which we bothered to read any part of. Leon then ushered us out into the yard and made each of us show what we could do. He seemed to be able to quickly decide who could be trusted with his scooters and who couldn’t. Thus three riders had their scooters confiscated and were sent back to the bus station. That reduced our scooter peloton (scootaton?) to 8 riders. Not a promising start, especially when most of us couldn’t remember even how he told us to start the engine.
Since Leon obviously took us for a bunch of deluded seniors he sent his assistant to tag along for the first few km, presumably to call for an ambulance in case of mishap. His apprehension was unfounded as we were soon flying along, pushing the scooters right past their red lines, performing wheelstands and generally hooning around. I quickly decided that this was fun and started challenging Douglas and David to sprints. Although we had been told that these machines were speed limited to 25 kph, we managed to coax them to almost double that.
I can now say that I know what it feels like to be an outlaw bikie.
It was a great feeling to charge along the road in a scooter pack, sowing fear into any pedalling cyclist in our way. When we rode into a small town I have to admit that I was tempted to do something really bad. Perhaps I would pull out a flower from someone’s garden, or manically rev my 50 cc engine in the main street. I even considered getting a small tulip tattoo on my shoulder when I got back to Amsterdam. That would be sure to shock the kids !
About half way through the day’s ride we arrived at the tourist town of Marken. This is a collection of brightly painted houses and a lovely boat harbour. It provided the perfect location for our lunch stop. We were also met by the three others who had been rejected by the scooter wallah. They had caught the bus to the same location and were able to share lunch with us.
After lunch we posed beside our machines for a group photo before roaring out of town with us much speed as we could muster. Ken took on the role of navigator and ride leader and it did not take him long to lose half of our riders on the outskirts of the next town. We doubled back and found them waiting for us on the correct path. We had some serious cruising to do in order to get the scooters back before closing time. Wind up the throttle, tuck in our arms and legs to reduce air resistance and enjoy the thrill of the high speed pursuit.
At times I almost reached 46 kph, it was exhilarating. Douglas was frustrated that his scooter was obviously rubbish and unable to match the sheer power of my machine. I could have told him that he should have got a red one.
Somehow we all managed to get back to the Scooter Experience office without further mischief or mishap and found Leon in the street anxiously looking out for his prodigal scooters. He counted them off and then let out a sigh of relief. “I never doubted you guys for a minute”, he lied.
We caught the bus back to Amsterdam for our final night in this city before resuming our Odyssey to Budapest. Several of us had dropped in a load of dirty laundry at a nearby laundromat. When we collected the washing David was disgusted to find that half of his clothing had been ruined and were covered in huge black stains. It had cost him 12 Euros to have this damage done, so he could be excused for being furious.
Tomorrow morning we check out of the hotel and catch the train to Donaueschingen. The long train ride should give us a great chance to chat and sleep – sounds pretty good to me.
Tuesday September 6th
In Which we Enjoy a First Class Lunch with ICE
Our Bruges to Amsterdam Cycle Adventure was always intended to be the prologue (warm up) to our main event – following the Danube from Donaueschingen to Budapest. It turned out to serve this function perfectly. We could not have wished for better weather or a more memorable guide to usher us along our way.
The first leg of our adventure finished in Amsterdam, the city of higgledy piggledy houses, bicycles, canals and legal drugs. While we were there it was also home to untold thousands of partying uni students, celebrating the start of the University year. Although I do love the unique character of this city, I was getting keen to leave the crowds behind and resume our ride through the quiet paths and back roads of Europe.
In order to get from Amsterdam to Donaueschingen we needed to take three train journeys.
But before we could do that we needed to all get to Amsterdam Central Station. I asked the staff at the Wiechmann Hotel to organise three large taxis for us. We then piled all our suitcases outside the front door to wait for our transport.
Right on time the first Mercedes Benz taxi van arrived and five of our team and a veritable mountain of luggage was jammed in the back. A couple of minutes later a similar van pulled up and the driver smiled and asked us to climb inside. As the first were climbing in, the man from the hotel came out and warned us that this was NOT our taxi. It was just a driver who could smell a good fare. We thanked our hotel man for keeping his eye out for us.
The second taxi arrived a few minutes later (the correct one this time) and we started to climb inside. The driver insisted that we would not need the third taxi because it was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. Although I doubted how we could possibly all (about 7 of us)get in the one taxi, somehow we managed and we were on our way.
One of the hazards of driving in Amsterdam is that the streets are not only always crammed with cyclists, but they are also only about 3 metres wide.
Any delivery van that stops to drop or collect goods immediately blocks that street completely. We discovered that most deliveries must take place at 9 am as we were forced to make one diversion after another. Fortunately we still arrived at the station with a little time to spare. This was a pity as Maggie and Gael immediately saw an opportunity to go shopping. They disappeared out of sight and left Gerry and I stranded with their luggage.
The last time we were at this station Maggie got lost looking for the toilet, and it soon began to look like this time she had got lost looking for a handbag to buy. All the rest of the team went to the platform to board our train. Gerry and I looked at the clock. No sign of the women. Panic started to rise as the minute hand of the large clock raced around towards departure time. Eventually Maggie appeared out of the crowd with a smile on her face and a large new handbag under her arm. I wondered where she was going to pack that for the rest of our adventure.
Since the price between second class and first class on the ICE trains was not very much I had persuaded the group to let me buy first class tickets for the long journey. “It will be great, lots of room for our luggage and free food”, I promised them. I remembered back to the great first class service we had had on previous Thalys trips and I assumed that the high speed ICE train would give just the same level of service.
Although the seats were spacious, there was basically no storage space for luggage apart from the racks high over your head. I wondered how elderly people (a bit like us) would manage to lift heavy luggage without assistance. Somehow we all managed to cram our bags in aisles, racks, doorways, in fact everywhere but the driver’s cockpit and settled down to a hot lunch on the train. We were wasting our time – there was no service. Well that is not quite true we did each get handed a tiny packet about 3 cm square containing 5 sour lollies. That was lunch ! I wondered what those in second class got.
Although I thought we could enjoy the Internet on the train, apparently that wasn’t working either. On top of our disappointment an announcement came over the speakers that the train was already running 10 minutes late after the first hour. Since we only had a 20 minutes gap between trains at Frankfurt, I was starting to worry that we could be in trouble.
The driver finally found the throttle and managed to get the speed up to near 300 kph and we did make up a little of the lost time. We saw little of Frankfurt as we dashed from train to train, although we were by now so hungry that I would have enjoyed a frankfurt.
The second ICE train was not much better than the first. The afternoon tea (or was it dinner) was the same sour lollies. No coffee, not even water. No storage space. But at least it did take us to Offenburg on time. By now we had been in transit for nearly all day and were all getting near the end of our stamina. We still had one train trip to go to take us the final leg to Donaueschingen. This turned out to be the real highlight of the day.
We watched as the train climbed steadily into the Black Forest, passing through a number of long tunnels and crossing a ridge at near 1000 metres above sea level. It was a welcome contrast to the flatness of Holland and Belgium. The rolling high meadows were spotted with grazing cows and steep roofed homes. I thought it looked very Swiss in appearance and could almost imagine Julie Andrews dancing over the mountains singing “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music”. It was that type of countryside.
We finally rolled into the small station at Donaueschingen around 6 pm and formed a peloton of luggage pullers to find our way to the Hotel Zum Hirschen. We soon crossed the beautiful Brigach River, one of the two rivers that combine here to form the Danube (“The Donau”). It really felt like our true adventure was about to start.
First impressions of the town were very positive. It was quiet, clean and neat Numerous signs reminded us that most things are “verboten”, the rest are “absoluten verboten”. This was another contrast to the easy going nature of the Netherlands, where just about everything is completely legal.
We found our hotel, checked into our rooms and then looked for a place to eat. Due to some confusion over time zones we somehow ended up going to two different restaurants, but that was OK as everyone was very pleased with their meals.
After a very long day we all headed to bed early. Tomorrow we can explore the town and get to meet the bikes that will carry us to Passau.
Wednesday September 7th
In Which we all get Castigated
There is no doubt that Donaueschingen is a beautiful little town in a beautiful part of the Black Forest, situated at a significant location at the start of the Danube River. Well actually that is not quite true. The actual start of the Danube has been argued over for centuries. The residents higher up the Brigach River maintain that the true start of the Danube is at the start of the Brigach. The residents of Donaueschingen have made an industry out of claiming that the source of the Danube is a little limestone spring in the centre of their town. The argument has never been entirely settled and that is why distances along the Danube are still always measured from the mouth of the river, not from its beginning.
Today was a free day before the riding resumes and we head out from Donaueschingen towards Budapest. We all spent a lazy day wandering the town and exploring walks along the shady riverbanks. This really would be an easy place to fall in love with, however there is one drawback that would have to be addressed. The locals seem to be a rather prickly lot with definite ideas of the correct way of doing just about everything.
This first sign of extreme Germanic discipline occurred at breakfast. Although breakfast was supposed to be from 7 am to 10 am, when Maggie arrived at 9 am, the tables were already stripped bare and the food was securely locked away out of sight. When she commented that she hadn’t eaten yet, it was met with a stern look of disapproval and a reprimand that she “should have come when everyone else did”. They do not tolerate individuals here.
The same theme was repeated in various variations throughout the day and just about everyone in the group ended up incurring someone’s wrath at some time. We really didn’t mean to be such trouble makers, but we are just not used to being regimented like that.
One aspect of the entire trip so far that I need to comment on is the weather. From the moment we landed in Europe we have had absolutely perfect weather every day. This applied for our entire Bruges to Amsterdam ride and has continued right to the start of our stage 2 in Germany. In fact the forecast for the next few days also appears to promise us the same sort of conditions. This has helped to reinforce my opinion that September is absolutely the best time to travel in Europe.
This morning we also had a chance to try out the bikes that we will be taking as far as Passau. This is always a slightly stressful time as each person assesses whether or not they have been supplied a lemon. I am happy to report that the initial assessment of the bikes was excellent. Not only are they almost new, but they have high quality Schwalbe Marathon tyres, computers, good brakes, great range of gears, good seats and, most important of all, they are all bright red. I am confident that they are ideally suited to the sort of riding that lies ahead of us.
Since we were all supplied with free entry tickets to some impressive sounding exhibition, and since I am never one to pass up a bargain, I found myself walking to an impressive looking 4 story building that apparently housed an “amazing collection”. I handed my free pass to the fraulein at the door and soon discovered that I was the only visitor. After a few minutes I realised why the crowds had stayed away. The collection consisted of thousands of dusty looking and musty smelling rocks and fossils, hundreds of sad looking stuffed animals and some rather weird “art displays” that most people would have to be paid to go to see. The ancient floors creaked loudly with each footfall and the whole place gave me the urge to leave from the moment I entered. It was not a place that I would recommend as a “must see”, rather I would put it in the “best avoided” category.
Our dinner this evening was at our own hotel. This of course gave us further opportunity to upset the management. They were obviously not pleased to find out that some of our riders had the temerity to be vegetarians (even though they had been notified of this in advance). Apparently it is “absoluten verboten” not to eat meat in this town. There was much rolling of eyes, waving of hands and exclamations of Germanic disgust at this terrible inconvenience, but somehow they managed to reluctantly produce some vegetarian dishes after all.
After dinner we tried to order coffee, but this seemed to also cause problems with the staff, along with just about everything else we did or said. We were starting to feel like a bunch of naughty schoolchildren who had been kept in after school. When some tried to pay their drinks bill they were told that “they could NOT pay until after coffee”. We couldn’t take a trick. I was almost on the verge of feeling guilty (almost but not quite).
An early night coming up, followed by an early start in the morning.
Thursday September 8th
In Which David Summits the Eiger by Bicycle
Over the past ten years I have had the privilege of experiencing some amazing cycling experiences around the world, however it would be hard to remember any ride that could surpass the natural beauty of today’s ride from Donaueschingen to Beuron. We first assembled the team and bikes in the car park of the Zum Hirschen Hotel to undertake the obligatory group photo. This has become an essential tradition at the start (and end) of every extended ride.
The weather had provided us another perfect cycling day with not a cloud in the sky. The early morning air high in the Black Forest of Bavaria was clear and cool. I could not imagine better conditions for being on a bike.
We first began by riding to the official start of the Danube Bike Path and then followed a lovely shady path right on the bank of the Brigach River.
We started with 26 riders but soon managed to reduce this to a much more manageable size of 12 riders when a large proportion of our peloton missed my signal and headed off in the wrong direction. Our reduced peloton rode on along the riverbank, looking for the confluence of the Brigach and the Breg Rivers. We found it about a kilometre out of town. The other group found it also, except they were on the other side of the river ! It was a bit little the Keystone Cops of Cycling, but somehow we all rejoined together to form a long snaking line of riders as we resumed the ride.
From the moment these two small rivers combine, the river now bears the name the Danube (or Donau). This is the beginning of Europe’s second longest river , winding almost 3000 km on its way to the Black Sea.
I was surprised that the bike path at this point was absolutely smooth bitumen, making for effortless riding. I was also pleasantly surprised with the quality of the bikes we had been supplied. They were comfortable, quiet and well maintained – perfect for this type of cycling.
We maintained a great degree of self control and pelotonic discipline, that is until we reached the first town with a coffee shop.
Although it was still early in the morning, about half the peloton was already ready for a coffee break. The others had a deadline to meet and decided to push on at a punishing pace. “I’ll see you at the hotel”, I shouted as they rode off into the distance, heads down and bums up. That statement turned out to be quite accurate.
Once again our peloton was reduced in size and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves cruising along, chatting happily and stopping for pictures along the way. In this region the young Danube river does a quite remarkable thing. At certain times of the year the entire flow of the river seeps into the porous limestone rocks and actually flows underground, before gradually re emerging and reforming on the surface several kilometres further on.
We took a short detour from the bike path to walk on the dry bed of the river. Markers on the banks showed the heights the water can reach in times of flood, but today it was completely dry.
We reached the large town of Tuttlingen early in the afternoon and decided it would be a perfect place for lunch. We found a suitable Bakerei and sat in the shade to enjoy lunch and a drink.
When the time came for us to resume the ride, Mary was so keen to get going that she rode away without paying for her coffee. No wonder the Ghostriders have earned such a bad reputation all around the world. As Mary happily made her daring escape, her bill was paid by an anonymous admirer. At least we didn’t have to worry about being chased by the German police.
A little further on we reached the small Bavarian town of Mulheim. As we were carefully navigating through the town’s streets, I noticed that David was keen to take over a position at the front the group. With a flurry of pedals and a rush of testosterone he was soon disappearing into the distance. The only problem is that it was the wrong distance. Somehow in the excitement he had ignored both his GPS and common sense and started pedalling frantically up the first big hill we had seen so far in Europe. I chased after him, shouting at him to stop, but it was to no avail. He had obviously switched off his hearing aids in order to cut out all distraction in his quest for the polka dok climber’s jersey
After a couple of kilometres of chasing and shouting, I was getting no closer and just making myself hot and bothered. I stopped and turned back. Surely David would realise that he was going the wrong way and that no one was with him ? Actually he didn’t.
I rode back down the hill and told the others the bad news. Carol could not stop laughing. “He does this sort of this all the time”, she explained. We had no alternative other than to mark David as “missing in action” as we resumed the ride along the correct path. In the meantime David was battling up an enormous mountain of Biblical proportions, fearful of taking a backward glance in case he might be overtaken by one of the non existent chasers.
He actually maintained this same strange behaviour all the way to our hotel at Beuron. It was only then that he looked behind to see that he was all alone. The rest of us were having a thoroughly delightful ride through idyllic countryside. We did have a few small undulations, but nothing that could be called a serious climb.
A little further on we met up with Paul and Jan who had abandoned the racing group and decided to enjoy the ride instead. Around 10 km from our hotel we discovered a lovely roadside resting place, serving cold drinks and ice cream. It was an ideal place for another stop. It was here that we met a young Australian family who were riding around Europe with their three young children.
All their bikes were heavily laden with panniers and luggage. The young boy looked at me and boasted “We rode over 100 km yesterday”. I looked back at my own very lightly loaded bike (and at my speedo which only registered around 55 km for the day) and replied “Yes but we are all very old”. Take that youngster.
Gael must have been keen to get to the hotel because she jumped on the first red bike she could find and started pedalling. It might have looked a bit like hers, but it was actually nothing like hers. It was Douglas’ bike. He had no choice but to jump on her bike and chase her down. It’s never easy riding with very old people. They do this sort of thing all the time.
The final section to Beuron was a little challenging with a series of climbs and descents. The late afternoon was growing quite warm and we were starting to feel a bit tired. Beuron is an interesting Monastery town with a huge monastery and a number of other religious buildings. A prominent statue also testified to the fact that it is also a stop on a pilgrim route. Which pilgrim route ? Sorry, I do not know as the writing was all in German.
It had been a glorious start to this leg of the Odyssey ride and has left a very high standard for the rest to live up to.
Friday September 9th
In Which it had been the Best (and Worst) of Days
According to Charles Dickens in the opening to A Tale of Two Cities, it was “the best of times, it was the worst of times”. In a similar fashion, today was the best of days and the worst of days. It certainly started on a positive note with yet another perfectly cloudless sky and pure, cool air as clear as crystal. I went to the bike garage to collect my bike, but no matter how hard I looked, it was not to be found anywhere. I tried not to get anxious, but there was no sign of it. I checked all the bikes again and found one that looked like mine, but it had David’s GPS, water bottle and panniers on it.
The search continued for another 10 minutes, until I decided to use the scientific approach. I knew my bike had a horizontal bar. That eliminated about half the bikes. My bike had a GPS attachment, That eliminated most of the remainder. I looked more closely at David’s Bike. It had cable ties exactly like mine. Hang on a minute – it WAS my bike.
I was not happy. I told David that he was a bare faced thief and took all his junk off. He tried to cover his guilt by looking helpless so I couldn’t stay angry for too long, after all I had already mixed up the bikes on numerous previous occasions.
When we were ready, we cycled back up the hill to the bike path. We looked around. We were two riders short of a peloton. Gael and Gerry were missing. At about this time the two riders in question were just arriving at the bike garage. When they saw the door firmly shut, they congratulated themselves on being the first to come down. In fact they were the last. Of course when they opened the door, they realised their error.
With the peloton finally all present we started off along the trail. The first section of the day’s ride followed the Danube Gorge and we were fenced in on both sides by towering limestone cliffs. Much of the riding was in the shade of the overhanging trees and the cool air was an absolute delight. We crisscrossed back and forth several times and our ride was also punctuated by a series of quite strenuous climbs.I could imagine how different the scene would be when the river was in flood.
I have had the privilege of cycling in some of the best cycling routes around the world, but I would have to say that the region we were riding through over the past couple of days ranks with the very best I have ever experienced.
On numerous occasions we stopped to take in the beauty that was about us on all sides.
By 10 am we had split into two groups again. I was happy to ride with the rear group and just enjoy every sensation, smell and sound along the way. By 11 am we were getting ready for a coffee and started looking for a suitable rest break. We found a lovely looking trackside cafe and settled down to coffee and cheesecake. After a lengthy break and a chat with the proprietor, we resumed our ride.
I had only gone a short distance when I heard the dreaded cry of “Rider down”. We turned back to find that Gael had taken a heavy fall from her bike and was quite stunned. Fortunately the staff at the cafe sprang into action, dressed her wounds and found a place for her to lie down. Of course I was worried about concussion, especially when she was rather confused about what had happened.
Gerry stayed with her and told the rest of us to go ahead. I assumed that they would have chosen to catch the nearby train instead of riding any further. Our reduced peloton was now down to 7 riders as we continued on our way to Sigmaringen and its imposing castle.
That’s where we stopped for lunch. After a brief discussion we quickly decided that none of us really wanted to see the inside of the castle. It really is a case of “if you have seen a couple of dozen musty castles, you have probably seen them all”.
We climbed back on the bikes and continued the short distance to our next stop at Scheer. You can imagine our utter surprise when we discovered that Gael had made a miraculous recovery and she had somehow made it to the hotel before anyone else. Perhaps this was a true miracle of the pilgrim trail after all.
The Hotel Donaublick is a very comfortable hotel, which used to be the original train station. I guess that explains the proximity of the train line and the fact that the trains race by at high speed every 15 minutes. Personally I didn’t mind the trains as they helped to add character to the scene. It had really been a fascinating days of contrasts.
Saturday September 10th
In Which a Great Mystery is Solved
A few years ago Dan Brown confounded the literary world with his convoluted puzzles in the Da Vinci Code, however since the start of this leg of the ride, I have been battling with an infinitely more baffling enigma. When the guide books and vouchers were distributed on Day One, everyone simply helped themselves to whatever they felt they needed. The only trouble was that the final two riders to arrive found that all the books and vouchers had been taken.
Over the next couple of days I exhorted everyone to recheck their books to make sure that they only had the correct number. The problem was that, no matter how hard I tried, the total still came up two short of the size of our peloton. That gave me no other alternative, other than to issue an ultimatum – “At the start of tomorrow’s ride, everyone present their books for inspection”.
I would have to peruse everyone’s books personally to verify that they had the correct quota. It was not a job I was looking forward to, but I knew it had to be done in order to be fair to those who had missed out.
At the appointed hour all the Ghostriders stood in a line with their books, looking like naughty schoolchildren who were ready to receive the cane. As it turned out, the mystery was solved without having to give everyone the third degree. The missing book was discovered (along with another map book), I was able to retrospectively present it to Dennis and Lisa and the ride was able to proceed with one less problem for me to worry about.
Up till now the ride had been reasonably flat, but we now started to encounter the first serious “wobbles” in the elevation profile. When the peloton encountered these challenges, some pressed straight ahead, while others had to take their time and work their way up at their own pace. This meant that the original group was quickly split into two sub groups. Soon those two groups split again into further smaller units. Such a phenomenon is known in cycling parlance as “severe pelotonic disintegration”.
I found myself at the rear with the final bunch, but since I had no great desire to be the first one to reach the hotel, I was happy to roll along, chat and enjoy the company
Such times are really a lovely chance to really get to know your fellow travellers. In Australia, the pressure of deadlines means that we do not often get such opportunities, but here time is of relatively minor importance.
About halfway through the day’s ride we descended around a sweeping bend and found the entire Danube Cycle Path blocked by a massive construction site. There was no obvious way to proceed either through or around the blockage. Sitting on a bench were two young construction workers in hard hats. They observed my confusion, but made no effort to point out the alternative route. I rode back up the hill to the railroad tracks. No way through there either. So back down to the blockage.
By that time more of our small group had arrived on the scene and were bold enough to ask for directions. We were shown to scramble through the long grass (full of poison ivy), squeeze through some tractors, old metal scraps and other assorted construction debris, and then slide down the opposite side. It was hard to believe that the construction company had not been required to post signs and also make a temporary bypass trail for cyclists. This is Germany’s most popular cycle path and it is the life blood to hundreds of businesses right through the country.
Maybe German does not have a word for “detour”.
We were starting to feel hot and hungry by this time and were relieved to finally roll into a likely looking town and look for a cafe for lunch. We reached the beautiful town centre and admired the lovely medieval buildings all around. In the centre of town a wedding was in progress and a large restored Mercedes Benz pulled in to park, ready to collect the wedding party. Just across from the wedding we found a lovely cafe and went inside in search of food.
“Do you sell rolls ?” we asked very slowly
“Yes” was the answer
“Can you make us one ?”
“Yes”, was the answer.
Gerry was so excited at this prospect that he held out his hand to shake. By the look of scorn on the owner’s face, you could be forgiven for thinking that Gerry had offered him a poisonous viper. The handshake was refused but he did make us lovely rolls and coffee. The situation was all the more mysterious as the guy turned out to be an American who had settled in Germany.
Apparently he had also thoroughly adopted the worst of German hospitality as well.
Later in the afternoon we rolled into the Landgasthof Zur Rose. We had experienced a little difficulty finding the place and ended up doing about 2 km extra. Just as we got within the final 100 metres of the hotel, Gerry decided to emulate his wife by hitting the curb and falling off his bike flat on his face. He wiped the blood off his forehead, swore profusely and then assured us that he was OK. Apparently the Driessens do that on almost every ride.
The hotel was a real treat with lovely large rooms and an enormous dining room which they had prepared just for us. Since we still had a couple of hours before dinner, Douglas decided that he had time for a ride into the nearby town of Ehingen, just to have a good look around. Somewhere along the track he became a little disoriented and asked a local German guy for directions to the town. Somehow the meaning of his request must have been lost in translation as his new best friend insisted on personally guiding him – all the way back to the hotel ! Oh well, it was the thought that counts.
That evening we all shared a glorious meal and somehow found our singing voices
.What followed was a raucous time of singing and laughing that we all agreed was a sensational end to an eventful day. Somewhere in the middle of the singing, Douglas, who we had all thought to be a quiet and reserved guy, suddenly burst out into a loud solo rendition of a “I am a pheasant plucker”. Now where did that come from? Travel is like that sometimes.
Tomorrow we ride on into Ulm, the first pit stop on this leg of the ride.
Sunday September 11th
In Which we Stagger into Ulm in Pelotonic Tatters
In the past I have often thought that it would be easier to train chickens to dance Swan Lake than to train a group of Ghostriders to ride with pelotonic restraint and discipline. Since we had the largest group of riders that we have ever taken on on overseas ride, the challenge was always going to be a formidable one.
The early signs were ominous. As the group of riders was gathering ready to start the ride from the car park of the Landgasthof Zur Rose, I was still waiting for the last few riders to arrive when a large bunch were already heading off down the street. I was a little surprised that they were heading in the opposite direction to the trail, but I later heard that someone had found that elusive holy grail known as a “cycling short cut”.
About 10 minutes later, the final riders were ready and so I led them out of the hotel and on towards Ehingen.
We achieved the short and very pleasant ride without incident and rode into the city centre right on 9 am. It was a very quiet Sunday morning and we were welcomed into the town by the loud tolling of the church bells. Such bells are a feature of all travel in Europe and I have to admit that I have really come to love them.
As we rolled slowly down the main street we could see that preparations were underway for a large market. I suspected that, within a few hours, the place would be really rocking. But at this time it was still very, very peaceful. Or at least it was until a large group of rowdy cyclists rolled into town. To my surprise it was the first group of Ghostriders who had followed such a great short cut that it only added about 30 minutes to the ride.
It was about this time that Gael and Gerry made a shocking discovery – they had left their camera in their room at the hotel. We made a couple of calls to the hotel, thanks to Kurt’s translation skills, and soon managed to locate the camera and arrange for it to be added to our bags. I looked around for the first group, but they had already left the town, obviously in search of another short cut.
Some of us had previously decided to stay on the main Danube Bike Path, whereas others wished to do a detour around a slightly longer route.
.This meant that riders were now riding on two different bike paths. As the day progressed, two bunches apparently quickly became three, then four and so on, until we had Ghostriders scattered all the way between Donaueschingen and the Black Sea. It was very similar to a typical Thursday Warby Trail Ride.
I found myself riding with Lou, Rhonda, David, Carol, Gael, Gerry and of course Maggie. “Today will be pretty flat”, I assured them just before we turned a corner and started to climb up a massive hill. “I think this is the only hill”, I added. It wasn’t, but after some hard climbing and a few breaks we did reach the top and then enjoyed a beautiful flat ride along the high meadows. The views down to the valley alongside were sensational and we could see rolling hills and small villages scattered about like dust.
The bike path took us through hundreds of acres of corn and we could tell from the rich aroma in the air, that fertiliser (ie manure) was being used liberally. It was in this section that we came across another Ghostrider mounted on his bike. Apparently he had not been riding fast enough and he and his bike had been enveloped with ivy. We felt it only right to dress him up in a Ghostrider jersey and helmet. In fact I christened him with a good German name – “Helmut”.
It seemed appropriate.
A few kilometres further on we spied a small cluster of buildings. Since we were now ready for morning tea we decided to stop. The place was already occupied by a group of locals who were already drinking themselves into an alcoholic stupor, even though it was only 10.30 in the morning. It looked like it was a regular routine.
We settled down to enjoy some coffee and lovely cake. The large nearby barn was full of large friendly steers who we suspected had no idea of where their next journey was going to take them. While we were seated at our table another proud local farmer arrived with his baby horse in his arms. Apparently it was only 5 days old and he wanted to show it off to his drinking mates. It was a magic moment.
Of course, before we could continue on our way, we had to make use of the cafe’s facilities. When we entered the front door we were amazed to find a luxury hotel, complete with fancy reception desk and some of the most luxurious toilets we had found so far. I wondered who would stay in such a strange location, right in the middle of a smelly farm.
The rural flavour of the ride continued when we found our way blocked by a group of sheep grazing on the bike path.
.”Ewe better watch out”, I shouted to the sheep, in an attempt to get them off the path. The shepherd looked fast asleep (or dead), but his two dogs seemed to know how to do his work for him.
When the bike path skirted a small town that looked like a promising place for lunch, we decided to make a detour and look for a cafe. Although we circled the town, there were no cafes in sight. In fact the whole place looked deserted and locked up. Such towns can be officially classed as “Rubbish Towns”. We turned around and headed back to the bike path.
I had not gone far before I heard the dreaded cry of “Rider Down”. I stopped and turned around to find that Maggie had somehow got her feet confused with her handlebars and had tumbled over into the middle of a busy road. It could have been really nasty, but she was quickly retrieved and the damage examined. Thank goodness for the little first aid kits some of the bikes were fitted with. We proceeded to patch and cover the wounds and succeeded in quickly making both her legs look like the proverbial dog’s breakfast. Rhonda rechristened herself as “Dr Torelli” and seemed pleased with the result.
By this time we gave up on lunch and decided to go straight into Ulm instead.
We did however make time for a special Danube tradition – dipping your feet in the river. When we found a suitable spot we ignored the poison ivy, took off our shoes and cooled down in the water. It really did feel good and served to remind us why we were here in the first place.
We resumed our ride and everything was going so well until our easy progress was blocked by a huge construction zone on the very bridge we had planned to cross. There were no detour signs (remember that it is not in the German vocabulary) and no advice what to do. We had no other alternative than to backtrack and try to figure out another path through to the hotel.
Somehow we found ourselves on a gut busting climb to the very highest part of the city. By this time most of our riders were in tears but we did get a good view of the place from a pigeon’s lofty perspective. I stopped to ask a friendly local woman for help and she assured me that “yes, we were on the right way”. Finally we summited the pass, thankful that it was only covered with a light dusting of snow at this time of the year, and were able to coast virtually all the way to the door of the Maritim Hotel. It was very welcome.
Although the Maritim is a typical 5 star big city hotel and not the type of place that I usually feel at home in, it was nice to collapse in the room and attack the minibar (also something I never usually do).
Over the next couple of hours the remnants of the once proud Ghostriders dribbled into Ulm, mostly in small clumps of hot and tired riders. When the day’s ride was examined in more detail I discovered that there had been at least one puncture, one crash and several mechanical failures. Perhaps we really do need to be more organised for the rest of the ride.
Monday September 12th
In Which we do (almost) Nothing
After several days of riding it is always a welcome relief to enjoy a free day for catching up on routine tasks and for doing a limited amount of routine sightseeing. Most of the team had a comparative sleep in and wandered down to breakfast at around 7.30 am. It is always amazing to see the excessive amount of food this type of hotel puts out each day for breakfast. With the vast arrays of just about about everything from sausage to sauerkraut, cakes and coffee, one can only imagine how much must be thrown into the bins every day.
It was interesting to hear other team members comment that, although it was nice to stay here for a day or two, it would be such a shame to have to spend every night in such an artificial type of environment. We are already looking forward to returning to the smaller, character filled hotels which typify this type of adventure.
Maggie and I headed out towards the old town centre, via the huge Ulm Munster.
This church is famous for having the tallest church steeple in the world. I had already climbed to the top of this tower in my previous visit so had no need or desire to climb up again. Instead we chose to wander the interior and look at the huge stained glass windows instead. It is impossible not to marvel at the engineers and architects who built these places without the aid of computers or power tools.
When we emerged from the church the first rush of tour groups was already filling the courtyard outside the church. The tour leaders were busy regaling their obedient followers with their own version of history and their carefully rehearsed and often repeated jokes. At each joke the groups laughed on cue and then shuffled off to the next stop on the tour. By mid afternoon, when the crush of tourist buses reaches its peak, the whole area is full of tired faces and tourists wearing their “I love Germany” T shirts. I was already looking forward to getting back on the bike and watching my wheels turning over on the secluded back roads of Germany.
Perhaps the very best part of Ulm is the old Fisher’s Quarter, a cluster of brightly painted, topsy turvy houses clustered along the sides of several narrow canals. This is the region that used to house the original fish traders of Ulm.
I was somewhat surprised that I was able to find the little restaurant where we had shared dinner on our 2011 Danube ride. It brought back some great memories.
We then followed the riverbank back to our hotel. In the warm afternoon heat we were both looking forward to a rest and a break from the intense sun. Neither of us felt like yet another restaurant meal, so we joined with David and Carol to find a supermarket. It was great fun to choose a selection of food for a delightful picnic on the banks of the Danube. For us it felt like an absolute gourmet’s delight as we enjoyed our sushi, raspberries, grapes, yoghurt and croissants. Just to add a little extra atmosphere the almost full moon gradually climbed over the tops of the trees on the opposite side of the river. It did not matter one little bit that we were all just seated on a park bench beside the gently flowing Danube, we enjoyed it just as much as if we were dining in some expensive restaurant.
Somehow it just seemed like the perfect way to end a lovely day. It was an experience that I am sure we will all treasure in the years ahead.
Tomorrow we resume our ride as we progress toward our eventual destination of Budapest.
Tuesday September 13th
In Which my Eyes are Dim, I Cannot See
After a day off from the bikes, it was time to get back on two wheels to resume our cycling Odyssey. The Maritim Hotel in Ulm is certainly an impressive establishment, but it really is not my kind of place as we seemed to be swallowed whole by the enormity of it. I could not help but feel we had temporarily lost our individuality and were simply “Room 802”.
On our first night in the hotel we had tossed and turned all night in the heat. I tried turning the air conditioning down to 5C, as low as the dial would go. Then I opened the window as far as I could to let in any breeze. It was still hot. The air conditioning seemed to be about as effective as the gust of air from a butterfly’s wing. We sweltered the whole night long.
The next morning I went down to reception to complain about the poor state of our air conditioner. The smartly dressed young man behind the desk looked at the old man in the crumpled shirt (ie me) and calmly asked “Did you have the window open ?”. “Of course”, I replied. “Well shut it !” he suggested.
How was I to know that a secret switch in the window disabled all air conditioning? I went up and locked the window and, hey presto, the vent started spewing cold air. I wondered why the hotel did not see fit to put a small sticker on each window to advise their guests of this critical fact. I later discovered that most of the others in our group had made the same mistake.
We cleared out our room and carried our cycling gear down to the bike garage. Many of the others were already there, unloading the bikes. I helped by knocking my bike over and very nearly starting a chain reaction to send all the carefully aligned bikes to the ground.
A few minutes later we were all outside on the lawn, getting ready to ride. I donned my helmet and gloves, but where were my cycling glasses ? They were nowhere to be found. Since I hate losing anything, and since they were a brand new pair of Rider glasses that I bought for this trip, I started to get concerned. I retraced my steps to the foyer. I went back up to my room. I searched the garage. No glasses.
By this time the others were getting restless and keen to get underway. I resigned myself to not having the glasses for the rest of the trip. Not a great way to start the rest of the ride. It was at that point Maggie started waving something in front of my face. It was a pair of glasses very much like mine. Hang on, they were mine ! Apparently I had dropped them on the ground about 2 metres away from my bike. Oh well, panic averted. We could start the ride.
The day itself had dawned exactly the same as the previous 16 or so days we had spent in Europe. It looked like it was going to get quite warm, so we were grateful that the ride followed the shady left bank of the Danube as we rode in a long procession out of Ulm. It certainly made for an impressive collection of yellow clad riders, probably one of the largest groups the locals had seen all season.
About 10 km further on we assembled the riders and gave everyone a chance to select whether they wanted to be a “bolter” or a “dawdler”. This divided the group into two roughly equal bunches. Once again I found myself with the slower group. I had no desire to spend my time on this ride charging along at the expense of missing out on all the wonderful experiences along the way. For me the journey is always so much more important that the destination. I also find that, in warm weather, it is best to ride at a conservative speed to keep the air moving, but to also avoid getting your core temperature overheated. Thus we rolled along at around 15 to 18 kph while the others quickly disappeared out of sight.
The paths often took us into cool shady forests where the air was fresh and clean. In fact it was amazing just how much cooler it was under the tree canopy. This was the sort of riding that everyone adores and is one of the reasons that thousands of people come from all over the world to ride this path.
Our first major milestone of the day was the sizeable town of Gunzburg. We were surprised to find the main street packed with people and cars. We had arrived on market day. That was both a blessing and a curse. The throng of people made it quite difficult to get a place to sit down for a drink, but the market gave me a great idea.
“Let’s all buy a collection of food so that we can have a picnic”, I suggested. So that’s what we did. Some time later we were laden with bags of raspberries, strawberries, cheese, peaches, fresh bread, drinks, etc. We felt like excited kids as we compared our bulging bags of treats.
But before we could leave the town we had to spend a few minutes viewing the huge church. It looked fairly basic from the outside, but inside it was one of the most ornate churches we had seen anywhere. It had obviously had the benefit of a complete recent makeover as everything looked like brand new. Looking up at the brightly coloured painted murals on the ceiling it was hard to imagine the amount of work that must have gone into building a place like this.
We finally retrieved all the members of the dawdlers and then resumed our ride. We had to continue for an hour or so before we found the ideal place for our picnic, but the wait was well and truly worth it. Deep in the forest we discovered a tree surrounded by a circular seat. It was cool, quiet and secluded. Of course someone had to spoil the atmosphere by raising the topic of ticks and Lyme Disease. It didn’t worry us one bit, we were too busy eating and laughing.
After an extended lunch break we resumed our ride and rolled into the hotel in Dillingen at around 3 pm. All were still feeling good and commented that they had enjoyed a great day on the bikes.
That evening the hotel prepared a delicious meal for us which we enjoyed under the stars. It was our first outdoor meal of the trip and the almost full moon added that extra element of romance to the night. The conversation flowed long after the meal was finished.
Wednesday September 14th
In Which I Make a Lovely Surprise Discovery
I should have known that the day would work out well. After all it is not every day that the very first email you open brings you the incredible news that you have just won 500,000 pounds in the English Lottery. Considering that I didn’t even have a ticket in the lottery, I guessed that it was a true miracle as well as a dose of good fortune.
At least I didn’t have to worry about the weather. We have learned that we are stuck in a meteorological time warp where every day is exactly the same as all the others before it. Of course it was to be another day of unbroken sunshine and a temperature in the mid 20s.
Today’s ride was a modest ride of only 40 km, with no climbs or serious challenges I assembled the team in the hotel car park at 8.30 am and asked which riders wanted to bolt and which wanted to dawdle
. Once again the riders divided into the same groups as they had for the previous few days. It appears that, once you are a bolter or a dawdler, the condition cannot be treated.
There were also several independently minded riders, who preferred to do the ride as individuals. To avoid confusion I sent off the first group and then waited for quite a while before guiding the team of expert dawdlers down towards the Danube. Since this was to be the 12th cycling day of our adventure, all team members now have cast iron bums and are extremely fit. We were very confident that the day would be an easy one.
The first 10 km of the ride took us right along the shady river bank. Although the track was unsealed and a little loose, it made for exceptional cycling in the cool of the early morning. At one point we approached a group of 4 middle aged walkers. I sounded my bell courteously to warn them our approach. You could imagine my utter surprise as their leader shouted a loud “Achtung” and they all sprang to attention on either side of the track, making a safe path for us to pass. German discipline never ceases to amaze me.
Quite soon we reached the town of Hochstadt, famous for its big castle
. We rode into the Main St of the town only to find that the riders from the first group were still eating their first cream cakes of the day. It was still only 9.30 am and the museum apparently did not open till 2 pm in the afternoon. We thought for about 3 seconds before deciding to give that one a miss.
The famous castle was only a few hundred metres further down the road. Although the original structure had been erected hundreds of years ago, it had been so thoroughly restored (ie rebuilt) that it looked brand new. I was reminded of the famous tale of grandpa’s axe. It had been fitted with 8 new handles and 4 new heads as it was passed down from generation to generation, but it somehow remained a significant family heirloom.
I paid the lady at the front desk 3.5 Euros and entered the building. The inside was painted stark white, and gave almost no indication of the real history of the building. In fact it looked like any other modern art gallery. I found that a little disappointing, but Maggie loved the place. I then set out to explore the building and it did not take long before I fell foul of the first female guide (or was it guard ?). I was instructed that “I was going the wrong way“. Obviously they expected every visitor to walk in step and follow the same path
. That only made me a little more determined to go my own way.
I turned a corner and started up a staircase. A voice came from nowhere and informed me that it was the “wrong staircase”, It was only for going down (even though there was no up or down sign and it looked perfectly safe to me). Then another guide came and asked for my ticket. I didn’t have it – Maggie had it. More demerits scored. “Walk that way”, I was told. Over the next few minutes I was frogmarched from guard to guard like the naughty schoolboy on his way to have a chat to the headmaster.
Eventually I was led to a large auditorium on the top floor. Apparently that is where all well behaved visitors MUST start. There was nothing there, it was a boring room. I made my escape and started doing the unthinkable – exploring on my own. On this level there were a succession of rooms outlining the histories of the major dynasties of Europe. You quickly learned that, for hundreds of years, the royalty of Europe had occupied themselves with arranging marriages, having inbred children, entertaining their mistresses and waging wars against each other.
One large animated display showed the unfolding of the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
It seemed that, with every toss of the dice, hundreds more young soldiers were slaughtered on the battlefield. All the while the royalty followed the progress of the battle like onlookers at a chess tournament. It somehow made me feel intensely sad as I contemplated the utter stupidity and futility of war. My grandfather, who had fought at Gallipoli and then gone on to help form the Bicycle Battalion in WWI, would only use the term “cannon fodder” whenever I asked him about his wartime experiences. Some things never change.
After an hour in the castle I had seen enough. I emerged into the bright light and waited for the others to join me. I wanted to get moving again.
I was a little apprehensive when the guide notes warned that there were “no food stops between Hochstadt and Donauworth”. Our group of 8 riders headed off, expecting that we would have to ride straight through to the next hotel at Donauworth. We did pass through a couple of small towns, each with its own big church, but no cafe. I have learned to classify such towns as “rubbish towns”.
It was beginning to look like the notes were correct, and that all the towns would prove to be rubbish towns.
It was only when we reached the third such little town that we stopped to have a look at a small baby horse that was in a front garden. As the women were admiring the cute little thing a huge dog (much bigger than the horse) came bounding out and almost lept over the fence at us. It was enough for us to need a change of riding knicks. We jumped back on the bikes and started moving again. It looked like yet another rubbish town, but it wasn’t.
At this time of the year the apple trees of Germany are all laden with their delicious fruit.The trees that are near the bike path provide free sustenance for hungry cyclists. If you are clever you can even pick a perfect apple, straight from the tree, without even stopping. I introduced this apple eating tradition to our riders. At least we would not go completely hungry.
A little further on I stopped to allow the group to bunch up again and a local chap started to ask where we were going. Since he didn’t speak a single word of English (and probably not much German either) it was not easy, but somehow we spent some time chatting and learning all about his life story. He was most impressed when he found that we were riding to Budapest. Such a feat was unheard of in that town.
When the group was ready to move on, I decided to do a loop around the block, just to see what was there.
I rode past a funny little place that might have been a shop, however it looked like it had been shut for years. The others followed me down the street and I had a look in the window. To my utter amazement it was open. I was even more amazed when we entered the shop to find that it was actually a very modern bakery, complete with coffee machine, all manner of cakes, bread, sandwiches and drinks. The notes had proven to be completely wrong. This was definitely NOT a rubbish town after all.
We stocked up on food and then settled down in the shady park in the centre of town for a picnic lunch. The day was warming up and it would have been tempting to have a siesta, but we knew that we still had 25 km to go. While we were sitting there Maggie noticed something approaching at very high speed. “Look at that”, she said. I turned just in time to see Janna and Douglas flying through at warp speed. We waved and shouted, but our efforts were in vain. They were obviously riding to meet some sort of deadline. It reminded me of those crowds that line the streets of France to see the Tour de France peloton fly past. In a few seconds it was all over and the two riders were already disappearing in the distance.
“Maybe they didn’t see us”, I explained.
At this time David jumped to his feet and started to dance excitedly.
I wondered why he was so upset that Janna and David did not stop. He then augmented his dance moves by slapping his thighs and swinging his arms. I thought he was practising the famous Bavarian Slap Dance, but his strange behaviour was due to his discovery of some brightly coloured spiky caterpillar, slowly crawling up his ankle. He only settled down when the tiny, harmless creature was rendered inert. Old people are sometimes like that.
After a lengthy break it was time to get back on the bikes again and make our way to the hotel. We knew that, by this time, the first riders would have already checked in, had their showers and read a novel or two. Fortunately the going was pretty easy, the profile was flat and the surface was smooth. The only obstacle was a gentle head wind that served to ensure that we would have to work for every kilometre.
At around 2.10 pm we rolled into Donauworth and rode up the Main St to our hotel. I was quite surprised to see the riders from Group 1 actually riding in the opposite direction, apparently they had been wandering around in the wilderness, looking for the hotel. This surprising turn of events actually meant that the tortoises arrived at the hotel before the hares.Miracles really do still happen after all.
Thursday September 15th
In Which we Enter the House of Frankinstein
In 1818 Mary Shelley scared the wits out of the world with her tale of Dr Frankenstein and his monster. This ghostly horror story was set in the German town of Ingolstadt. Almost two hundred years later, 26 Ghostriders decided to tempt fate by riding into the same city on the 13th day of their ride. Just to tempt fate a little more they also planned it to arrive on the day of the full moon. What could possibly go wrong ? As it turned out, just about everything.
The day certainly started like every previous day of this ride. In fact every day has been so perfect that we are actually starting to tire of sunny days. I told everyone that this ride would be heavily populated with wet days, and so far we were yet to even see a cloud.
Since we knew that the day’s riding was going to be long and that we were going to face some serious climbs, we decided to leave early to get some kilometres done before the worst heat of the day.
We set off in high spirits and soon the road started heading uphill. We clicked down through the gears to find the best rhythm. The peloton stretched into a long column. Cycling is such a joy.
Of course every climb has its rewards, in the form of panoramic views at the summit. This first climb was no exception. We were delighted to find an amazing, fully restored classic mansion at the top. Next to the mansion was a large hotel complex which had tastefully been built in the same style as the original home. We decided to stop and investigate further.
Leaving the bikes and walking through the grounds we gazed at the breathtaking views that stretched out before us. As we looked more closely we could see the place where we had ridden from. A friendly local couple started chatting with us as they were curious about our ride. Like every other person we meet, they were staggered to hear just how far we were riding. They also explained that the whole complex had only been opened a year ago. They were from the nearby town of Neuburg and had decided to stay a night, just to see how good it was. After some time chatting, we bade them farewell and resumed our ride.
If we were expecting a lovely downhill, we were soon disappointed.
What followed was a succession of additional climbs, certainly the toughest of the ride so far. I was steadily working my way up one of these hills, when I looked around to see where Maggie was. There was no sign of her. I thought I had better stop and wait for her to catch up. I figured that she could not be more than a few minutes behind. So I waited. And waited. Still no sign.
A couple of other riders were making their way up the climb. I asked them if they had seen a woman rider with a yellow shirt. Unfortunately they had no English whatsoever, or apparently any other language either for that matter. I decided to ride back down and see where she was. I was starting to get concerned. When there was no sign of her at the bottom of the climb, I tried to ring her phone. It took quite a few attempts to get through, but when I did manage to speak to her, she calmly explained that she was resting with the others at the top of the hill.
“How did you get past me ?” I asked.
“I decided to ride up the road, instead of the bike path”, was her answer. “It was easier”, she explained. Of course she had not given any thought to letting me know where she was going.
That meant I had to turn around and ride up the same hill for a second time.
Not happy, then over the next hour or so we managed to consecutively lose one rider after another. Sometimes we would be riding alongside, happily chatting and then presto, rider disappeared. It was really creeping me out. We were also searching for a coffee stop for morning tea, but all the coffee stops had apparently disappeared too. Rubbish towns every one.
At one likely looking town we started riding around looking for a cafe. There had to be one somewhere. Paul and Gael went missing. This was feeling like “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, where riders were just vanishing at every turn.
A little later, as I was battling up yet another steep climb, my mobile phone rang. It was Ken calling to say that Liz had “gone missing”. As I struggled to hold the phone and continue riding up the hill, I lost all forward momentum and went off the trail – and straight into a thriving path of stinging nettles. The day was like that. For the next hour hour or so my legs turned bright red and felt like they were being vigorously rubbed with coarse sandpaper.
Fortunately we did eventually retrieve all the missing riders and decided to push on to the next town.
My quest for coffee was finally rewarded when I managed to ask a local guy where coffee was. He gave directions and soon we had found the elusive centre of town, complete with modern coffee shop. A few coffees and cakes later and we were all feeling much better.
After we resumed our ride and when the hills were far behind us, we were riding happily along the top of a dike when David noticed something rolling alongside him. WHen he looked closer he realised it was his own back wheel. It had somehow become disconnected from his bike. He stopped and reattached the errant wheel and we were back on our way again.
Our next challenge occurred when our way was blocked by a HUGE construction site. They appeared to be doing some serious work on the side of the Danube. I looked at the big fence across the path. “Let’s just ignore it”, I suggested. We did. It was too late to consider trying to find some alternative route.
We put on our best “we are just stupid old foreigners” faces and proceeded to walk past all the shocked construction workers, wheeling our bikes. I expected at any moment to be met with a torrent of Germanic abuse, but somehow our ruse worked.
The site went on for a long time, but we were able to proceed unchallenged, until we eventually emerged at the other end,
Soon after we arrived at Neuburg and somehow managed to find the best cafe in town. The food was superb. Perhaps things were finally looking up. After deciding to skip yet another castle tour (well actually I never do any form of organised tour) we continued to Ingolstadt. The final few kilometers were flat and made for exceptional riding.
On the outskirts of town we were overtaken by the bolters’ group, but they were on a mission and quickly rode past on their way to get to town first. They are always like that.
For some reason, in Ingolstadt we were split over two hotels. Apparently one was large and luxurious with modern, cool rooms and a perfect location. We didn’t get that hotel. We got the other one. Our hotel was easily the worst I have endured for many years. The Pfeffermuhle was an absolute shocker of a place. The rooms were stifling, without even a fan to move the air.
In the evening we opened the window to try to get some relief, but the incessant traffic noise from trucks and would-be racing drivers, continued all night. Just to add some extra “atmosphere” to the place, there was a huge purple light right outside our room which illuminated our room with the same type of light you get in those toilets that try to discourage drug users. Our only other option was to open the room door to the corridor. We did that and found that the hall light flashed off and on every few seconds, alternately making our room light and dark. We were actually glad when the alarm went off. It had been a dreadful night in every possible respect. Frankenstein is apparently still lurking in the streets of Ingolstadt.
Friday September 16th
In Which we Take a Boat Journey
After the terrible night at the Pfeffermuhle Hotel, I was not sorry to see the last of the place. Even the Internet was a proverbial pain in the bum. We all hoped that the next hotel would raise the standard again.
Since the Ghostriders would be starting from two different hotels we had arranged to each leave and then meet at the church in the next town. At risk of sounding repetitive, the weather was perfect, the sky blue and the temperature absolutely ideal for riding.
We arrived at the church in question and waited in the sunshine for the others to arrive. They didn’t. Instead I got a phone call from Douglas, informing me that they had missed the turn and were already several kilometres further ahead. We climbed back on the bikes and enjoyed an easy paced ride of around 55 km.
Much of the ride was along the tops of imposing levy banks. This gave us a clear view of how much higher is the Danube than the surrounding countryside. I tried not to think of what would happen if these banks were ever breached.
A short distance further along we rode past what is apparently the world’s largest gas fired power stations. The three large towers looked impressive and the humming power lines high overhead gave some indication of the massive scale of the operation. I guessed that, if you were interested in such things, you would have stopped for a longer look. We weren’t.
Our morning tea stop was alongside a beautiful small creek and consisted of coffee and cakes from the nearby bakery. With the warm day and the relaxing sounds of the running water, it was very tempting to declare a siesta break, however I decided that we should push on instead
The final 10 km was directly along the banks of the Danube. By this time the river has grown into a mighty waterway – a far cry from the modest stream we had been following since Donaueschingen.Our passage was eventually blocked by the narrowing of the river into the Danube Gorge.
At this point the only way to proceed is to board a large ferry boat to transport us through the gorge to Kelheim. We boarded the boat and I was looking forward to enjoying the short cruise and the views of the towering cliffs on either side. My plans were interrupted by an inquisitive German cyclist who wanted to know everything about our group, where we were going, where we had come from, what sort of bikes we had, how many times we had come to Germany, my mother’s maiden name and my preferred sock colour. He was a friendly guy, who I guessed might have been lonely, so I tried to be informative as possible. But I also wanted to take some pictures and talk to Maggie as well. It was just that, every time I turned around, he was standing about 50 cm behind me. I had not really been looking for a new best friend, but I think I inadvertently found one on that boat.
We reached the lovely town of Kelheim and I almost expected my new friend to follow us to the hotel, however he waved us off and wished us a safe journey. Probably I misjudged him.
Our hotel was right in the middle of the old part of the town and I was relieved to find that the rooms were not only cooler, but they were quiet as well. That was absolute bliss.
The weather forest for tomorrow is for heavy rain, so it appears that the incredible run of fine weather has finally reached an end.
Saturday September 17
In Which the Rains Came (and the Luggage Left)
Logic would clearly advise that it would never be possible to cycle across Europe from Bruges to Budapest without getting at least several wet and/or cold days. Since we arrived in Europe over 3 weeks ago we have been blessed with fine and warm weather every single day. The utter perfection of it all was almost starting to get a little monotonous. although I never thought that I would actually look forward to a bad day.
The long awaited day finally arrived on our ride from Kelheim to Regensburg. I could hear the rain falling outside the window during the night and, by the time our alarm sounded in the morning, it had well and truly settled in to a steady downpour. This then gave us the chance to skip the sunscreen, don the wet weather gear we had bought with us and hope that the panniers were watertight.
A couple of our ladies tried their best to audition for the job of village idiot by visiting the local sports store and purchasing one of the owner’s slowest selling items.
. Carol and Gael emerged from the shop with bright red plastic tea cosies (which the shop owner had told them were “bike helmet covers”). The 10 Euros each that the ladies handed over must have surely sent the shop’s profits skyward.
Thus decked out in rain jackets and silly red hats, our peloton rode out from Kelheim and headed along the Danube riverbank towards Regensburg. The ride was only going to be about 40 km in length and would have been a real doddle, if it hadn’t been for the incessant rain. The gravel path was soon turned to soft mud which splashed up our legs every time we rode through a puddle (which was every few metres). The mud and slop from the path was soon spread liberally over all of us. But did we mind ? Of course not. We were actually enjoying ourselves immensely.
A short distance out of Kelheim we spotted our first huge “pyjama boat”. It was cruising downstream, laden with idle tourists who had come from all over the world to spend their time eating and sleeping across Europe. I was amazed that, at 9.30 am in the morning, virtually all the drapes were drawn and the decks were completely empty. In true pyjama boat style, it was obvious that none of the passengers had yet crawled out of their beds. On the other hand we were riding our bikes through the mud, already soaked to the skin and having to pedal our own way down the river.
So who was having the most fun ? It wasn’t even close. None of us would have swapped places for quids. This was exactly what we had come to do.
About this time, for no apparent reason, Dave had another of his rushes of blood and disappeared into the distance. We were happy to ride along at around 18 kph while he was no longer visible.
We continued in this fashion until we came to the town of Bad Abbach. In German tradition, this does not mean that the town is really bad, it just means that it once had a spa (or bath) there. It was time for morning tea, but still no sign of David. As we were discussing what to do, my phone rang. It was David wondering where we were. Where we were ??? It was he who had bolted, and we now found that he gone along the wrong path. We headed to the coffee shop while David rode back to meet us.
The day was also significant for another reason – it was Carol’s birthday. So at every opportunity we made sure to sing the familiar Happy Birthday song.
. We soon encountered a large bunch of riders, apparently from the Colombian cycling team since they all looked like Nairo Quintana. Our highly trained elite riders had no trouble in catching the South Americans and passing them with a dismissive wave of the hand. The kilometres were ticking by quickly and soon we were on the outskirts of Regensburg itself.
The final few kilometres into town followed the riverbank and gave a wonderful preview of the town itself. It was a pity that we could not see anything at all, due to wet glasses and eyeballs. Regensburg is regarded as one of the most picturesque towns in Germany. On a better day we would have stopped to admire the scenery, but by now our only thoughts were to reach the hotel.
Of course the problem was that we arrived at the hotel far too early, just in time to see the bolters group approach from the other side. We tramped into the lovely foyer of the Munchner Hof, leaving a trail of mud and water across the floor. I apologised to the staff and expected to be soundly chastised. You can imagine my surprise when they welcomed us to bring our bikes right through the foyer to the rear shed. (They were still cleaning up our mess an hour later).
Fortunately most of the rooms were available, even though our luggage had not yet arrived. We went to the rooms and kept warm as best we could till the luggage arrived. Around 2.30 pm the familiar van pulled up and started to unload the suitcases. I felt like I was standing at the luggage carousel at the airport, waiting for our familiar cases. My case was unloaded, but no sign of Maggie’s. I asked the driver if there were any more. “No more”, he said.
At that time I was reminded of the familiar words of Corporal Jones of the Dad’s Army TV show. “Don’t panic, DON’T PANIC”. It was too late, Maggie was already panicking.
I rang the previous hotel and was told that the missing case had been left by the driver in the foyer. He must have had a bad day or been distracted, but now he would have to drive all the way back to Kelheim to retrieve the missing case. It eventually arrived safely about 2 hours later.
Unfortunately it still far too wet to explore the town. We are all hoping that the weather will improve in the morning and allow us a couple of hours to see something of its wonderful buildings.
Sunday September 18
In Which we Arrive in Straubing at Market Time
After the deluge we endured the previous, day it was something of a miracle that we could even consider getting back on the bikes again. Fortunately due to very efficient heated towel rails (and a huge electricity bill for the hotel) we all managed to wash and dry our saturated clothes and shoes.
Since the ride to Straubing was only around 50 km and since we are all now getting fitter (and probably fatter) every day, that distance did not constitute a challenge. We decided that we could spend some more time exploring Regensburg, since most of us were too wet to have any chance of doing any sightseeing the previous day.
The breakfast at the Munchner Hof was certainly in a league of its own. Not only was it served in a beautiful timber panelled room with a decorated glass ceiling, but the array of food options was easily the best we have had so far on this trip.
. There were even about 8 different types of juice to select from. I spent some time looking at the long line of bottles before making my final choice – orange juice. I have never laid any claim to being an adventurous diner.
The hotel also offered to make us lunch boxes for only 5 Euro each. This saved us the trouble of wandering the town looking for a supermarket.
I was pleased to see that the rain had temporarily stopped and so we were able to spend some time wandering the impressive city. Apparently Regensburg was never severely damaged during the war and so much of the ancient medieval city has remained intact. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since it was a Sunday morning, it was initially very quiet and we were able to walk the streets alone, however this did not last for long.
By 10 am the streets were starting to fill with numerous groups of tourists from the dreaded tour buses. There was a proliferation of flag carrying guides spouting off their own versions of history. A huge crowd of bored looking individuals had obviously been part of some “Viking Tour” and were slowly shuffling down the narrow streets of the old city.
. Our lovely solitude was gone for ever. Since I am a bit of a mischief I even gave some thought to gathering our small group into a mock tour group so that I could start making up some fantastical stories to yell at them.
My dialogue would have gone something like this:
“This thing is a church, it’s a pretty big one, probably old or maybe it just needs a clean. On the top you can see some big pointy things.It’s got a bell with a giant donger inside. It’s called a brown church. Down there is a big river with lots of water going downstream. It’s got a big bridge over it. There’s probably lots of other stuff here as well, but we don’t have time for any of that, the bus is leaving in 5 minutes”.
I reckon it could have been quite a hoot, but we decided to get on our bikes again and seek the solitude of the bike paths instead. My two basic travel principles are (a) never take a “selfie” and (b) never, ever join a tour group and I wasn’t going to change now.
We returned to the hotel, mounted our bikes and rode out of the city.
. Very soon we were back in the countryside, briskly riding on lovely smooth bitumen. Our first (and only) stop was to be the huge (and incredibly hideous) monument called “Walhalla”. This huge structure was modelled on the Greek Parthenon, however it lacks all the beauty of the original and instead just stands as a sad monument to German aggrandisement. The structure is situated on a prominent location and commands a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. To get there you can either ride up the road, walk up a back path, or a combination of the two. Several of us rode as far as we could up the gravel path and then climbed the hundreds of stairs to the memorial itself.
The interior of the structure is filled with statues to commemorate famous, high achieving German citizens, however the selection seems to be rather biassed with many deserving candidates having been overlooked for recognition. We decided not to pay the entry fee but to spend our money on a coffee instead.
The ride was then resumed until we stopped about 20 km further on for lunch outside a village church. We opened our boxed lunches, enjoying the rolls, but quickly deciding that the apples were far too tart to eat. We then only had another hour or so of easy cycling till we reached the lovely town of Straubing
. Although there were many nearby black clouds we managed to avoid the deluge and arrive at the hotel still dry.
Due to an incredible dose of good fortune we arrived just in time for the Oktoberfest Market in the centre of town. The whole main street precinct was filled with dozens of stalls and groups of talented singers kept us entertained for ages. A large Bavarian “oom pa pa” band, decked out in national costume, was obviously the main attraction. Thousands of people wandered the streets or sat in the open sipping at huge glasses of frothy beer. We were so fortunate to have arrived at precisely the right time and it gave us a unique insight into this facet of German life.
Just as the market was being dismantled late in the afternoon, the sky blackened and the rain came flooding down again. By this time we were safely in our hotel room and were able to watch the entire spectacle through our window. We are now being told by the weather forecasters that this wet weather could continue tomorrow. Bring it on.
Monday September 19
In Which we Dodge the Drizzle into Deggendorf
I awoke to the sound of steady rain falling outside our hotel room. A glance out the window gave the type of scene that is dreaded by all long distance cyclists – soaked streets and a sea of umbrellas. Although we know that it is unrealistic to expect to ride 2000 km across Europe without getting wet, I do tend to inhabit a fantasy world where the impossible is often highly likely.
I decided to re read the weather forecasts. No joy there. The easiest approach was to do nothing for a couple of hours and see what happened. If the weather improved we would leave immediately, if it got worse we would have another coffee and wait even longer.
While we were waiting for the weather to change it gave me a chance to go down to the basement garage to examine the scene of a serious car accident
. While we were sitting in the foyer yesterday the concierge left his desk in a state of agitation. When I asked what was the matter he replied that an accident had occurred in the basement. When we followed him downstairs we were amazed to see that a new BMW SUV had driven straight into one of the concrete supports at a quite high speed. The car was demolished and the occupants had been transported to hospital. It was hard to understand what had happened, although I suspected that it was another case of the “mixed accelerator with brake pedal” syndrome.
When I re examined the scene the following day I could see that a parallel set of skid marks led across the car park, directly to the concrete post. It appeared that the driver had accidentally floored the accelerator and spun the wheels as he headed for disaster. The car’s back seat had been piled high with luggage, so I felt sorry for the holiday makers who had had their plans so greatly altered by this event. The post showed very little outward evidence of the accident, showing just how unequal the conflict had been.
By 10.30 am the rain had stopped and I tried to round up the riders to make use of whatever respite we had. The difficulty was that most had either switched off their phones or were too deaf to hear them ringing
. We proceeded to search the hotel and town for the missing people and, about 30 mins later, we were finally ready to head off.
Today’s ride was relatively short and mostly on lovely smooth bitumen paths. This meant that we could cruise along happily at quite a good speed. At the town of Bogen we found a beautiful bakery to stock up with supplies for a picnic lunch further down the road. Somehow, although there was rain all around us, we managed to ride in a patch of fine weather. Quite often it works the other way round, where a little rain cloud can follow you all day, even when the rest of the district is in bright sunshine. Fortunately on this day, fate was in our favour and we were able to complete the entire ride without a single drop of rain.
We arrived at Deggendorf around 2.30 pm and decided to have a hot drink before heading to the hotel. When we did finally arrive at the hotel we were met by a confused crush of people at the counter, all jostling for keys at the same time. The hotel staff seemed to just give up and hand out keys to anyone who asked for one (even when they were not part of our group). This meant that, by the time David and Carol reached the desk, they were told that “all the rooms had been allocated”. Obviously they were not happy, nor were they happy when they were offered a single room with an additional fold up bed
. They eventually had to wait quite a while, until a room was vacated by a late checker outer.
Maggie and I were also not impressed when we were sent to a room without windows. Well technically it did have a window, but it looked straight into the beer garden, meaning that both the window and curtains had to be continually closed. Paul and Jan were sent to a room in the crawl space in the ceiling. The only window they had was a small round porthole at floor level. The only way to look out was to lie flat on your stomach and crawl to the edge.
The hotel’s restaurant also had no idea what a vegetarian was. We tried to explain that vegetarians do NOT eat meat soup, but the sour faced waitress insisted that it was very rude and ignorant not to eat the soup that was provided. No choices were offered, just an evil glare and some muttered abuse. Hardly world’s best practise in the hospitality industry. This battle of wits lasted through the whole meal with just about all of us managing to incur her displeasure for some misdemeanour or other. She didn’t even approve of the way we had stacked our empty plates. We were glad to leave the stifling and noisy interior and get some quietness and fresh air outside.
Tomorrow marks the end of section two of our Odyssey ride as we reach the famous 3 rivers city of Passau. Three riders will be leaving us and other 5 riders will be joining for section 3.
Tuesday September 20
In Which we Arrive at the City of the Three Rivers
It really was a brave decision to go ahead with an overseas bike ride with so many strong minded people. Never before had we ever faced the problem of coping with so many riders. Just to give an idea of some of the problems I faced each and every day I thought I would give you an insight into a typical day. Some of the day’s dialogue would go like this…..
“What time is breakfast ?”
“No, Dennis said 7.30 am for today”
“When did he say that ?”
“At the briefing last night”
“Was there a briefing ? I went to bed”
“I went to the briefing but could not hear a word”
“I went to the briefing but cannot remember a word he said”
” I want to start now, let’s go”
“But it’s not time yet”
“Time for what ?”
“Which way do we go ?”
“No, that way”
“I am ready for coffee”
“I need a toilet”
“I need a toilet too, and I could be some time”
“It’s too early to stop”
“I want a cake”
“C’mon why are we riding so slow?”
“Too fast, I can’t keep up”
“I need to take my coat off I’m hot”
“I need to put my coat on, I’m cold now”
“I need a toilet stop”
“I don’t want to ride with those people”
“I want my own group”
“Group of what ?”
“Why can’t we all be the leader ?”
“Where are we going ?”
“I meant, where are we going today?”
“No idea ”
“I want to go shopping”
“What’s keeping them so long”
“They stopped to take some pictures”
“Pictures of what ?”
“Look at that old dog over there”
“Where ? Can I take its picture?”
“I need another toilet stop”
“I want coffee”
“We’ve only been riding for 20 minutes”
“Dennis has no idea, does he?”
“Idea of what ?”
“Who’s Dennis ?”
“Is it time for coffee yet ?”
“I’m not stopping”
“Stopping everyone !”
“Right of what?”
“I am not riding up THAT hill”
“It’s not a hill, don’t stop”
“I’ve just wet myself laughing”
“So have I”
“Are we there yet ?”
“What part of ‘I need a toilet’ didn’t you understand ?”
“Is that our hotel ?”
“That’s a Rathaus”
“Let me get to the desk first, I really need the toilet”
And so it goes on every day. There is one recurring theme that repeats so often, that I am seriously thinking of changing our name from the Ghostriders to the Incontinents.
I once had visions of a cohesive line of yellow clad riders riding in pelotonic precision all the way from Donaueschingen to Passau, but that unrealistic goal quickly became impossible when Carol washed her’s and David’s cycling clothes with her new black underwear and thus ensured that their jerseys would emerge covered in black stains and thus could never be worn again. From that moment everything went rapidly downhill.
And yet, in spite of all the mass confusion, we did all manage to complete our set task. Over 600 km (and about 967 toilet stops) after leaving Donaueschingen we did all somehow arrive safely and triumphantly at Passau. The weather also co operated by providing a dry day, with the clouds breaking up, just in time to let the sun shine through for the final few kilometres.
As we entered the lovely old city and past the famous old decorated clock tower, the massive bells started to announce our arrival with an extended melodious peel. It seemed a fitting way to end such a memorable ride. Our plan had been to ride through to the actual confluence of the Danube and the Inn Rivers and you could imagine my surprise to spot a familiar face in the small crowd that was gathered there. It was none other that John Mudgway. He had no idea that we would be riding into town at just that moment and was just as surprised as us. The real reason he was there was that he was looking for a toilet ! Old people are like that. At least he was able to assist by welcoming our achievement and acting as camera man to take the group photo.
John is one of the five new riders that will be joining us at Passau. We also bade farewell to Lou and Rhonda Torelli and also Mary Jonas, who will be leaving us at this point.It had been great to share stages one and two with them.
Wednesday September 21
In Which we Observe the Pyjama People of Passau
“Do you think you should be going to Europe now ?”
“I would never go to such a place ever”
“I am too afraid to leave my front door, and you should be too”
And so the well meaning advice went when I told people that I was planning on cycling across Europe from Bruges to Budapest. Obviously the media had done a great job in convincing the masses that the whole of Europe was a seething cauldron of suicide bombers, millions of illegal immigrants everywhere you go, and every one of them determined to put a premature end to every Australian cyclist they see.
Now that we have been here for over four weeks, we have yet to see a single person that made us feel afraid
. We have cycled for over a thousand kilometres across a large part of the continent and been amazed every single day at the quietness and tranquility of the place. The interactions we have had with locals have not been because they were trying to murder us, but because they were in awe of what we were doing and wanted to know all about it. If we had listened to all the well-intentioned advice that we received, we would all have missed out on one of the greatest adventures of our lives.
After the first twenty days of cycling, we reached the famous 3 rivers city of Passau. This region is regarded as one of the cradles of civilization and has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. More recently, Passau has gained notoriety for an entirely different reason. This city is now one of the major centres of the exploding business of using huge boats to daily transport thousands of grey haired tourists along the rivers of Europe.
On our previous trips to Passau we watched the way these boats filled up with their cargos of passengers as they shuffled the short distance from the big tourist buses to their cabins, puffing and panting as they went. At that time I commented that, once on board, they could change into their pyjamas and stay that way for the entire cruise
. Thus we christened these giant boats as “pyjama boats”. The name has stuck ever since.
I have always loved to observe people and see how they go about their lives. It is not possible to spend any time in Passau without seeing these huge crowds of pyjama people jostling for selfie taking positions in front of every decorated building. I quickly came to the conclusion that I would be more in danger of losing an eye on the end of someone’s selfie stick, than being attacked by some crazed terrorist.
These pyjama people wander the city in clumps, each clustered around their allocated tour leader and laughing on queue when the guide tells the same well rehearsed joke they have told hundreds of times before. After they shuffle around for an hour or so, they are herded back to their pens (sorry cabins) and then the boat moves to the next location so that they can do it all again. Of course the real die hard pyjama people seldom venture beyond their cabins or the dining room. In that way they can eat and sleep the entire way around Europe.
Even after only few hours of such “sightseeing” I was already keen to get back on my bike and start riding again.
. The more I do such travel, the more I am convinced that the “real Europe” does not consist of the crowded tourist hot spots, it is not the huge churches and museums, or the castles on the tops of hills. Although these places do give an appreciation for the depth of history, the real Europe is where the real people are. The farmer working his fields, the school children going to school, the mother teaching her 2 year old how to ride a bike, the old people sitting and chatting in the village square, the man sitting with a fishing pole by the river, or the shepherd using his dogs to control his sheep. I also love to watch the swans sliding across the water, the dog sitting obediently by their owner in the little cafe, the geese migrating south for the coming winter or the little squirrels running across the road in front of us. On the nearby hills the onset of autumn is already starting to change the colour pallet of the forests. In a few months these same hills will be blanketed in a carpet of snow and the cycle of life will continue to turn.
Yes, there is no doubt that Passau is an impressive place, but somehow I cannot escape the feeling that it has been a little too restored. The buildings are just a little too immaculate. I would not mind seeing even a little peeling paint or a cracked wall somewhere to remind us of just how old these buildings really are. Perhaps that is one of the differences between Germany and France. In France they don’t seem to be afraid to show a little wear and tear on their historic buildings.
Tomorrow we resume our ride towards Budapest and early in the day we will be crossing the border in Austria, the fourth country we will be traversing on our journey. Our time on the German Danube is almost complete.
Thursday September 22
In Which we Cycle the Schlogener
Today marked the start of section three of our European Odyssey. This meant that we would need to collect new bikes to carry us from Passau to Vienna. This would have been simple if the bike supplier could have delivered them to our hotel, but they didn’t. They instructed that we would need to collect then from their depot, about 6 km out of town.
Just to make sure that the handover of bikes would take place as efficiently as possible I rang the representative of the bike company the previous day and explained that we would be arriving in two groups of 14 people, about 30 minutes apart. “That is great, we will have the bikes ready and tagged with your names”, she promised. It certainly never worked out that way.
We arrived at the strangely named “Globus Garage” right on time at 8.30 am, expecting to be able to collect our bikes and get going
. The only person in the cavernous warehouse certainly did not seem pleased to see us.
“What do you want ?”, he demanded
“Our bikes” (Why else would we have come to a bike storage warehouse?)
“You can come tomorrow”, he growled
“Not tomorrow, we need them today !” (Why was my stress level starting to escalate?)
I handed him the vouchers, showing the date of collection. He just grumbled and went to look in a big book. Then he gets on the phone to someone from his company. Twenty minutes later there were still no bikes. Eventually he starts to just grab bikes seemingly at random from the hundreds of bikes at his disposal. None had been prepared in advance. The only thing that the guy gave out freely was abuse.
The shambles continued for the next hour while, one by one, we finally got a bike that was reasonable. This whole fiasco could have been been avoided if they had prepared the bikes like they were supposed to. While this was going on I rang the girl from the bike company and explained the disaster that was taking place. She simply replied that they could not be prepared as people needed to “try their bikes”
. I was not impressed at all. Every other operator we have dealt with has been able to prepare bikes in advance, except this company.
The situation became more farcical when we asked for spare tubes and tools. I was met with the same torrent of abuse. Eventually he handed over one tube and a small box of tools. ONE TUBE for 28 bikes and about 500 km of riding ! The only way this grump would hand over another tube was when he was handed a 10 Euro bribe. We had also ordered one Ebike as part of the order and we discovered that the battery had only been partly charged, This was a really disappointing way to start this part of the ride and we were all glad to be finally out of the place and start pedalling our way to Vienna. Things could only get better from here – and they did.
At least the weather was superb as we followed the left bank of the river out of Passau. We were now cycling one of the world’s premier bike paths and we all knew just how lucky we were to have such a privilege. As Passau shrank into the distance behind us we looked to the mighty Danube on our right hand side. The water from the three rivers that join at Passau each has a distinctly different colour, and you can see these different colours in the water for some distance downstream
After about an hour of riding we stopped to readjust our bikes and recover from the trauma of the bike collection, it was time for our first morning tea stop. We then climbed back on the bikes and continued till about 12.30 before stopping for a leisurely lunch. The last time we rode through this spot it had been a hot day and they had a sprayer rigged to cool passing riders. Today we had much milder temperatures and the sprayer was not required.
Although we passed the occasional rider the path was actually very quiet, again emphasizing that this is the VERY BEST time for this type of trip in Europe.The hotels are quiet, most of the tourist hordes are back home again and the weather is usually great for cycling.
It was interesting to pass the Gasthof Draxler at Niederanna, the place where our group stayed on our first Danube ride in 2009. I had many happy memories of that place and the fun time we had shared there.
The final section of the ride took us further along the left bank to to the famous Schogener Loop
. This is where the Danube has to make a series of fantastic bends to get around some sizeable mountains that block the more direct route.
Opposite the little hamlet of Schlogen we all crowded aboard a tiny ferry to cross to the other side of the river. This is the start of the walk to the famous Schlogener Blick (lookout). This is surely the most spectacular view of the river that we will get for the entire ride and well worth the short but quite strenuous walk to the summit. We all admired the view and took a camera full of pictures before returning to the base.
Although we had originally planned to cycle to the hotel where we would be spending the night, I received an email the previous day to advise that the hotel would provide a lift for any that did not wish to ride (as it turned out everyone)
The only problem was the the mini bus could only take 8 people at a time and the ancient bike trailer took an eternity to load and unload each time. This meant that the final group to be transported were half frozen by the time it was their turn for the lift. Fortunately the hotel Kocher at Sankt Agatha was probably the best hotel of the entire trip and our hardship was soon forgotten as we explored this lovely Shangri La, high in the Austrian mountains
The views stretched out in all directions over the green rolling hills. Scattered over these mountains were the classic small villages, each clustered around their own church.
By the time I arrived in the final batch, most of the women were already enjoying themselves in the swimming pool. Since Maggie had the room key, I was locked out and had to languish outside our room while she enjoyed the warm pool. I eventually managed to shower and change and get to to the the dining room just in time for dinner.
The dinner was absolutely superb and so I was finally able to retire to bed in good spirits. It had been a long and very eventful day.
In Which we All Enjoy a Perfect Cycling Day
There is an old adage about “what goes up, must come down” and, after spending the evening on the top of a mountaintop, we knew that we would have a spectacular descent back down to Schlogen the following morning.
We enjoyed a superb evening meal and retired to bed early. When the next morning dawned we found the surrounding rolling hills were covered in a blanket of white mist. After discussion some decided that it might be safer to travel back down the hill in the hotel’s bus, while the rest decided to live a little dangerously and cycle down instead. It turned out to be a rather uneventful descent with very little traffic.
When all the team were safely gathered at Schlogen, some enjoyed a drink in the sunshine while those who had missed out on climbing to the Blick the previous day climbed up to enjoy the view.
The day’s riding was about as perfect a day’s cycling as you could imagine. It was yet another superb day of sunshine and no winds and a temperature of around 20C. The paths were sealed the entire way, there were few other riders and the path followed the river for most of the ride. We even had a ferry crossing and a boat trip to add variety to a very memorable day.
At one particular ferry crossing we were confronted with a speaker box and a couple of buttons. Janna used her language skills to work out which button to press. This met a response of someone speaking rapidly in German. I asked her what he said and she dutifully explained that “it was a recorded message”. At this time a helpful local guy walked up to us and asked if we needed help. We told him that we needed to go down the river. He went to the box and then conducted a conversation with the captain of the ferry, presumably apologising for the stupid foreigners who had been pressing the button and then not answering.
Seeing our new friend had been so helpful, we decided to ask his advice which side of the river we should ride on. he immediately replied that the left bank was definitely the better option.
The final few km into Linz were next to a busy highway and served to announce the proximity of a large city. We finally crossed the main bridge from the left to right banks and started searching for our hotel. When we reached the other side of the river I started checking the GPS for directions, when another friendly local guy asked if we needed help. We told him the name of our hotel. “Follow me”, he instructed and then proceeded to take us to the path that would bring us to the hotel. It restored our faith in the Austrian temperament. That shows that not all Austrians are grumpy after all.
We finally arrived at the hotel at around 5.30 and found our way to our rooms. When Janna opened the door to her room she discovered that, like the three little bears, someone had been sleeping in her bed. There were towels and mess all around. Obviously the room had not been prepared, but a change of rooms soon solved the problem.
Maggie also had a panic of her own when she realised her wallet was missing, along with all credit cards and money. After a hurried search it was eventually found in the pannier still on the bike. Problem averted. Perfect day preserved.
In Which Paul Gets a Grein Pain
Like just about every previous day, the morning dawned clear, cool and fine. We rode out from Linz along the riverside bike path till we reached the large park area that serves as Linz’ main recreation region. A few of us decided to ride around the lake while the rest waited on the bike path. The problem was that,when we returned to the path in about 10 minutes time, there was no sign of the rest of the riders. We searched in vain for some time but they were nowhere to be seen. We had to assume that they had ridden on for a little distance and were waiting for us. They weren’t.
We eventually rode on for over 10 km without seeing any of the missing riders. I was starting to get concerned,but eventually we caught them when they had made a wrong turn and were heading out over a weir in the Danube. They seemed unconcerned and explained simply that they “knew we would find them”.
This day involved an option to ride up to the site of the WW2 Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Most of the riders decided not to make this detour as they did not want to see the absolute depravity that was evidenced there. We met up with with Ken, John and Gonny who were enjoying coffee and apricot cake while some of the riders were at the camp.
We then followed the Danube along an elevated levee bank for quite a distance before finding a lovely lunch spot about 10 km before Grein. Although the small town looked deserted, Carol disappeared into a small bar and emerged a couple of minutes later with a look of triumph on her face. Somehow she had used her fluent gibberish to persuade the proprietor to re open the closed supermarket and make us all sandwiches for lunch. It was one of those amazing events that makes travel just so much fun.
We were soon all sitting on the grass eating our lunches of cheese rolls, drinks and sweets,
The final few km into Grein would have been absolutely delightful if about 100 trillion tiny bugs had not chosen that same afternoon for their annual outing. We struggled along with these tiny insects in our eyes, hair, faces, mouths, ears and clothing. It really was hard to see where we were going or to concentrate on our riding.
We were all relieved to finally reach Grein and get some relief from the onslaught. Grein is a lovely town that I remembered fondly from my previous rides along this section. On this occasion we discovered that it must have been home to every aging motorcycle rider within a 200 km radius. They were all gathered in the open space near the ice cream shop and took turns to leave the car park with as much noise and spectacle as they could. It was NOT a quiet way to enjoy the town.
Because the hotels in this small town were not large enough to accommodate all of us in a single location we had to split between two hotels about 600metres apart. The evening meal was at the other hotel, meaning that a small group of us formed a walking peloton to walk to the other hotel. That was OK in the daylight, but when the time came for us to return in the dark , it was another story.
We were groping our way along a narrow, dark cobblestoned alleyway when I heard an almighty crash behind me.One of our walkers had taken a serious fall. My immediate thoughts were “Oh no, not another broken leg” (We had two on our last overseas ride).
We found that Paul had crashed heavily and was lying on the ground dazed. He proceeded to wipe away the blood and progressively examine each of his ancient limbs looking for protruding bones or missing pieces. After a little time of such examination, he announced that it was only a flesh wound and staggered back up on his feet. It could have been much more serious, but he would live to continue the ride another day.
The run of perfect weather was really starting to become a little unnerving. I had always expected that we would get at least 5 or more wet days at some time during the course of the ride, however when the day dawned perfectly fine and clear, it was evident to all that rain was not going to be a problem today.
We headed out from Grein in cool conditions and soon crossed from the left bank to the right bank of the river. The bike path was quiet and situated right on the bank of the river, making for exceptional cycling enjoyment.
At Ybbs I knew that there was an impressive bicycle museum. We had explored this museum on our previous rides along this section and I was looking forward to showing it to the rest of the team. The problem was that, when we arrived at the front door, it was securely locked
. Apparently it did not open on Sundays. Oh well, so much for that idea. We proceeded to find a spot for lunch instead. We soon discovered that suitable lunch spots were also in short supply so had to make do with whatever we could find.
Our plan was to reach Melk in time to explore the huge Baroque Abbey there. This is surely one of the major highlights in this section and requires at least a couple of hours or more to do it justice. We increased the pace of the ride to make sure that we would not be late, however our progress was interrupted by a large black snake crawling across the bike path. I had to admit that this was not something I had expected and called out for the entire peloton to quickly come to a halt while it slithered off into the grass. So much for those who claim that there are “no snakes in Europe”. I can assure you that there are, and they can be quite large as well.
We arrived at Melk soon after 1 pm, checked into our hotel and caught a taxi back to the Abbey. It was a little daunting to see just how many tourists had congregated on this spot. Busloads of travellers, each with their names printed on their large badges, were steadily being unloaded from a succession of huge buses. This is just my type of nightmare and I soon wished I was anywhere else but here.
I decided that it was hot enough for an icecream and lined up at the stall where a young maiden in a low cut dress was serving the crowd. Apparently ice cream was not the only thing she was serving as each customer was also served up a liberal does of abuse at the same time. When I worked my way to the front of the queue, it was my turn to cop an earful.
“I would like a coffee and an ice cream”, I asked in my friendliest voice.
“I told you TO WAIT”, was her abrupt response.
I felt like the naughty school boy who had been caught stealing the teacher’s apple. While I was waiting I witnessed a stream of invective directed at anyone who had the temerity to try to place an order. Perhaps she was in the wrong line of work.
Against my better judgement I booked the “English language tour” at 3 pm. One of my basic travel rules is “never take a tour” and I should have stuck to this principle. When 3 pm arrived we were shunted into a huge crowd of shuffling, middle aged and elderly tourists and instructed to follow the yellow tour guide.
. Although the young guide was easy on the eyes, she was impossible to hear over the background noise. I could see her lips moving, but that was all. Fortunately I remembered some fo the details from my previous visits and was able to pass on some pearls of wisdom to others who were also unable to hear a word.
I was glad when the tour was over and we were able to seek solace in the lovely gardens outside. At least the crowds were much thinner there as most were already huffing and puffing their way back to their buses. The gardens were cool and peaceful and I managed to avoid getting impaled on someone’s selfie stick. After a couple of hours I was more than ready to return to the hotel.
In Which we Wide the Wachau
Although the forecast was for yet another perfect riding day, it did begin with a very chilly start. We began by riding out of Melk and back to the bridge over the Danube. We then had a short but gut busting climb up the very steep ramp in order to cross the bridge itself. This took us back to the left bank of the river as we headed into the famous Wachau Valley region, famous around the world for its production of fine wines.
As we entered the vineyards it was interesting to note that they did not just fill the floor of the valley, but continued right up the steep sides as well. It certainly would be hard work maintaining the vines on such steep slopes.
As we rode we passed through a succession of extremely pretty small villages. With their narrow cobblestoned streets and medieval appearance, it was easy to see why this region is a favourite among those who travel on the numerous “pyjama boats” going up and down the Danube.
. In the mornings they were still quiet enough to be enjoyable, but as the day progressed they were progressively overrun by thousands of tourists. It was very difficult to cycle these streets once they got clogged with the masses.
I was also having my own difficulties making any headway with my group of riders. It seemed that every time I turned my head they were further and further behind. I could not understand how anyone could already be 400 metres behind, when we had only ridden half that distance. The reason of course was that they were continually stopping for photos.
One sight that particularly got my attention was of a guy busily painting the top floor of his house with the longest handled paint roller I had ever seen. The handle must have been 5 metres long and, each time it needed more paint applied to the roller, he had to direct it in through an open upstairs window for his wife to add the paint. It looked like a strange way to paint, but he was doing an immaculate job that showed he had obviously done it this way before.
In the town of St Michael’s there is a wonderful ancient church with a crypt full of stacked skulls, also an impressive tower with spiral staircase and panoramic views from the summit.
. I remembered this church from my previous rides along this section and we christened the skulls as the “heavenly Ghostriders”.
Durnstein is the most famous town in the heart of the wine region but it is spoiled by the crowds of tourists that surge through its streets every afternoon. Pity about that !
As we rode through Stein we came across the filming of a period movie with a group of actors in historic costumes. I thought we might get a job as extras but I guess that yellow lycra clad bike riders would not be appropriate for this one.
We arrived at Krems at around 3 pm and found that it was larger city than we had expected. It has lovely parks and a delightful old city centre. It would have been nice to spend more time exploring this place, but unfortunately that was not possible.
Tomorrow we continue on to complete the final day of riding to Vienna.
In Which we Roll into Vienna
It is becoming harder and harder to believe that, after 24 days of cycling, we have still had only one wet day. It is almost as if we have become stuck in a sort of meteorological ground hog day, with every day exactly the same as the previous one. Once again we awoke to find ourselves gifted with another absolutely perfect day for riding.
Today we had a choice to either ride all the way to Vienna (around 80 km) or take a train part of the way to Tulln and then ride from there to Vienna. If we opted for the second approach, it would cut about 40 km of somewhat monotonous riding from the day’s ride and also mean that we would have a couple of extra hours to explore the wonderful capital city of Austria. Since Maggie had never been to Vienna before, I quickly decided that I would give her as much time there as possible.
We boarded the train without any trouble and made the short journey to Tulln without incident
. There was a small storage area for bicycles which allowed us to take our bikes on the train, however we would have been in trouble if all 28 riders had decided to do the same thing.
Soon we were unloading our bikes at Tulln and resuming our ride into Vienna. Much of this part of the ride was along huge elevated levee banks and made for very enjoyable cycling. It is amazing just how much work the Germans and Austrians have put into flood control over the centuries. Although the Danube does still flood regularly, the resultant damage is much less than would have been done if the waters were not contained by the hundreds of kilometres of levees.
We finally rode into Vienna around 1.30 pm and, after making a small navigational error, found ourselves riding along the wrong river. A short retreat allowed us to cross the bridge to the correct side and resume our entry into the city. We found our hotel without drama, although we arrived before our luggage. This meant that we had to explore Vienna wearing our cycling gear.
When our luggage arrived we changed into less conspicuous gear and caught the nearby metro to Stephenplatz station.
. This is regarded as the centre of Vienna and is very close to the impressive St Stephan’s Cathedral. This is always the very best place to begin any exploration of the city. We then spent the next couple of hours wandering out past the Spanish Riding SChool to the incredible museum quarter. Dominated by the Hofburg Palace Complex, this area contains a whole collection of world class museums. If the contents of the museums are not interesting enough, you can just admire the buildings themselves as they give a glimpse back in time to the imperial grandeur of the Austro Hungarian Empire. As you wander from one palace to another, it feels as if the entire neighbourhood must have been an almost continuous succession of palaces for just about anyone who was related to the royal family.
As the day drew to a close and night began to fall over the city, we started to look for something to eat. There are hundreds of potential outdoor eateries to choose from, but we chose one close to Stephansplatz, and I ordered a Wiener Schnitzel (what else could you choose when you are in Vienna after all ?)
When the dinner was served I was confronted with a huge schnitzel, about the same size as Texas. Fortunately it was very thin and extremely tender, so that I was able to rise to the challenge and clear the plate.
. Not so pleasant was the challenge of trying to enjoy a meal while being continually assaulted by clouds of foul smelling cigarette smoke from fellow diners. The Europeans have just not realised how disgusting and dangerous the smoking habit is. From the vast numbers of young smokers it would appear evident that the tobacco companies are guaranteed a good profit for at least a generation into the future.
We slowly walked back to the Metro station. It was a balmy early autumn evening and the centre of the city was still full of people just wandering and chatting. It had been a long and most eventful day.
In Which we Wander the City of Mozart
There is no doubt that Vienna is one of the most spectacular cities of Europe. I have been here twice before and each time I just loved the history that seems to flow from every cobblestone and rooftop. It is generally a clean city (apart from the carpet of cigarette butts underfoot everywhere) and has a very efficient mass transit system. The metro trains are much cleaner that the famous Paris Metro and run every few minutes, so you never have to wait long for the next train to come along.
Today we caught the metro back to Stephansplatz and then walked to the famous Leopold Museum. Since Maggie was more interested than I was in exploring the art works on display there, I opted to wait outside in the sunshine. I had not been sitting long before I began being approached by a series of persistent beggars asking me for money. From my observations, they did not appear to be too badly off and I decided that they were “professional beggars” on their daily round
I also had not been sitting long before the daily inflow of tourist groups began to invade the courtyard. As I looked at the shuffling mobs with their headsets clamped over their ears, I could not help but think that they looked like mindless zombies being controlled by some sort of remote mind control device. I imagined that there was a controller somewhere that was directing them along with a big joystick.
Vienna has a huge smoking problem that is clearly evident in any open space. It is , impossible to sit down at any outdoor restaurant without getting stunk out with second hand tobacco smoke. This really is such a pity for such a beautiful city.
In the evening we bought some food from the local supermarket and joined David and Carol for a picnic by bank of the Danube. While we were sitting there, eating our goodies, we would not have swapped places for the swankiest restaurant in the city. With our fruit, drinks and nibbles we were blessed with one of the best free entertainment spectacles you could imagine.
We watched the pyjama boat parade of buses collecting travellers from the huge “pyjama boats” and transporting them to one of the many “Mozart Concerts” held every night in the city. The tickets to these concerts are sold by touts all over the city,and somehow they always magically just happen to have a few tickets available for tonight’s concert.Not for us , thank you.
As we were finishing our picnic dinner, the moon started to appear over the tops of the trees on the opposite side of the river. It was a wonderful way to finish a truly memorable evening.
Today marked the 25th cycling day of our European Odyssey. After 3 nights in Vienna it was time to get back on two wheels and resume our journey. I must admit that, while Vienna is indeed a lovely city, after two days of inhaling huge amounts of second hand tobacco smoke and jostling for survival among thousands of blank eyed shuffling tourists, we were all really glad to be back out in the fresh air and open spaces.
Our route out of the city took us across the river to the long island that splits the Danube into two major rivers. This gave us a quiet exit from the city and soon we were clocking up the kilometres as we cruised along a lovely series of bike paths that ran parallel to the Danube.
When I was planning this trip I estimated that we could reasonably expect at least 5 or more wet days. So far we have defied all the odds, with only 1 wet day out of 24 completed riding sections. Once again the weather was fine and mild, with a top temperature of around 25C. This weather has been almost too perfect. In some contrary fashion, I am almost hoping for a wet day, just to vary the pattern. No, on second thoughts I would be happy for this weather to follow us all the way to Budapest.
It quickly became evident that the cycling in this section was going to be different from the most famous section between Passau and Vienna. When I last rode this, back in 2009, I remember that the route was often ill defined and quite often rough. In the past seven years it was evident that much work had been done to improve the surface and signage. Even so, it is possible to ride for long distances without encountering other riders (or coffee stops).
On one such section we rode on the top of a perfectly straight levee bank over an hour. The path was smooth and completely straight, so much so that it actually became difficult to maintain concentration. I was also conscious of the fact that the seat on the new bike was causing extreme pain in my nether regions. Every couple of kilometres I had to lift up from the seat and have a few blessed seconds of relief from my anal anguish. It is not easy being a long distance rider.
In the small hamlet of Stopfenreuth we stumbled upon a lovely cafe, hidden away in the forest. It was a great find and the food was delicious.
The final challenge was to cycle across the huge suspension bridge at Bad Deutch-Altenburg. This bridge must have been close to 2 km across and the narrow bike path and extreme height gave us all a dose of vertigo. It required a lot of nerve and concentration to keep going, but we all managed to succeed in the challenge without falling over the barrier and down into the Danube.
Our stop for the evening is the Marc Aurel Hotel, situated among a cluster of Roman ruins in eastern Austria. THis will be our final evening in Austria as tomorrow we enter Slovakia – the third country of our Danube ride. Already the chalets of Bavaria seem a very long way away. The architecture here is markedly different and gives a foretaste of what to expect as we enter the old eastern block countries of Slovakia and Hungary.
Saturday October 1st
In Which the Reactor Fails and the Canons are Fired
It is amazing just how often the shortest days turn out to be the most eventful. At around 30 km the ride from Carnuntum to Bratislava should have been an absolute doddle in the park. It didn’t turn out that way.
Way back home in Melbourne a ferocious battle was being played out between the Sydney Swans and the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs apparently had not won a grand final since the time of Noah, and were everyone’s sentimental favourites. Even though we were on the other side of the world, due to the wonders of the Internet, we were able to follow the unfolding drama while we were having breakfast. It was quite something to see a group of Ghostriders all gathered around the tiny 2 inch screen of someone’s mobile phone, all trying to glimpse a piece of the action. Every few moments the picture froze (always at a critical moment in the game) causing those watching to break out in a loud chorus of jeers and accusations that someone was secretly downloading movies on the hotel’s wifi connection
. When the Bulldogs finally emerged triumphant, the group seemed happy that justice had been served and the evil menace from Sydney had been defeated.
We then had a short meeting with the guy who has been looking after our luggage. The lanky guy answered to the name of “Wolfgang” (not many of them in Australia, but still a popular name in Austria) and was able to give us some valuable information about the next couple of day’s riding. “Bad weather is on the way”, he promised. After so many weeks of perfect sunny days, none of us believed his dire forecasts.
Soon we were all off exploring the nearby Roman ruins. When I saw the great number of aging riders climbing all over the stone walls of the old city, I could not help but think that one collection of ruins was being examined by another.
Around 10.30 am we decided it was time for morning tea and started to head for a delightful coffee shop in the town. We had not gone far before Scott started to complain. “My motor is not working”, he moaned. He was not commenting on his state of health, but rather on the operation of his electric bike. It was not operating properly. In fact it was not operating at all
. Nothing, Nada. Zilch. David and I pooled our combined expertise in electric bikes (exactly nothing) and decided that “something was wrong”. We tried the old remedy of a few hard whacks, but even that didn’t seem to achieve anything. What were we going to do ?
A couple of phone calls to Wolfgang sealed the deal. Scott would not be able to continue. It was arranged to get a lift to Bratislava and to get a new bike organised for the following day. It was a disappointment but we had no other option.
While all this was going on, three other members of our peloton somehow went missing (we never saw them for the rest of the day). Things were definitely not going according to the script. I rounded up the dregs of our group and announced that we would be heading for Bratislava before anything else went wrong.
Finally we got moving in the right direction and started to make some progress. I knew that one of the highlights of the day’s ride would be the border crossing from Austria to Slovakia. In the not so distant past this border crossing marked a significant border into the soviet eastern block countries. Today the border can be crossed without even a passport or a vigorous interrogation and thrashing by one of the border guards
. The only thing left to mark the location of the border crossing are the large complex of buildings and checkpoints – now all unused and falling into disrepair.
On the outskirts of Bratislava we started to encounter a throng of keen Saturday morning riders from the capital. The bike path appeared to be the equivalent of their “Beach Rd”, with many serious riders on expensive machines.
Not far from the bike path we saw a huge fortified blockhouse and decided to investigate. It turned out to be one of the series of huge forts that were built by the Czechs back in the 1930’s to defend their borders against attack. With walls over 2 meters thick and equipped with an array of high powered machine guns, it was home to a garrison of 27 soldiers at a time. A young volunteer offered to give us a tour of the interior and gave us a fascinating insight into how the fortification operated. The lowest levels could only be accessed by climbing down a vertical ladder into the lower storage and sleeping quarters.
Although Czechoslovakia was well prepared for invasion and was famous for the high quality of its weapons and had a huge army, due to the treaty of 1938 they signed over all control to Germany.
. A very surprising act indeed. Germany thus took over control of the whole network of fortifications that had been built at such a high cost to defend the country.
After an hour exploring the fort we resumed our ride into Bratislava. This involves riding over a huge and very impressive bridge, complete with towering observation deck. When we met up with the other riders of our group they explained that they had been enjoying themselves by watching a large number of locals who were dressed in medieval military costumes and re enacting some famous battle. They even had a large number of muskets and canons which sent booming detonations out over the city. What an impressive way to welcome the famous Ghostriders to Bratislava. We were quite overwhelmed.
The first impressions of the city itself were extremely favourable. We had arrived in the midst of a vibrant weekend scene with hundreds of formally dressed locals, all apparently on their way to a wedding. It seemed that the first Saturday in October must be the most popular day for Slovaks to get married.
We then took a long (and very slow) detour through the old city. Hundreds of pictures were taken and there was much oohing and ahing over the beautiful old buildings. It is a pity that we will not have more time to experience this delightful place.
Sunday October 2nd
In Which we Almost go Hungry in Hungary
Our ride out out of Bratislava took us through an assortment of derelict areas, large expanses of graffiti and trashed and empty buildings.It was not the most attractive way to exit the city, but at least it was a quiet Sunday morning and the place was deserted.
We soon found the bike path and spent the majority of the day riding on smooth bike paths . This made for almost effortless riding and the progress was quite rapid. The weather was still fine, although it did give the first early indications that the pattern was about to change.
During the ride we crossed the border back into Hungary and it was easy to see that the socio economic conditions were a lot further behind than even in Slovakia. As we rode through small villages we noted that the condition of the houses was run down and (in some cases) almost derelict
. It seemed that any form of house maintenance was not high on the locals list of priorities.
When time came for a morning tea stop we pulled into a local pub. Inside the air was full of stale tobacco smoke and several locals were clearly settled into a drinking session at the bar. David and I tried to order a couple of coffees, however the proprietor did not seem to take much interest. It was obviously more lucrative serving alcohol than coffee. We waited for several minutes and, when there was still no progress on the coffees, we told him not to bother and walked out the door and back to our bikes.
It was only when we were ready to leave that the proprietor belatedly appeared at the doorway with the two coffees we had ordered so much earlier. By that time we did not want them. I reluctantly paid the price of the coffees but left them untouched on the outside table.
We reached the significant town of Mosonmagyarovar where we stopped for lunch before looking for the railway station. This was another instance where we could make a short train ride and thus arrive in Gyor with more time for exploring this beautiful city. For Maggie the date was also significant as it was her birthday
You might think that it would be simple to ask for directions to the railway station, however this turned out to be anything but the case, especially when you do not speak even one word of the language. The only thing we could do was make a noise like a train and then point in any direction with a confused look. It didn’t work. The first person we tried this approach on was apparently the village idiot. He looked just as confused as we were and then tried to tell us that the station was “100 km” away. Not a good start.
We spent about 30 minutes zig zagging back and forth around the town, until I decided to ride in the direction that the GPS was advising. We rode along a busy road for a considerable distance before we finally found the sign indicating the station. As it was, we still had another 2 km to go before we finally discovered it.
The station itself was old and depressing. It was covered in graffiti and peeling paint and looked much like it must have looked in the old soviet days. We were pleased to find Wolfgang waiting with the bike trailer and handed our bikes over to him. It was just as well we did not have to worry about the bikes as, when we boarded the train, we found it packed with hundreds of travellers and mountains of luggage
. There was no way we could even have fitted a single bike on board.
The train certainly moved along briskly at 160 kph and we were soon dismounting at Gyor. This was my favourite town from the 2009 ride and I was keen to show Maggie around this place. One of the most refreshing aspects of this place is that there are NO TOURISTS and the streets and quiet and clean. The people seemed a happy lot and almost everyone was eating an icecream.
There is a magnificent central square with an elaborate fountain display. Numerous young children were amusing themselves running in and out of the water spouts. In 2009 we had been here a couple of weeks earlier in the season and the weather was quite hot. The fountain then were proving to be a welcome haven from the heat. Maggie and I enjoyed a coffee and cake to celebrate her birthday before walking back to our hotel.
The hotel we were staying in did not have its own restaurant so arrangements were made for us to eat at a nearby restaurant. This was the only place that insisted on us ordering our meals before we left Australia. I had a list with me of what everyone had ordered as I well knew that no one would remember their selections
The dinner turned out to be a complete circus. Although I had the original list of options that the restaurant had supplied us, the waiter insisted that the numbers were all wrong and tried to just tell us what each person was going to get. There was much shouting of numbers and general confusion all round. It was so chaotic it was actually great fun. We felt like we were in the middle of our own Fawlty Towers episode. We ended up just about rolling on the floor laughing as it was such a disaster. All the while plates of food were being passed back and forth along the table looking for someone to claim them.
Since it was Maggie’s birthday, someone told the waiter that it was a special occasion. Normally you might expect a small cake or something similar, so you could imagine our surprise when the waiter reappeared with an unripe peach on a plate and presented it to the birthday girl. It was completely inedible, but we thought it might be some sort of tradition in Hungary so took it in good humour.
When I returned to our own hotel I asked our concierge about the peach, however he was just as confused as we were. He assured me that it was certainly not a tradition that he had ever heard of. This was just the sort of evening it had been. In spite of the massive mixup it had actually been good fun and the food itself was quite good.
We now have only three more riding days to go till we roll into Budapest.
Monday October 3rd
In Which we Play Bowls in a Slovak Synagogue
With each new day that we face we are expecting the weather to break. Surely it would not be possible for us to complete our entire Odyssey with only one wet day ? Or would it ? As we get closer and closer to Budapest, we are almost daring to believe that we might just pull off the most impossible meteorological miracle in the annals of cycling.
Although the weather looked a little threatening at the start, we somehow managed to escape the rain bullet for yet another day. The weather remained cool and dry with a growing wind from the North East. Of course that actually provided a tail wind at times, so its presence was quite welcome.
As soon as we left Gyor we found ourselves riding through more dilapidated small villages. It appeared as if all the young people had long since left for greener pastures, leaving only the old people behind
. It was also impossible not to feel as if there was not much hope in these places, maybe they spent all their time reminiscing about what might have been if things had been completely different.
Each new village brought its own collection of rusty barbed wire fences and barking dogs. Some locals gave us what passed for a friendly sign of acknowledgement, while others did not seem to welcome our intrusion at all.
Through some miracle we were able to find a small shop in which we bought some food for a roadside picnic. We eventually found a likely lunch spot in the garden of some sort of public building. The “garden” was rather unkempt but it was the closest thing to a public park that we ever likely to find in this part of the world.
After lunch we encountered the first substantial climb we had had for several days. This region is predominantly flat, but this unexpected climb had us all clicking back down through our gears in search of the proverbial granny. To make matters even tougher we were confronted by a raging headwind at the same time. We were all relieved when the route took a sharp turn to the east, but we were not so happy to find that we had somehow ridden straight into a cemetery – a real dead end in every sense of the word
. I was amused by the fact that many of the tombstones had already been pre prepared for the eventual occupants. All that was needed was the final year of death. One such tombstone was prominently inscribed for “POOR MARIA 1942 – “. I wondered why Maria might have suffered so much that her perpetual gravestone recorded her poverty for posterity.
We had no choice but to backtrack in search of the correct path. The closest thing I could find to a bike path was an old rut filled track alongside a railway line. It took all our concentration to avoid riding into one of the huge potholes and disappearing from sight forever. This path continued for some kilometres and we found ourselves reunited with the “bolters” group of riders. This group of course has no interest whatsoever in photographs or looking at anything else along the way, they are solely interested in arriving at the next hotel in record time. We were therefore surprised to see them at al,l as the only sight we usually have of them is their rear ends disappearing from the hotel each morning.
Later in the afternoon we rode through a magnificent forest along an undulating path strewn liberally with brightly coloured autumn leaves. This section blessed us with some of the most memorable riding of the entire trip
. Although some find the technical nature of the riding a little challenging, everyone found it absolutely exhilarating.
We finally arrived at Komarno early in the afternoon and crossed the huge bridge over the Donaj (Danube) back into Slovakia. What awaited at the end of the day’s ride was the biggest surprise of all. The strangely named Hotel Bow Garden was housed in what used to be a synagogue but is now surely one of the most incredible hotels I have ever seen. The modest entrance was very underwhelming, but once inside, everyone’s jawa begun to drop. The place was equipped with a number of palatial rooms (suites) and even came complete with a ten pin bowling alley.
Our suite had an opulent bedroom, bathroom with roll top bath, lounge room, sitting room, conservatory, sauna, theatre room (and even a blind owl) ! What a memorable place to stay.
The evening meal was amazing and followed by laughter packed games of 10 pin bowling. The alley was not quite up to world standard. The pins seemed to be attached to the ends of long threads to lift them back upright after each hit, the whole system kept jamming up with messages of “KLUKD” coming up on the large overhead screens. But it certainly was a HUGE amount of fun and a night that we will never forget. It was also the first time I had played bowls in around 20 years.
Tomorrow is the second last day of riding and our amazing adventure is drawing to a close.
Tuesday October 4th
In Which we Share a Tailwind to Ezstergom
We awoke to a morning with a slight drizzle. Could this finally be the day when our run of fine weather draws to a close ? With only two more days to go till we roll into Budapest, it would almost feel cruel if the weather cracked at this late stage. Fortunately it didn’t, it actually fined up to give us another dry day.
Our ride began on the left bank on the Slovakian side. The previous time we rode this section it gave us the worst and roughest riding of the entire trip. In fact it was so bad that we christened the section as “Siberia”. Rather than being a bike path, it was just a series of rough tractor grooves that saw us continually switching from one track to the other, just trying to make any sort of headway.
Well it is amazing what a difference seven years makes
. As we rode this same section I was staggered the find that the entire rough section had now been replaced with a lovely sealed bike path. Not only did it give us a perfect surface to ride on, but we were also aided by a steady tail wind, meaning that our progress was easy and swift. For most of the first hour we were able to effortlessly ride along between 25 to 30 kph.
I was also surprised to find that the main pace setter was none other than Rosemary. She bolted to an unfamiliar position at the front of the peloton and I had to really work hard to keep her in sight. She explained her newly found stamina as being due “to the coffee she had at breakfast”.
One hazard in this otherwise beautiful bike path was the large number of strategically placed bollards, right in the middle of the path, where they could inflict the most serious injury. As we hurtled along there was an, almost continuous succession of shouts of “bollard”, “double bollard”, “another bollard”, “bollard down”, “hidden bollard” and so on.
Each time I turned around I could see dark clouds billowing behind us, however we were making so excellent progress that they did not seem to be getting any closer to us
. It started to become a race between us and the chasing weather. We won.
Last time we rode this section we stopped for lunch at a large restaurant boat that was moored on the riverbank. I thought that it would be n ideal spot for lunch once again. Unfortunately, when we reached the boat, it was obvious the the last seven years had not been kind to it. Not only was it all locked up, but looked like it had been left neglected for a long time. No lunch for us today !
We immediately decided to continue to Esztergom instead. The tailwind stayed with us, but the lovely bike path did not. In fact we found ourselves riding along a very busy road for the final 10 km into the city. With a succession of huge trucks apparently doing their best to drive us off the road, it made for the most unpleasant riding we had done so far. One particularly evil truckdriver seemed determined to kill me. In spite of my normally placid nature I did find myself involuntarily giving him a huge shout of abuse and the sight of the raised middle finger of my right hand. I just could not help it. Another similar driver tried to run straight over the top of Gerry !
Esztergom is best known for the huge basilica which can be seen from at least 15 km away as you ride towards the city
. It is fascinating to see it gradually growing larger as you approach, till it dominates the entire skyline.Unfortunately we were too scared for our lives to spend much time admiring the basilica as we approached.
Our hotel was very near to the basilica and, thanks to our energetic riding we arrived at around 12.30 pm – far too early to get access to our rooms. We were extremely pleased that we had managed to complete yet another cycling day without getting wet. Can our incredible run of meteorological good fortune hold out for just one more day ?
We spent the afternoon exploring the basilica, before returning to the diminutive rooms of the hotel. In many respects this hotel was one of the worst of the entire trip. Not even the sheet extended all the way to the foot of the bed, finishing about 15 cm short of the end of the mattress ! Oh well, sometimes you just have to take the bad with the good.
Tomorrow our odyssey draws to a close as we ride into Budapest.
Wednesday October 5th
In Which our Epic Odyssey is Completed
For the past few days the long unbroken run of dry weather had threatened to break. For much of yesterday we seemed to be just ahead of an advancing wet front, but somehow managed to arrive without so much as a drop of water on our helmets.
On our final day of cycling we awoke to the coldest day so far. Those hot days in Belgium and Holland now seemed a long distant memory. It was obvious that the seasons were shifting and the European winter was approaching rapidly. The final day of riding was also going to be the longest of the entire Odyssey with a distance of around 90 km to be cycled for those who wanted to ride the whole way to the finish line in Budapest.
We donned all the cold weather clothes we could muster. I knew that the thermal top I had been carrying since the start of the ride would eventually come in useful – now was its chance. Even with all the cold weather gear I had, it was still chilly. I really wish I had brought my long fingered gloves with me. But I hadn’t.
It was also obvious that some were feeling the cold even more than I was. I noted that the “other Dennis” had wrapped himself up like an Egyptian mummy, with only two narrow eye slits the only parts of his body that were visible. It showed that the Queenslanders really don’t cope well with chilly weather.
We had been advised by Wolfgang that this section of cycling was the prettiest of the entire section between Vienna and Budapest. “Please, please take your time and do not rush”, he implored. Although I passed this advice on to the whole group, I knew that it would be wasted on the bolters. For some unknown reason they only wanted to complete each day as quickly as possible, without stopping to look at anything along the way.
I was a little apprehensive about the ride out of Esztergom as many of us had experienced numerous “near death episodes” on the way in to the place. Fortunately the outward ride was less harrowing and soon we were cycling along the beautiful riverbank that Wolfgang had promised.
The first challenge was to complete two ferry crossings during the course of the day. At this time of the year the ferries only run intermittently, and we knew if we missed one, we would have a long wait till the next one. As we cycled along past a succession of magnificent stately old homes I was trying to keep one eye on my watch. We were soon met, and passed, by the bolters who were obviously intent on arriving for the ferry at least 20 minutes early.
The final section of the route to the first ferry at Szob took us back onto the public road. We divided into several smaller groups and tried to keep up a steady pace. The only problem was that, when we arrived at the ferry, three of our riders were missing. We could not make the crossing without them and I started to worry about what had delayed them.
“Why are they taking so many pictures ? Didn’t they realise we had a tight schedule for this ferry ?” The rest of the group were just as confused as I was as to what might have delayed them.
It was only when they finally appeared (with about 2 minutes to spare) that the true story emerged. Apparently Caterina had ridden straight into one of the steel bollards along the way. This was every cyclist’s worst fear and the outcome could have been very serious indeed. There was no doubt that she was still dazed, but apparently she had somehow escaped major injury. That was more than I could say for her poor bike. The front brake caliper had been ripped clean off the frame and the cable was just hanging free. This left her with just one brake to complete the rest of the ride.
In spite of the delay we all managed to roll aboard the ferry on time. This was quite a surprise to those in the bolters group who were convinced that we would have no chance of catching the first ferry. This first ferry transferred us to the large Szentendre Island located in the middle of the Danube. We rode across the island and felt the brunt of the strong wind that had previously been at our backs.A short bridge brought us back onto the mainland at the far side of the island.
We then had a short section of road riding before joining another quiet bike path that meandered among the forest canopy. This really was a serenely beautiful path that we did not want to hurry along. You can imagine our surprise when, at the end of the island, we again met up with the bolters who had chosen to race straight down the centre of the island, rather than take the scenic bike path along the bank. I suspect that they were just as surprised to see us.
One thing that had not changed was the temperature – it was still freezing. We looked eagerly for somewhere to buy a hot cup of coffee and seek temporary refuge from the cold, and our endeavours were rewarded when we stumbled upon a likely looking roadside stop. We all huddled inside and ordered our coffees from the sole overworked assistant. Most of us then crowded into a tiny lounge area with a few small tables and chairs. But at least it was warm.
Carol had ordered a cup of tea and some nibbles and looked around for somewhere to offload her used tea bag and other rubbish. She found a plate with a partly eaten baguette on it and then proceeded to load her old tea bag and discarded food scraps on top of it. It was only when the owner of the plate returned from the toilet that Carol’s embarrassing mistake became evident. The poor lady looked at what had happened to her lunch and quietly tried to recover what was left of it from under the pile of Carol’ s castoffs. The rest of the ladies looked on, trying to do their best not to burst into laughter.
The next leg took us to the large town of Vac and another ferry crossing. Once again we somehow made the ferry just in time to roll right on board without waiting at all. Safely across the river we continued to the historic town of Szentendre. At this point a number of our riders had elected to catch the train directly into Budapest and thus save a few kilometres from the final day’s ride.
The train station again proved a little difficult to locate and even more difficult to reach. When we did find it, Wolfgang was already waiting with the bike trailer. Five of our riders climbed off their bikes for the final time, collected their tickets and waited for the train.
David, Paul and I rode back into the lovely old city centre and looked for somewhere to eat. It wasn’t easy, but eventually we managed to get a quick bite before assembling for the last leg of the ride into Budapest. Since the bolters had already left there was only an elite group (David, Paul, Douglas, Janna and myself) of riders who would be riding the path into Budapest.
Although the day was well advanced, the tailwind continued and the rain held off. We made good progress and were almost reluctant for the final kilometres to tick away. On the outskirts of Budapest we stopped for some hot chips and a drink before battling the suburban streets to our hotel.
We finally reached Budapest around 5 pm and made our way around the tedious detour that was necessary to reach the centre of the city. You can only imagine our amazement to find the bolters group still visible ahead of us. Although they had a huge start, they had apparently lost their way on the way into town, and this gave us yet another chance to catch up. I guess the old story about the tortoise and the hare is true after all.
By the time we reached the Danubius Flamenco Hotel the light was rapidly failing, but there was still NO RAIN. The “Miracle on the Danube” had actually taken place. We had ridden a cumulative total of over 50,000 km with only a single wet day and only two punctures.
It had been an adventure none of us will ever forget. It if not often that a group of ageing cyclists get to share such an experience together. Thanks to everyone that shared the journey with us. What had started as a dream over two and half years ago had now actually been completed safely. What a trip it had been.
Although I felt exhausted I had an overwhelming sense of relief that all the arrangements had worked, there had been no serious accidents and everyone had completed what they set out to do. For many it was certainly the hardest thing they had ever attempted, but they would now have the satisfaction of knowing that they had achieved it.
Now where can we go to next ?
Thursday October 6th
In Which we Wander Budapest
It was absolutely perfect timing. I could not have planned it any better if I had tried. When we awoke on the morning following the completion of our epic ride, we were greeted by the unfamiliar sound of teaming rain pouring down on the hotel window. A look outside confirmed that the long awaited breaking of the amazing run of dry weather, had finally taken place.
Did we care ? Not in the slightest. Our ride was over. We were safe under the refuge of a dry roof. Although we were planning on doing a little exploration of the city of Budapest, we were happy enough to do that in the wet or the dry.
A small group of us left the hotel, bundled up in the warmest clothes we could find to face the bracing 5C temperature. The rain was still falling from a grey sky
. It really felt that the summer was now officially OVER and that eastern Europe was plunging headlong into another long winter.
A short tram journey took us to the centre of the city where we spent the next hour exploring the huge indoor market. It reminded me of a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. By the time we had finished in the market my wallet was a lot lighter and our bags were considerably heavier. At least we had been successful in finding some gifts for the grandchildren.
Not far from the market we happened to meet an Australian woman who was now the owner of a shop in Budapest. She explained that many years ago she had met an Hungarian man and moved to Hungary to start a life with him. Now, many years later, the man had moved out of the picture, but she had stayed in the country, learnt the language and started her business. This was just another example of how we just never know how our lives are likely to turn out. All of us can just live a single day at a time and make the most of every situation that comes our way.
Since the weather was still cold and the rain drizzling down, we sheltered outside a French Patisserie for lunch before catching the Number 2 tram along the side of the Danube
. This gave a cheap, warm a dry way to see most of the most famous buildings of the city.
In the evening we returned to the river for an evening cruise in a glass topped boat. Since this was the end of the tourist season it was surprisingly quiet and we were rewarded with a beautiful view of both sides of this impressive city from the river we had been following for the past six weeks. It seemed the perfect footnote to our incredible adventure.
Tomorrow will be our final day in Budapest. Our group will be scattering with some returning to Australia and other continuing in Europe on their own individual travels. It felt really sad to be bidding farewell to those whose company we had treasured so much. We had grown to know them so well and looked forward each morning to riding alongside them as we worked our way to Budapest.
Tomorrow Maggie and I will be catching the plane to Paris and another adventure in the country we love so much.
Friday October 7th
In Which we Fly to Paris
Our final day in Budapest dawned bright and clear. Although we had only had two nights here, we had already grown fond of many aspects of this city. The last time I had been here was seven years ago. At that time I had been disappointed with the lack of pride that the locals had in their city. That had been at the height of the GFC and there were huge problems in many large cities all over the world. This time my impressions were quite different and I could see that much had been done to improve the infrastructure and cleanliness of the place.
There is little doubt that the location of Budapest is spectacular. The Danube has now grown to a massive waterway and the twin cities of Buda and Pest really do make an impressive sight, especially at night.
Last evening we decided to take an evening cruise along the river
. Since we had spent the last five weeks cycling along its banks, I figured that it would be an appropriate way to spend the final evening of our time together with the team. We were not disappointed. After dark the numerous buildings along the banks of the Danube are tastefully illuminated. The contrast between the hills of Buda and the flatlands of Pest is also clearly visible.
The most dramatic of all the buildings is the huge parliament building. This is the most famous building in the city and apparently it lays claim to being the largest building in Europe. Although it was only completed in 1902, it was constructed in the classic imperial style and looks much older. Unfortunately the architect of this fine building died before completion and never got to see the finished project.
This morning we bade farewell to the city and took a short taxi ride to the airport. This was the first time I had seen the Budapest airport and I was most impressed by its modern design and efficiency. We were able to quickly check in to our flight and clear security without any delay. A short two hour flight to Paris brought us to Charles de Gaulle airport at around 6 pm.
I had booked a shared shuttle to take us to our hotel, however there was a slight mixup that saw us with an entire 10 seater minibus just for us and an Irish nun.
The driver spoke excellent English, as well as Hungarian, Rumanian and French. He explained that the traffic in Paris was going to be diabolical due to a big soccer match taking place between France and Bulgaria. This meant that he had to take a very circuitous route to try to dodge the worst of the traffic. Even with all his best efforts it still took over 90 minutes to reach our hotel in the Sorbonne. We had a fixed price for the ride, so it did not cost us any extra, but I did feel sorry for the driver and gave him an extra tip for his hard work.
Our hotel is actually part of the Sorbonne University and has a great location. What it gains in location, unfortunately it lacks in room size. The room was beautifully clean, but so small that I felt that I would need to keep my luggage out in the corridor. This is true of all similar hotels in this city. It is the price you pay for some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.
At least the bed was clean and comfortable and we were both thrilled to be back in the city we had grown to love so much.
Saturday October 8th
In Which Suckers are Born Every Minute
According to the old saying, there is a sucker born every minute. That is certainly true in Paris. For many years tourists have been falling prey to the same old Gypsy scams. I spent some time today watching numerous naive suckers make themselves victims.
In the past I have tried warning people when I have seen them about to get caught, but I have found it is a waste of time – they have to learn for themselves. From time to time the police have tried to remove the Gypsies from the streets, but they appear to be back in greater numbers than ever.
Their most common scams are the “sign my petition” perpetrated by groups of young Gypsy girls, and the variations of the old 3 cup game, perpetrated by groups of older men.
The black Africans have another very profitable scam called the “friendship bracelet”. In one 10 minute period I saw at least 6 people conned out of lots of cash with that one. No wonder the scammers are so hard to drive away when they are making so much money.
Maggie and I spent the day wandering the city to visit some of our favourite places. This is getting near the end of the tourist season, so the crowds are not as bad as they are in the middle of summer. We always try to keep clear of the dreaded tour groups and spend most time where the Parisians themselves go. I love the tiny quirky shops in the back streets and the big gardens. The weather was perfect for walking and I have absolutely no idea of just how far we walked, but I am certain that my feet are suffering.
Sunday October 9th
In Which we Become Flaneurs for a Day
The French have a word for it – “flaneur”. It means one who just spends time strolling about the city. Indeed it is the very best way to explore and experience Paris, not the Paris of the tourists, but the Paris that is enjoyed by the locals. The function of the flaneur is both to see and to be seen, although we were both content to settle for the former.
The weather in Paris today was absolutely perfect and gave us the perfect opportunity to become flaneurs for a day. We first walked to Gare Montparnasse and then back to the Sorbonne (about 4 km). The next couple of hours were spent relaxing in the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens. This is a favourite recreation area for Parisians and every Sunday it is filled with joggers, exercise groups, family picnics and those just enjoying the sunshine. Sitting on a chair in the warm sunshine, I have to admit that my eyelids became very heavy and my head was soon tilting backwards at a perilous angle
. A few minutes later I woke with a start, grateful that no one had used my open mouth for an ash tray.
A treasured tradition of this garden are the dozens of small sailboats that children (and adults) sail in the small lake. On this occasion there were dozens of such boats of all shapes and sizes. After our time in the gardens we walked across the Seine and along the Isle St Louis.
Three years ago Maggie stayed here in an apartment for 2 weeks and it is one of her favourite places in Paris. We enjoyed lunch in a tiny restaurant on the island that we had eaten at several times on previous visits. The food was just as good as we remembered.
The rest of the day was also spent exploring and observing. By 4.20 pm we were exhausted and returned to our room for an early dinner of coffee, baguettes and biscuits.
Neither of us will ever get tired of this beautiful city. Tomorrow will be our last full day here before we catch the train to St Malo. We plan to start at Sacre Coeur Cathedral and let the rest of the day take its own course.
Monday October 10th
In Which we Revisit an Old Favourite
The first time I came to Paris I quickly fell in love with the area around Montmartre and Sacre Coeur Cathedral. I also discovered that the very best time to enjoy this place is early in the morning. If you wait till after 10 am you will quickly be swamped by the teaming hordes of tourists with their dreaded selfie sticks. It then loses all its magic and just becomes another circus.
Maggie and I decided to catch the bus from the Sorbonne to Clignancourt and then walk up to the summit of the Butte Montmartre. It is easy to find the cathedral as all you need to do is to keep walking uphill. Since Sacre Coeur is built on the top of the hill, you can be sure that you will eventually get there. You will also find yourself climbing lots and lots of stairs, but that is OK. All worthwhile things in life should be earned. Although there is a funicular railway to the summit, that should only be for the aged and infirm. . Everyone else should definitely walk to the top.
When you do reach the top of the front stairs you will be rewarded with one of the best views of Paris you can get anywhere. In fact I much prefer it to the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower as it provides a much more intimate panorama of the nearby streets and rooftops. Stretched out before you are the higgledly piggledy streets that make Paris so darn confusing for the first time visitor. Look higher and you will see hundreds of chimney pots adoring every building in sight. Look further afield and you can see the famous large buildings along the Seine – the Musee D’Orsay, the Grand Palais, the Louvre – and of course the Eiffel Tower itself.
Tucked in behind the cathedral is the artist precinct known as the Place Du Tertre. Here you can always find artists willing to sketch your portrait for a few Euros, or sell you a painting of Montmartre for a few more. It is in this area that I found a little coffee shop with a tiny verandah tucked behind a grape vine. I have made this little cafe a mandatory stop on every subsequent visit to Paris and it is has become a favourite place for Maggie as well. It is a wonderful place to enjoy a coffee and indulgent cake while quietly watching the bustling crowds just a few metres away.
After a lovely time at the cafe we began our long walk back to the left bank. Of course we could have caught the metro or bus, but we decided to walk instead. This gave us a good opportunity to revisit some other favourite places along the way. Our walk eventually brought us back to the Louvre and the magnificent Tuileries Gardens. I stopped here for a little while to watch the Gypsy thieves at work. I know it sounds a bit voyeuristic, but I do find human nature fascinating. Observing the way the Gypsies go about their scams and then magically disappear any time a policeman or security guard appears, really have to be seen to be believed. Of course the Gypsies always reappear just as quickly when the threat has passed by.
The GPS told me that I had walked just over 10 km by the time that I arrived back at my hotel in the Sorbonne. It had been a perfect way to spend my final day in Paris. Tomorrow Maggie and I will be catching an early train to St Malo, where we hope to spend a very quiet 4 days.
In Which we Sojourn by the Seaside
Our four days in Paris went by far too quickly, but still served to remind us of all the reasons we love this place so much. This morning we packed up our belongings from our tiny hotel room in the Sorbonne and rolled our bags about 1.5 km to Montparnasse Station. We arrived in good time and settled down to wait for our platform number to be announced. The procedure is that the platform is announced exactly 20 minutes prior to the train departure time and this invariably results in a stampede of luggage wheeling travellers all trying to charge to their carriages at the same time.
We actually would have made it easily if we had remembered to validate our tickets at the entrance to the platform, but we hadn’t. By the time we remembered this important step we were already halfway along the platform and right in the middle of the stampede. I risked being trampled while looking after our luggage, while Maggie fought her way against the tide back to the validating machine.
Finally we were reunited and in our allocated carriage. The only problem was that a couple of Canadian women were sitting in our seats. “Would you like us to move ?”, one of them asked, stating the bleeding obvious. “Well yes”, I replied, “these are our seats after all”. They shuffled to their correct seats with much huffing and puffing and relocating of bags and other paraphenalia. Eventually we were all in the correct seats and ready for the 3 hour ride to St Malo.
European trains are so far ahead of Australian trains that it almost seems unfair to class them in the same transportation class. This trip was no exception. It was serenely quiet, fast and smooth. The seats were comfortable and it was almost impossible not to fall asleep. Actually it WAS impossible and soon both of us were dozing peacefully.
We arrived at the modern St Malo station and started to walk towards our hotel at the seaside. The weather was absolutely delightful with clear skies and no wind. The sunshine was actually warm on our shoulders and we were relieved when we found our hotel about 30 minutes later. We were even more relieved when the receptionist told us that our room was ready.
I had ordered an ocean front room with balcony and we were delighted to find that we were only about 50 metres from the water’s edge with an unobstructed view right out over the ocean.
We could see several small islands not far off shore and the walls of the old city were only a short walk away. We even had a very friendly and extremely curious seagull waiting to welcome us to our room.
The ocean was as smooth as the proverbial mill pond and in the near distance we could see the modern ferry departing for Portsmouth in the UK. In four day’s time we will be catching that same ferry ourselves. Scattered out over the calm seas were a number of small pleasure boats and a group of sailboats conducting some sort of race. On the wide sandy beach there were a number of small dogs enjoying a frolic in the sand. It really was a picture postcard perfect scene.
The rest of the first day in St Malo was spent wandering the old city and marveling at just how pretty this location is. At this late stage of the season, most of the dreaded tourist groups have now departed the scene, and we were able to enjoy the city in relative peace and quiet. This is a town that would be extremely easy to fall in love with.
In Which One of Us Becomes a Victim
Maybe it was the spluttering lady on the flight from Budapest or maybe it happened on the train to St Malo. Somewhere in the past few days a single malevolent bacterium or virus had obviously found its way into Maggie’s respiratory system and discovered that it was perfect place to raise a big family.
The first indication I had that all was not well was when I thought we had discovered a walrus colony on the beach at St Malo. When I turned around I could not see a moustachioed walrus anywhere in sight, but I did see Maggie doubled over in a vigorous (and quite impressive) display of coughing. This did not auger well.
“I feel really sick” she explained. “I think I caught the plague from somebody”.
This was not the way that I had planned to spend our time in St Malo.
“Perhaps it will get better really quick”, I tried to comfort her.
It didn’t. By the next morning she was sneezing and coughing in alternating sequences of respiratory contractions. We went in search of a pharmacy in order to get some medication. We eventually found one in the old city and she came out holding a large back of pills and potions, all inscribed with directions which we could not decipher.
“You should always start by taking a BIG dose”, I expertly advised. She obediently followed.
“How can I measure the amount of cough medicine to take, when we don’t have a medicine cup ?”
“I can measure it with my eyes, I used to study chemistry about half a century ago”.
She swallowed down a huge dose (about half the bottle), rolled her eyes and asked to go back to the hotel. It seemed a shame to waste another perfectly sunny day in such a beautiful place, but I knew she was not well. We had no other choice. Let’s both hope she gets better soon and also hope that I don’t catch it as well (as I am a hopeless patient).
In Which I fill my Mind with Images
There is absolutely no doubt that St Malo is a spectacular place. The amazing wide sandy beaches are probably the finest I have seen anywhere in the world, and the sand has a fine consistency that makes it perfect for long walks or jogs along the coast. The shoreline is liberally dotted with offshore fortifications that give an insight into the rich history of this place.
History is certainly something that St Malo has in abundance. Two thousand years ago this was the site of a significant Roman town called Reginca, and it has been a strategically important centre ever since. In the 17th and 18th century fortunes were made as the so called “privateers” (pirates sanctioned by the king, also known as Corsaires) patrolled the coastline demanding tribute from the passing English captains.
Other fortunes were made by the prosperous traders of the area who built dynasties importing silver and other goods from South America.
You can still see ample evidence of these prosperous times in the huge mansions in the old walled city.
In more recent times St Malo was severely damaged by allied bombing during the second world war. In fact many parts of the old city were almost completely flattened. What you see today has all been rebuilt or repaired over the past 70 years.
The coastline is subject to violent storms and has now been largely protected by a long line of massive stone walls along the north facing shoreline. There are some amazing photos of huge waves crashing over this wall, but so far the walls seem to have achieved their protective purpose.
After a restless night, Maggie is still suffering from the effects of a bad dose of the flu (so much for the efficacy of the flu vaccinations we both had before leaving Australia). Since she is currently too unwell to get out of bed, I spent the morning having a long solitary walk along the beach. It was an experience that I will long cherish.
Anyone who knows me, already would be aware that I love to take “mind pictures” when I am travelling.
These are not just something that can be absorbed with the click of a button, but need to be built up over a period of time. Whereas a camera picture only captures what light travels in through the lens, a “mind picture” can include information from all the senses. In fact I often find it helps to close the eyes when taking such a picture, in order to give the other senses a chance to contribute more.
As I propped myself against an old rotting post on the beach, I gazed around and tried to soak in every aspect of the scene. The smells of the ocean and the salty sand. The chill in the air of the late autumn day. The sounds of the waves lapping the shore and the distant gulls fighting over morsels of food. The cool sunshine filtering through the thin high clouds. The happy barking of two dogs chasing after a frisbee. The small grooves in the sand at my feet that had been made by some small marine creature. I really felt that I was in a special place and that I was so lucky to be here.
I also tried to bring the image into clearer focus by recalling some of the events of the preceding seven weeks of this trip. In a very real way, every day of our lives is a product of every other day that has gone before it. The thoughts that were running through my mind on that beach contained so many recollections of events that we had shared together.
I am now back at the hotel, sitting in the dining room and looking out through the window over the vast beach outside. A group of young children have unpacked kites and are watching them soar overhead. Somehow it seems to fit the mood of the day perfectly. Some days are just magic.
In Which we Set Sail on a Ghost Ship
The 25,000 tonne MV Bretagne was launched in 1989 after a build cost of around 100 million Australian dollars. It plies the English Channel between St Malo and Portsmouth and normally carries around 2000 paying passengers. I say normally, but on this occasion in mid October, it was almost empty.
We were somewhat sad to be saying adieu to St Malo. Although we had only had four nights there, we had very quickly fallen in love with its amazing sea views and charm. The incredible tides there mean that the entire appearance of the foreshore changes dramatically from one hour to the next. When the tide is in the sea looks like a unbroken expanse of water, but when the tide retreats it reveals dozens of small rocky islands. It must require a lot of skill to navigate such a waterway safely.
After a short taxi ride from our hotel to the ferry terminal, we were surprised to find that the place was almost empty.
We had expected long queues of passengers waiting to check in, but we were able to walk straight up to the desk without any wait. The same thing happened when it was time to go through the outward emigration control – straight up to the counter, get the passport stamped and through to security. There was no wait there either – or any security check either for that matter. When we walked our luggage to the XRay scanner, we were waved to ignore it and proceed directly to the ship instead. I guess we just don’t look like terrorists.
Once on board we were given directions on how to find our cabin. Yes, although the trip to Portsmouth only takes around 9 hours, it cost almost no extra to have a double cabin with full ensuite. We didn’t spend all our time there, but it was a convemient place to leave our luggage and have a lie down.
We were even more surprised to find that the ship was almost empty. Hundreds of luxurious arm chairs remained empty, the cafes and restaurants were deserted, the upper decks were devoid of passengers, it was almost eery. During the day they even had a series of floor shows in the large restaurant theatre. I felt sorry for the performers that I was the only audience member – and even I didn’t stay for longer than a couple of minutes.
The voyage itself was almost dead smooth. The first part was sailed in bright sunshine and we spent considerable time enjoying the warmth and fresh air on the upper deck. Later in the day the skies clouded over and a slight drizzle started. We figured it was just setting the stage for the English weather we were to get in the weeks ahead.
We arrived at Portsmouth just a couple of minutes late at 6.10 pm, quickly passed through the deserted immigration check and jumped into a taxi to take us to our hotel. The room was a pleasant surprise and was much larger than the tiny rooms we had been getting used to on the continent. Tomorrow morning we collect our hire car and begin our exploration of the Jurassic Coast.
In Which Our Car Goes Missing !
I suppose it was inevitable that in executing such an extended and complex trip, sooner or later something was going to go wrong. Up to now, it was remarkable that every arrangement, every booking had fallen exactly into place. We had completed the entire Odyssey Ride just how it had been planned to happen. Now Maggie and I were on our own, certainly nothing could go drastically wrong now ?
Well actually it did.
As part of our advance plans we had arranged to collect a hire car from Europcar’s Portsmouth office on Sunday 16th October. I had even received a confirmation email from them just four day’s earlier, confirming the collection details and informing me that they had already deducted the full rental cost from my credit card. Very efficient of them
On the morning in question we booked a taxi to take us from our hotel in Southsea to the Europcar pickup depot. The driver was helpful and chatty and was happy to accept 10 pounds for the short ride
“The place looks empty”, Maggie commented.
“No you will be OK, I drop people here all the time”, the driver replied replied before driving away.
We were left outside the office with our luggage. Rain had been falling most of the morning and looked about ready to start again.
I tried the door. It was locked. The internal lights were off. Rising concern. Maybe we were just a little early. Maggie checked the sign with the opening hours. Someone had hand written “CLOSED ON SUNDAYS”. I rechecked my details. They clearly stated that the car was to be collected at 10 am on the 16th October.
We waited till 10 am. Still no one in sight.
I tried ringing the Europcar rental number. My call was so important to them that they put me on hold for a long time (on international mobile call rates) before hanging up on me.
OK, what do we do now ? Maggie politely reminded me of all the times that I had told her that I love the serendipity of travel. She now wanted me to practise what I preached. I was trying hard, but I was also angry that we had been let down. We had a written agreement that was apparently worth nothing. We didn’t even have data access on our phones to search for other contact numbers. The only thing I could do was ring our hotel to tell them what had happened and to get them to arrange another taxi collection for us.
By 10.30 am we were back inside another taxi and heading back to our hotel. Another 10 pounds wasted and NO CAR. The only positive thing I could be grateful for was that we had allowed for a second night in the same hotel. We had not planned to start driving till Monday morning. This gave us at least some extra breathing space in Portsmouth.
Back at the hotel I tried to settle down and “look on the bright side of life”. At least the weather had improved enough for us to take a walk along the beachfront to the nearby “D Day Museum”.
I paid the seniors entry fee and spent some time wandering the displays. They were tired and in major need of refurbishment and updating. The food in the cafe was deplorable – sad looking toasted sandwich, cold chips and stale cake. It fitted the mood of the day.
Maggie was still recovering from the flu and walked back to the hotel while I wandered the beach, looking for a silver lining. It certainly did not come in the form of a lovely sandy beach. There was no sand in sight, just acres of rough stones. Even the impressive looking pier was closed down “for repairs”. Compared to the magnificent beachfront at St Malo, our first impressions of Portsmouth left a lot to be desired.
In the evening we walked to the strangely named “Gastro Pub” for our evening meal. It had been recommended by our hotel, although naming a restaurant “Gastro” did not auger well for the quality of the food. Fortunately the food was excellent and the place was clean and quiet. I hoped that things would go better the next day.
Nearly an hour later I was still on hold.
“I cannot understand why they are not picking up their phone”, he lamely apologised.
What an incredibly inept way for a large company like Europcar to run a business.
Not only had I wasted the previous day and 20 pounds in taxi fares, I had also spent around $40 on phone charges and I still had no definite result.
When the guy seemed unable to do anything, we decided that we had no other alternative other than to return to the depot and hope that it was going to be attended.
Another 10 pounds taxi fare later we were back at the depot, with all our bags.
At least it was open this time.
I walked to the counter and explained the stuff up of the previous day.
“I don’t work here”, was the helpful reply. They why was she sitting behind the desk ?
Eventually someone who apparently did work there appeared and explained why nothing could be done for me. I showed them the printed contract with the collection details on it. Finally we were offered 2 day’s free rental (I will believe it when it is actually credited back to my bank account) and eventually we were sitting in a Vauxhall Mokka (what the hell is that ?) outside the depot.
The first few minutes in a new rental car are always a little stressful, especially when you cannot figure out how to get the blessed thing started. Press this, push that, what is that beeping noise ?, how did I turn the wipers on ? What gear I am in ? And so on.
Finally we were underway and making our way gingerly through the unfamiliar and very busy streets of Portsmouth.
I had decided that our time would not be wasted entirely if we could visit the Historic Naval Dockyards. They were only about 6 km away and we had the expert assistance of Tom (actually Tom Tom the resident GPS).
Tom directed us through a succession of interesting manoeuvres until we could see that we were nearing a naval precinct. “Turn Right Now”, he ordered. I did what he instructed. I shouldn’t have. “I don’t think you should be here”, Maggie helpfully suggested, adding liberally to my state of stress.
The policeman windmilling his hands furiously also added to my stress as well. I stopped and put on my best “senile old fart” expression. “Is this the way to the Mary Rose Museum ?” I asked. “NO, you are heading straight into a military base”, was his tert reply. The nearby sign proclaimed that the base was in a state of “heightened terrorist alert”, so I probably should have been grateful they didn’t fill the rental car with bullet holes.
An embarrassed U turn later and a few more turns found us in the correct place. We were then able to spend a couple of very interesting hours exploring the HMS Warrior and the HMS Victory
I have to admit that this was really fascinating, although the five foot ceilings in the Victory added some extra bruises to my ageing head. I should have worn my bike helmet.
By 1.30 pm we decided that it was time to say goodbye to Portsmouth and head to our next port of call at Weymouth. I checked the route and noted that it was not all that far away from the famous Stonehenge. “It would only add about 70 km to our drive”, I told Maggie. She didn’t seem convinced, but soon we were telling Tom to take us to the famous stone circle.
At least the drive gave us our first real look at the countryside of Hampshire and Dorset. Maggie made up her mind really quickly. “All these places look old and tired”, she commented, “and the shops are disgusting”. Fair comment, they were.
Soon after 3 pm the road took us past the famous ring of stones. “Look Maggie, there it is”.
“Where what is?” she answered.
“I didn’t see it”.
Some days are like that.
I drive on to find the official car park. It was a couple of kilometres further on. We turned in and were met with a CLOSED sign. The young guy at the entrance explained that Stonehenge, for some completely unknown reason, closes at 3 pm each day. What utter rubbish. Why on earth would such a famous attraction close at 3 pm ? Apparently it just does, they don’t have to have a reason.
We had no choice but to drive past a couple more times and view it from the road. It actually didn’t look all that impressive anyway. I decided that it was just another “Rubbish Attraction” and that we could just as easily give it a miss after all.
In Which we Risk a Ramble
After leaving Portsmouth, our home for the next two days was the quaint sounding village of Chickerell, on the outskirts of Weymouth. When I made the booking I knew nothing about either Weymouth or Chickerell, but it was located in a convenient position on our westerly migration along the Southern English Coast and the Heritage B & B did have excellent reviews on Tripadvisor.
When we arrived the small hotel we were certainly very impressed with the outward appearance, and the inside of our room was even more impressive. Although the three hundred year old floors did rise and fall underfoot, the place was absolutely magical and the owners had done an amazing job in restoring and decorating the rooms.
When I asked what we should do while in Chickerell, we were advised to drive back through Weymouth and explore the rugged Portland Island and visit the lighthouse at the southern tip (the “Portland Bill”).
After breakfast we climbed in our Mokka (the rental car) and drove through the narrow maze of streets, past hundreds of drab and monotonous rows of houses and headed south to Portland Island. Outside of the area, the only thing that people would know about the place is that it is home of portland rock. I had also heard of Portland cement and I had to admit that the place was just about as exciting as a rock quarry had a right to be.
The shops were dirty and dilapidated and looked like they had not received any input of maintenance or enthusiasm for a mighty long time. We passed a sad looking hairdresser with the name “Island Beauty” and could not help thinking that if anything needed a beauty makeover it was that terrible shop.
We squeezed the car through the jumble of narrow streets, admired the view from the top of the highest point on the island and then continued to the Portland Bill, to see the lighthouse. We needn’t have bothered. The place was bleak, cold and deserted and the lighthouse was apparently “closed for urgent repairs”. It seemed in keeping with the rest of the place. We climbed back in the car, turned up the heater and drove back to Chickerell.
The other thing we had been advised to do while in Chickerell was to do the so called “Turks Head Walk”.
It was a classic English ramble, through farm paddocks, over numerous styles, through “kissing gates” and along a succession of back lanes. By the time we started, the sun had broken through and we were keen to get going.
Maggie grabbed the instructions and took on the role of chief navigator, while I followed along behind, happy to have someone else do the work. I had to admit that it really was a load of fun and the coastal views along the coastal water feature known as “The Fleet” were spectacular. The area has a fascinating and rich history and we were captivated by the small church and ancient graveyard that marked the site of Fleet village. The sign explained that the entire village had almost been wiped out by a huge storm in 1826. The waves breached the natural breakwater and severely damaged all the buildings in the town. Nowadays there is a beautiful little row of attached homes that mark the location. All are made from local stone and feature thatched roofs and are as pretty as a postcard.
We returned back to our temporary home with a much more positive opinion of the area. In the evening we returned to the Turks Head Pub for dinner. The meal was delicious and the servings were enormous. No wonder the locals love their pubs so much.
Tomorrow we move on to discover more of the Jurassic Coast before making our way north to Bideford.
In Which all Roads Lead to Chickerell
It should have been an easy drive. Our plan certainly sounded simple. We were going to leave our B & B in Chickerell and then follow the famous Jurassic Coast through Lyme Regis and Sidmouth to Exmouth, before turning north and driving up to Horns Cross (near Bideford). The total distance was estimated to be around 140 km. In Australia we would not think twice about driving that far in a couple of hours, so it shouldn’t be much different in the UK. Or so we thought.
The first few km were achieved without incident, although the narrowness of the roads was quite disconcerting at times, especially when you had to face huge semi trailers, farm tractors and suicidal locals all racing towards you without slowing down and with only a few inches of clearance on each side.
We got to within a few km of Lyme Regis and looked forward to a pleasant break by the seashore.
“It will be a good stop for morning tea, or maybe we will wait and have it at Sidmouth instead”, I told Maggie. It never turned out that way.
Just when Lyme Regis was almost within reach our way was blocked by a complete barrier over the road. ROAD CLOSED. What did they mean, Road Closed ? Surely there must be a short detour around the obstruction ? We drove back a few km to the first village we encountered. Maggie went into a shop to ask directions. She came back looking confused. “I couldn’t understand a word he said”, she explained. We had no choice but to keep going back, and back, and back. There was just no way to get in the direction we wanted. About an hour later we found ourselves driving back past the actual place we had spent the previous night in. Yes, we were right back where we had started, and still going even further backwards ! It was a navigational nightmare of the first order.
We finally reached the end of the “DIVERSION” and estimated that it had added at least 2 hours to our journey. At least we were heading in the right direction again and we did eventually reach Lyme Regis and we did stop for something to eat, but it wasn’t morning tea. It was lunch, and a late lunch at that. The town was a classic English seaside town with narrow and very steep streets
We managed to find a parking place on the outskirts and then walked (climbed) down the steep cliffside into the township itself. It was a pleasant place, but by now we were well behind schedule, so could not stop for long.
We resumed our westerly travels to the beautiful Sidmouth. This is a larger town with a delightful atmosphere. We would have liked to have spent more time but the clock was ticking and we did not know what other challenges might be lying in wait for us further on. We decided to skirt Exmouth and start our journey north to Bidewell by well of Chulmleigh and Barnstaple. Although the countryside was pleasant, it was not possible to see a lot of it due to high hedges on the sides of the narrow roads. The succession of towns we passed through were also rather drab and a little disappointing. It was also starting to get dark, so we kept pressing on trying to reach our destination before nightfall.
We also had a problem that we did not have an actual address for the B&B. The voucher we had printed off from Booking.com just described its location as somwhere called “Horns Cross, near Bideford”. While we could find Bideford on the map, we could not find anything called Horns Cross, so we knew we could be in for a spot of bother. I did have the latitude and longitude of the place, so decided to feed that data into the GPS and hope for the best
Like a dog with a new scent, the GPS started spitting out instructions – TURN LEFT in 250 Metres, turn right in 500 metres, etc and so on. The only problem was that the already narrow road we had been on suddenly became a dog track. It was barely wide enough for us to squeeze through and seemed to be getting narrower. With the high hedges on both sides we could not see a thing. Every time we changed direction (which was often) we felt that we were in imminent danger of being wiped out by an approaching vehicle.
At one particularly narrow and scary part Maggie asked “What if we meet a truck now?” A second later her question was answered when a monster truck appeared out of the darkness. I slammed on the brakes with my heart palpitating wildly. He was much bigger than me so I tried to find reverse gear. Damn these manual transmissions. I struggled to reverse back and immediately went back into the nearest hedge. The amused truck driver then took pity on the couple of elderly dimwits, flashed his headlights and started to reverse back for us. A few minutes later we had edged our way past and our near death experience had been survived.
My patience was finally starting to snap.
“I hate these stupid, idiotic, ridiculous roads”, I yelled at Maggie. “Why can’t they build proper ones ?” She told me to calm down and keep driving. Easy for her to say, I thought, she wasn’t sweating all over the steering wheel.
Somehow we finally found Horns Cross, found a small notice with the name of the B&B on it and miraculously drove into the driveway. My nerves were shot, I was tired and cranky and just wanted somewhere to rest. The friendly proprietor directed us which steep staircase to drag our suitcases up and finally we collapsed on the bed. It had been an interesting day.
In Which a Chance Encounter Yields a Rich Reward
One of the magic things about travel is that it is often the unplanned events that bring the most pleasure. An example of this occurred this morning while we were having breakfast at our B&B in Horns Cross. Another couple were also having breakfast at the same time and we started to share our travel experiences. When they heard which direction we were planning to travel they made a strong recommendation.
“You must visit the village of Clovelly”, the gentlemen advised. “You will not see anything else like it in England”.
They went on to describe just why they considered it to be so unique. It certainly sounded worth a small detour from our planned route, since it was only a few kilometres along the road from Horns Cross. We packed our bags, carefully reversed out into the narrow laneway and then turned on to the A39 towards Cornwall
The roads in the UK are classified into M (motorways), A and B or minor roads. M class roads are usually divided and allow for high speed touring from place to place. The next class of major roads are the so called A class roads. These would be similar to our national highways between country towns. You might therefore expect that A class roads would provide safe driving with wide carriageways and few bends. In that case you would assume wrong. In fact driving on an A class road means that you have limited visibility ahead, are likely to face right angled bends every few hundred metres and barely have enough room to safely manoeuvre past oncoming vehicles. It does mean that driving times are always significantly longer than what you had planned.
We reached the turnoff to Clovelly (pronounced Clo – Valley) and found ourselves driving along another narrow laneway with a canopy of overhanging trees. We soon reached the point where a sign announced that cars could proceed no further. We had to park and proceed on foot. The entry to the town is via a large “visitors’ centre” where you have to hand over 7 pounds each for the privilege of walking the streets. This seemed a little steep, but since we had come this far, I opened the wallet and paid the money (and NO, there was no seniors discount)
We walked through the centre and then quickly discovered just why people would fall in love with this place. Firstly there are no cars, in fact it would be impossible for any vehicle to proceed along the 30% gradient of the main street. The tiny main street is paved with rounded cobbles which must be horrendously slippery when wet. Fortunately we had another glorious sunny day and were able to walk without sliding into oblivion.
Outside every residence is a home built sled, which is their sole way of transporting any goods into our out of the village. We witnessed numerous locals pulling all sorts of items (suitcases, tools, groceries, etc) on these sleds. I wondered how they would cope if one of the residents wanted a piano delivered.
Looking down the main street you can see the wide blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The houses of the village are all painted uniformly white and appear to be clinging to the sheer cliffside for dear life. We scrambled all the way down to the small harbour, trying not to think about how hard it was going to be climbing back up to the top again. As we sat at the water’s edge, listening to the sea gulls and the gently lapping water, it truly was an incredible moment that neither of us will ever forget.
Since we were still in Devon, we decided that we MUST have a Devonshire Tea before we move on to neighbouring Cornwall. About half way back up the main street of Clovelly we found a small tea room and ordered two serves of “Cream Tea” at a cost of around 5 pounds each. We sat in the sunshine eating the scones, drinking the delicious tea and considering ourselves two of the luckiest people in the world.
We then scrambled back up the path and back to our car. It was time to start moving once again. One thing we were in desperate need of was cash. Automatic teller machines are not as common in the UK as they are in Australia and some places refuse to take payment by card. When the GPS told me that there was a bank in Bude, ,we once again turned off the A39 and drove into this small township. To my relief I found the ATM machine and filled my wallet with pounds.
By this time we were ready for lunch. Since we had now left Devon and were in Cornwall, I thought it only right that we should sample a genuine Cornish pasty. We found a little cafe, sat down and ordered two Cornish pasties. The young waitress was very polite and soon produced two plates with the pasties we had looked forward to sampling.
I have to admit that, in spite of our initial excitement, the pasties were quite disappointing. They were mostly filled with doughy pastry and seemed to have very little by way of vegetable or meat. I had enjoyed much better pasties in many places in Australia. Neither us of could finish our pasties as they were sticking to the roofs of our mouths too much. Well not all of life’s experiences live up to expectations.
We climbed back in the car and drove the rest of the way to Tintagel, our home for the next two days. This town has enjoyed a King Arthur led tourist boom, since some historians have claimed that the Tintagel Castle ruins are actually the location of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Whether that is true or not I cannot say, but the location certainly is beautiful and the towering clifftops along the ocean’s edge make for exciting walking.
We walked to the entrance to the castle ruins too late in the day to do any exploring so decided we would leave that to the next day instead. We diverted our walk and followed the clifftops around to the haunting looking St Materiana’s Church. This ancient building dates back to the 14th century and inside there is a list of every priest that had served there, right back to the early 1300s. The surrounding fields were covered with hundreds of ancient gravestones.
Our evening meal was at the “King Arthur’s Arms” Pub, one of 5 or 6 pubs in this tiny village. Just about every business in the town has been named after some aspect of King Arthur, Avalon, Camelot, etc, I am not sure whether or not there was another pub called “King Arthur’s Legs”, but I would not have been surprised if there was. The dinner itself was not really up to a high standard. If we were food critics we would have given it about a 4/10.
In Which we Search for Camelot
I think you can learn a lot about a population from the state of their shops. In our travels around the counties of Dorset, Devon and now Cornwall we had seen a huge number of shops that look like they have not changed their window displays since the 1950s. It is common to see a shop window filled with a mixture of assorted goods, all in faded boxes, covered in dust and with a few dead flies scattered around for effect.
While we were in Tintagel we were thrilled to find that the town had a laundromat as these are often very difficult to find in some countries. We bundled up our dirty washing, grabbed a pocketful of coins and went to the shop to catch up with our laundry. On entering the place, the first impression was one of perpetual neglect. The fronts of the two washing machines were covered in a greasy residue of numerous past washes and looked like it was a long, long time since they had been wiped clean.
The same was true of the soap drawer – layers of gunk that had Maggie shaking her head in disgust. I have visited laundromats in many different countries but never seen one so neglected as this dump.
To compound matters even further there were absolutely no instructions whatsoever as to how to operate the machines. We had no choice other than to keep feeding in coins until something happened. About 4 pounds later the water started to fill, so we assumed it had started. Since the display was broken it was impossible to tell how long the process was going to take.
I sat down and looked around the place. Hanging on a peg was a bulging bag labelled “lost socks”. It appeared that the locals were inept at counting their socks to check to see if they still had an even number at the end of each wash. Nearby was an even larger bag of crumpled clothing – presumably many people had trouble even remembering that they had put their clothes in the washing machine at all. On top of the dryer was a pair of old underpants, waiting to be claimed. This was getting ridiculous. It looked like the whole town was full of people who simply pooled all their clothes into some huge communal pile. Only in England I guess.
This leads me to make some generalisations about the English population we had observed and met in our travels.
Firstly, they generally are an overweight and very unfit lot. I have never seen such a concentration of people with mobility scooters, walking sticks and zimmer frames. We began to feel as if the whole population had trouble standing upright or moving from place to place. It also looks like they seldom visit the dentist, wear second hand clothing and probably have odd socks. From our experience at the laundromat, it may also be true that half of them are wearing someone else’s underpants. They also seem to shuffle along the street, looking as if they are not quite sure where they are going. After what we had seen of the disciplined and conscientious work ethic of the Germans, we wondered just how the British ever managed to win the war.
In spite of that, they are no doubt generally a friendly bunch, although they share a universal dislike and distrust of the French. Maybe that is because the French just have so much more savoir faire than they do. The typical English person does not seem to have much interest in maintenance or modernisation. The principle seems to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, in fact, on second thought, I would say that it is more like “if it IS broke, don’t fix it either”.
After our experience at the laundromat we set out to explore the so called Tintagel Castle.
This is a stark collection of ruins and relics that is precariously scattered over the sheer cliffs near the township. The interest in these ruins has been increased to near fever pitch because of the claims that they may be the ruins of King Arthur’s Castle. Then again they may not. In any case, they certainly are spectacular and are great fun to explore.
In order to wander the ruins you first need to hand over 7 pounds for the privilege (and NO there is no concession rate) and then navigate the vertiginous steps above the raging sea. It is not for the faint hearted and Maggie certainly had to confront her inner demons to make the crossing. I was so proud that she did manage to complete the walk and she was very pleased with herself and I am sure that it is not something she could have done even a couple of years ago.
In this part of the world there is a lot of Welsh spoken and it was intriguing to see many signs in both English and Welsh. I love the Welsh accent but I had to admit that their language sounded like someone gargling in gravel and sea water.
In the evening we went to dinner at a little Italian restaurant called the Olive Grove. It was a superb meal and the service was also great. It helped make up for the disappointment we had experienced the previous night at the King Arthur’s Arms Pub.
In Which we Visit a Famous Doctor
In the extremely popular TV show Doc Martin, the eccentric and always grumpy Doctor Martin Ellingham operates his dysfunctional surgery from the seaside town of Portwenn in Cornwall. In reality there is no such place as Portwenn, the TV show is actually filmed in the town of Port Isaac, about 10 km from Tintagel.
Since we were already heading west from Tintagel to St Ives, we thought it might be interesting to make a small diversion and have a look at this famous location. As you get closer to the village it is easy to see that the TV show has obviously resulted in changes to the life of the place. There are numerous posters advertising “Doc Martin Walking Tours – only 10 pounds a head”. While that might be a money spinner for some local entrepreneurs, I suspect that the newfound fame has proven to be something of a poison chalice for the rest of the small town.
I wonder how the 700 permanent residents really feel about the busloads of tourists who daily descend on the village, trying to take selfies of themselves in every well known location used in the TV show. At least, while we were there, the production crews were nowhere to be seen, although there were still around 200 or more people who were wandering around the narrow streets. I could only wonder how busy it would be in the peak summer season.
There is no doubt that it is a magic location, with its cluster of stone and white washed cottages clinging tenaciously to the steep cliffsides. There is a small working harbour, protected from the worst of the seas by two large concrete breakwaters.
We spent around an hour wandering around the streets and lanes before resuming our journey to St Ives. It was a relief when we finally left the tiny, narrow (and somewhat claustrophobic) hedge lined back roads and turned into a wider motorway. This allowed me to drive without having my nose pressed against the windscreen and my fingernails embedded in the steering wheel.
We arrived at the outskirts of St Ives early in the afternoon and soon discovered that, even at this time of the year, it was a very popular holiday destination.
The narrow roads were blocked by a succession of cars, none of whom seemed to know where they were heading. This confusion was not helped by the large sign which advised all drivers to “Ignore the Directions of their GPS units”.
Well that’s easier said than done. How else were we going to be able to find our B&B, if we did not rely on the Tom Tom ? We did not have the local St Iveways Street Directory, so just proceeded blindly into the spaghetti tangle of clogged alleyways that constituted the St Ives CBD. While squeezing along one miniscule road, the voice from the Tom Tom clearly told me to “TURN RIGHT”. I did. It was a mistake.
I soon discovered that I had turned too soon and was heading straight into a private car park, perched in a dead end on the side of a cliff. The car behind me probably had the same directions and had dutifully followed me into the abyss (as had the large Mercedes in front). We all ground to a halt, pondering what to do next.
With some expert white knuckle manoeuvring, I somehow managed to get far enough to one side to allow the Merc to turn around and creep past on his way out. The car from behind then pulled alongside, wound down his window and asked “What do you suggest we do now ?”
How the hell would I know ? I am just an old man from the other side of the world. We don’t have stupid roads like this Australia.
I made some sort of suggestion that sent us both into a coordinated series of synchronised driving moves that would probably have scored at least an 8 if it was an Olympic sport. After about 5 minutes, somehow I had escaped the tangle and was inching along the correct road. There was still no sign of the B&B and the road signs made so sense whatsoever. A local walker saw our predicament and kindly came to our aid. He walked around the block looking for the Blue Sky B&B and finally returned with the directions we needed. About 5 minutes later we were sandwiched into the carpark (I hoped that the other cars never wanted to get out) and knocking on the front door. It was a relief to be able to finally relax.
Later in the day we walked down to the township for dinner at the very popular Blas Burgers. The meal was superb, although things got a little complicated when we tried to find our way back home in the dark. Everything seemed quite different and all our familiar landmarks went missing. We wandered up and down a succession of alleyways, blindly looking for the church we had passed on the way down. It had obviously been moved. It took us around 30 minutes to eventually get back on the familiar track and stagger through the front door.
We will be staying in St Ives for 3 nights and will use this time to explore some of the surrounding region between here and Lands End.
Sunday October 23rd
In Which we go to the Theatre
Our plan for today was simple – to explore the region near the westmost part of Cornwall. We wanted to drive along the coast as far as possible, taking our time to visit some of the tiny ocean front villages along the way.
Our first brief stop was at Zennor, before quickly getting back in the car as it was freezing outside. The wind had picked up to near gale force and the wind chill factor must have been around 2C or less. Even with our high quality $15 Aldi rain jackets on, the wind seemed to chill to the bone. We had originally planned to walk along the final section of coastline between Sennen Cove and Lands End, but the miserable weather was making that look very unlikely.
When we drove past a lovely looking coffee shop called “Heather’s Cafe” in Pendeen, Maggie insisted that it was time for morning tea.
She was also excited because she has a sister called Heather and that seemed to provide some extra reason for not driving past. We pulled up, battled to open the car doors against the wind, and staggered into the lovely coffee shop.
I had to admit that it really was a perfect place for a cup of hot chocolate and their Rocky Road Cheesecake was a real treat. With our core temperatures temporarily elevated, we staggered back to the car and continued on our westerly way to Cape Cornwall. The proprietor of our B&B had advised us that this was a much nicer location than the famous Lands End and it was almost the most westerly part of England anyway.
We pulled into the little carpark, handed over a handful of pounds for the privilege of parking and gazed at the wild ocean scenery in front of us. I had to admit that this part of the world does have a unique character. With the combination of treeless, windswept mountains, wild oceans, rugged cliffs and dark, stone cottages it certainly looked like it would be an unforgiving place to live. Maggie and I looked for adjectives to describe this type of location and the most appropriate word we could come up with was “bleak”. I wondered what the local children and teenagers do for fun around here, or maybe they just leave as soon as they are old enough to do so..
Although Maggie was too frozen to leave the car, I forced the driver’s door open and tumbled out into the gale. Donning my woollen hat, pulling the thermal hoodie over the top of that and finally zipping up the Aldi rain jacket, I thought I was almost ready for the arctic blast that awaited me.
I then climbed down from the car park and followed the walking path to the prominent outcrop of land that constitutes Cape Cornwall.
With the narrow path and the precipitous drops to the raging ocean, combined with the pull of the the howling wind doing its best to throw me bodily into the crashing waves, it was something of a mental challenge to climb to the little stone chimney at the top of the highest point. I then took a few minutes to survey the scene before me. The sign explained how this used to be the site of a struggling tin mine before being donated to the nation in 1987 by the HJ Heinz company. It was good to see how the sales of millions of tins of beans had actually been put to a good use.
After being almost frozen, I struggled back down to the car and resumed our drive to Lands End. As we approached this famous location it did not take us long to see that we were going to be very disappointed. It had been made into a money making amusement park of the worst possible order. With its tacky collection of dodgy food sellers, arcade rides and so on, we felt cheated that we had to pay so much for the brief time we parked in the car park. After a quick look around, we could not wait to get away from the place. What a disgrace to do this to such a famous location.
While we had been having breakfast this morning another couple who were also staying at the same B&B overheard us discussing our plans for the day. “You must visit Minack’s Theatre”,they suggested. I had not even heard of the place, but once they started explaining what it was, it did ring a bell somewhere in the back of my mind.
After the unexpected gem we had experienced a few days earlier at Clovelly, we added it to our list of objectives for the day. We were so very glad we did as it turned out to be the outstanding highlight of the day.
The existence of this theatre itself is due to the untiring efforts of a rather eccentric lady called Rowena Cade. From a wealthy background she moved to this part of Cornwall in the 1920s and built an impressive mansion at the top of the cliffs. She then became involved in amateur theatre and decided to use part of the cliffside as the location for the staging of a production of “The Tempest” in 1932. The show was such a huge success that she made the design and construction of the Minack Theatre her life’s work.
The rest of her life was spent in developing this incredible ocean front location into one of the world’s most incredible outdoor theatres. In spite of the exposed situation, it is actually used for six months of the year with a new production starting every week. Apparently around 70,000 people watch these productions every year and another 100,000 come to just see the theatre itself.
I had to admit that it really was one of the most incredible places I had ever visited and I had to admire the tenacity of those who brave the elements to either participate in or watch a production here.
On the day that we visited, the wind was so strong that it was difficult to stand upright. Down below the waves were crashing ceaselessly on the rocks, sending up huge clouds of foam and spray with each massive impact.
After sitting and watching the spectacle for a short while we retreated to the sanctuary of the kiosk for lunch. Our table was right inside the front glass window and we sat mesmerised by the ferocity of the elements while we enjoyed a delightful Cornish “Cream Tea”. it was another example of how the very best travel experiences are the ones that are not planned. It was certainly an experience we will never forget.
In Which it Rained (and Rained) in St Ives
Ever wince we arrived in Amsterdam about 10 weeks ago we have been blessed with an incredible sequence of fine weather. But today it rained in St Ives. Each day of our ride we expected that the fine weather would have to finish, but day after day we enjoyed unbroken sunshine and warm weather. But today it rained in St Ives. We heard that the weather back home in Melbourne had been wet and cold every day since we left, however we almost forget what rain was. However it rained today in St Ives. In fact, it poured all day.
We awoke to the sound of heavy rain on the window, we ate breakfast to the same sound and it kept us company almost till dinner time. In a strange way, we didn’t really mind the rain. It gave us a great excuse to have a passive day, mostly spent in our B&B. It also seemed to fit the mood of the season. After all, it was now well into autumn and winter was not far away.
The steady downpour finally relented late in the afternoon, allowing us to walk back to the harbourfront for dinner. The crowds of the weekend had now gone and we were able to get front window seats overlooking the water. And my scallops were really delicious.
This time we were able to find our way back to our B&B without getting lost. It is amazing what a difference a couple of days can make.
Our three nights in St Ives had been most enjoyable. We quickly learned our way around the maze of narrow streets and we had shared some delightful meals at some of the local restaurants. However all good things must come to an end, and it was now time to pack our bags into the rental car for the final time. Our plan was to drive the 120km or so to Plymouth, stay there for one night before catching the train back to London the following morning. It should have been a relatively easy day. It didn’t turn out that way.
Things went a little pear shaped right from the beginning. For some reason the GPS decided to torment us a little more by taking us a brand new way out of the city. We wondered why we were heading in an unfamiliar direction, after we had almost learned our way around, however we thought that maybe it was a good shortcut to Plymouth. It wasn’t. It was a quick access to a navigational nightmare.
Almost immediately we found ourselves jamming down a narrow walkway with a huge stone fence on either side. I just hoped that no car would appear around the next corner. But one did. We both sat looking at each other wondering who was going to crack first. The other driver was a young girl who seemed just as uncertain as me as to what we should do next.
Since I was older, I indicated that I would reverse back, but she refused to move. I reversed back a little and stopped. She stayed still. I beckoned her forward. She stayed still. Curiouser and curiouser. Inexplicably she then started to hesitantly reverse back, veering wildly from side to side. I followed at a respectful distance, until finally we broke through to a wider section of road, where I allowed her to get past. I continued for a short distance before finding a driveway and U turning. I had decided to leave St Ives by the way we were already familiar with. This way seemed to a cruel practical joke.
Soon we were cruising along a good A road and it looked like the rest of the day would be smooth sailing. The kilometres ticked by quickly. By mid day we started to get a little peckish and looked for a town to get some lunch.
I turned off towards a likely looking town with the name of Liskeard, found a car park and walked the steep streets looking for the best cafe.
We soon found a place and were working our way through heaped piles of food. At least we had solved our hunger problem. We walked back to the car and looked for the best way to get back to the main road to Plymouth. Like all English towns, the roads were completely confusing but we did find an alleyway that seemed to be heading in the right direction. It was only one car wide and only too late did we see what sort of mess we had driven into. The road did a series of tight switchbacks, steep and far too narrow for the large Vauxhall Mokka we were driving.
I tried to approach the first bend and got stuck half way round. Two local lads came out to watch the fun. I could have murdered both of them. Maggie got out to lend her advice. I drove backwards and forwards. The wheels were skidding on the steep slope and we were about 2 inches from the stone walls on either side. Spinning the wheel furiously and praying for divine guidance, I somehow managed to get my camel through the eye of the (first) needle and then tackled the second switchback. It was real nerve tingling stuff, but somehow we escaped the jaws of death and regained the main road. No more detours I decided.
Fortunately we made The Imperial Hotel in Plymouth without further difficulties or accidents. Our first impressions of both the hotel and of the city itself were both very, very positive.
The hotel was a large distinguished looking building, very close to the famous Plymouth Hoe region of waterfront. Apparently it was originally built as the mansion of a naval admiral and had been converted at some stage to a hotel. With its high ornate ceilings, wide staircases, large windows and spacious rooms, it really was a lovely place to spend an evening. We soon regretted that we had not planned for more time in this lovely city.
Although we were not due to return our hire car until the next day, we decided that we did not need it any more and that we could take it back a day early. The depot was only about 1 km from the hotel and we were soon back at the hotel minus the car. It was a bit of a relief to be free of the car and the related stress. From now on our exploration would all be on foot.
Since the hotel was so close to the waterfront, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking the beautiful Plymouth Hoe region. The most famous ex resident of Plymouth is Sir Francis Drake. According to the legend, Drake was playing bowls at Plymouth Hoe when he was told about the invading Spanish Armada. He is reported to have replied that he had time to finish his game before defeating the Spanish.
Drake was certainly a larger than life character.
When he returned with stolen Spanish treasure on his famous ship The Golden Hind in 1580, Queen Elizabeth was entitled to one half as her share. The plunder was so immense that this accounted for more than the Queen’s income from all other sources in that year. No wonder she rewarded him with a knighthood. Drake used some of his fortune to buy a huge mansion for himself in Plymouth.
Drake eventually died of dysentery at the relatively young age of 55 and was buried at sea in a lead coffin. Treasure hunters still search for the elusive location of this coffin.
There is no doubt that Plymouth is a handsome city. Unlike many English towns, the streets are wide, the traffic flows smoothly, there are many beautiful parks and the waterfront views are amazing. In fact, of all the places we had seen so far in our travels in the UK, this is the first place that I could actually consider living in.
Tomorrow we will be catching the train to London and our 2016 European Odyssey will be drawing to a close.
Apart from the famous exploits of Francis Drake, Plymouth is also indelibly etched into history by an event that took place in 1620. The Mayflower set sail from Plymouth Hoe with 102 pilgrims in search of a new life in the New World. In fact Plymouth’s story has always been based around the splendid natural harbour and wharf facilities. Modern Plymouth is home to the HMNB Devonport, one of three operating bases for the Royal Navy.
Our train to London was not due to leave until 12.56 so we had a couple of hours of free time in the morning to further explore the area near our hotel.Since we had loved the waterfront region, that is where we headed. We were somewhat surprised to find the large open spaces almost deserted, apart from a small number of people walking their dogs. As we gazed out over the inlet, Maggie called me over with excitement in her voice.
“Have a look at this, quick”, she called.
It did not take long to see why she was so excited. Making its way out of the harbour was a large, partly submerged submarine, escorted by three tug boats. It did not take long to see that the function of the surrounding boats was to keep curious boat owners from getting too close.
Only a couple of days earlier I had read in the local newspapers that the UK was in the process of building a new, state of the art, submarine for the cost of 31 billion pounds. It seemed too high a cost to possibly be correct, but apparently it was. I could not help but think of what an incredible waste of money it was.
We watched the submarine for some time as it was not a sight that we see in Australia. It slowly moved out of the harbour before diving below the waves.After completing a circuit of the waterfront we returned to the hotel, collected our bags and caught a taxi to the station.
Soon we were seated on a train owned by the Great Western Railroad and on our way to London.
It was hard to believe that after so many weeks of travel and so many dozens of hotels, this would be our final stop before flying back to Melbourne. The other thought on my mind was my missing VISA card. I was relying on the efficiency of the Royal Mail to get the card to London before we leave next Sunday afternoon.
The journey itself took around three and a half hours. Most of it was completed at speeds between 100 and 160 kph, but I was surprised to find that the driver had saved his highest speed for the final 25 km of the trip into Paddington Station. It was a little unnerving to be racing through London’s suburbs at 210 kph ! Fortunately he found the brakes in time and we safely pulled into Paddington Station a little after 4.30 pm.
You cannot pass through Paddington Station without looking for some evidence of the famous Paddington Bear and we were excited to find a statue of that loveable bear right in the station foyer.A short taxi ride then took us to our hotel near Hyde Park. I had stayed in thiis area several times in the past and knew that Maggie would love it here.
When we walked into the lobby of the hotel, the first question I asked was “Do you have any mail for me?” The receptionist put her hand under the counter and retrieved an envelope with my name on it.
To say that I was relieved would be a huge understatement. My faith in the Royal Mail was greatly strengthened. If the same thing had happened in Australia, I suspect that I could still have been waiting a couple of weeks later.
With that stress no longer hanging over my head I felt that we really were on the final furlong of what had been an epic adventure. It did not matter that our hotel room was about the same size as the postage stamp on the envelope, it was clean and relatively comfortable and, more importantly it was our FINAL hotel. The next bed we would be in would be our own.
In Which we Watch the Queen’s Bumbling Apprentices
On our first full day in London we had planned to have a low key time wandering the extensive gardens that were right on our doorstep. For anyone who had not been to London it is hard to convey just how huge Hyde Park actually is. Hyde Park itself covers a massive 350 glorious acres and forms part of a chain of parks that make a continuous green belt from Bayswater right through to Buckingham Palace.
One of my favourite aspects of Hyde Park is the large number of squirrels that are continually scurrying around, looking for articles of food. For Londoners, Hyde Park is also a favourite spot for walking and playing with their dog. On any given day you are likely to find hundreds of dogs (mostly well behaved) running about and having fun.
I was very pleased that the weather had improved drastically and we mostly had a blue sky overhead.
Many of the trees had taken on the majestic colours of late autumn and the lawns were liberally covered with a carpet of fallen foliage. It really made for a lovely introduction to this huge city.
We did not have to walk far before Maggie spied the first squirrel. It was a really curious little fellow that ran straight up to me and looked like it was about to climb up on my shoulder. I persuaded it to return to its tree and we continued our walk.
A little further on we noticed a small group of very young, uniformed horsemen doing exercises. The eldest looked about 16, but they were all fully adorned with polished silver breastplates, fancy uniforms and spiked helmets. The serjeant looked about 20 and was barking instructions at the nervous novices, trying to teach them how to look like they knew what they were doing. There was a lot of horses jumping and rearing and sometimes a little cohesion.
I wondered just effective such a group of horsemen would be as a fighting force. I guess they could wave their swords in the air and shout “Boo”, if nothing else. After about 30 minutes the serjeant had tired of the process and ordered them to return to barracks.
It had been a wonderful free entertainment in the Royal Park for us.
We continued our walk along the Serpentine, the long waterway that cuts down the centre of the park. Alongside the water there is a lovely coffee shop called the Lido. It was a perfect place to enjoy a coffee while watching the actions of the people passing by.
At the end of Hyde Park we turned left and walked for about 2 km to the famous Victoria and Albert Museum. I was pleased to find that the admission was free and we spent the next couple of hours wandering its huge halls and admiring the exhibits.
In the evening we walked about 1 km along Bayswater Rd to Notting Hill and enjoyed a nice meal in a French Restaurant. By this time Maggie was beginning to flag and wanted to get back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
In Which we Visit Mrs Windsor
A few days ago I commented that it seemed that all of the UK was inhabited by elderly, infirm and slightly lost people with old mismatched clothing. Although this was certainly our observation in the small villages of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, after a couple of days in London I think we have discovered what happened to the rest of the population.
In contrast to the shuffling elderly citizens of the rural areas we have been amazed at the huge numbers of young people that we now see all around us. And not only young, but obviously talented, ambitious and upwardly mobile as well. It also seems that everywhere we try to walk we are serious risk of being knocked over by the masses of serious joggers that are filling every public walkway. On the roads we have seen every possible type of luxury vehicle, however Mercedes seem to be the most popular choice, with a liberal assortment of BMWs, Audis, Porsches, Ferraris and even Lamborghinis thrown in for good measure.
We quickly got the impression that, for anyone in the country with any aspirations for prosperity, London is the place to be.
We began the day by walking our now familiar route out through the Kensington Gardens to the Serpentine, followed by morning tea at the Lido tea house. We had also decided that it would be a good idea to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. After all, it was only a relatively modest walk further on through GreenPark to the Palace and I felt that the Queen would really appreciate a visit from us. The Ghostriders had always helped to celebrate her birthday by conducting a special ride to the city and I also suspected that Betty Windsor was a regular reader of our website. It seemed only fitting that we make a pilgrimage to the palace and watch her changing her guards.
Today was the sunniest day we had enjoyed for some time and I could feel the warmth on my face as we followed the crowds toward Green Park. Maggie looked around and asked “Are all these people heading to the palace ?” I had to inform her that I suspected they were. And they were.
Although we had arrived 45 minutes earlier than the scheduled 11.30 am time, the area in front of the palace was already crammed with thousands of onlookers.
Dozens of police were already struggling to direct the masses. Hundreds of the ubiquitous “selfie sticks” were already in position to catch the elusive selfie in front of the guards. I quickly started to wonder why we had bothered, since this is not our scene at all. Maggie had already made up her mind that she wanted no further part of it.
“Just wait for the start and then leave”, I reasoned with her. She was not convinced. Hundreds more people were arriving with each minute that ticked past. I could feel myself being pushed and jostled on every side. A security helicopter hovered overhead. We both tried not to think of the possible nightmare of a terrorist attack at this spot.
Finally a collection of marching bandsmen announced that something was happening. More guards with shiny breastplates on fine looking horses marched past. At least something was happening. I looked across at the windows of the palace. Was it my imagination or was that a familiar face inside one of the upper windows ? Perhaps it was the warm sunshine causing me to hallucinate but I could swear that I could see the vague outline of an elderly woman with a G & T in one hand and a dog’s lead in the other. I waved enthusiastically, hoping that she would recognise the old guy with the white whiskers standing across the road.
Whether she saw me or not was debatable, but after a few minutes we had had enough. Maggie decided to head back to the relative sanctuary of the Kensington Gardens while I headed off in the opposite direction towards the Thames. I felt like a serious walk to burn up some nervous energy and wanted to experience more of this famous city.
I walked away from Buckingham Palace and headed east towards the Thames. This took me through the famous government buildings of Westminster, then through the grounds of the Home Guards and finally to the bank of the Thames. From there I followed the riverfront walking path north towards the centre of the city. It was still a glorious autumn day and the temperature was around 18C, making for wonderful walking conditions. The biggest danger I faced was of being flattened and trampled underfoot by one of the hundreds of overly eager joggers running along the same path.
My walk took me underneath Waterloo Bridge and then Blackfriars Bridge on my way to the famous London Bridge. As I walked I could see a succession of impressive modern buildings on the other side of the river, including the famous Tate Modern Art Gallery.
As I walked under the London Bridge I hoped that it would not choose that moment to finally fall down.
The next major landmark along this route was the distinctive shape of the Tower Bridge and of the Tower of London itself. When I reached the elevated bridge I felt that it would be a suitable place to turn back and head for home. I had already walked well over 10 km and the GPS told me that I now had a 9 km walk back to the hotel.
Turning inland I left the river and made my way along Towerhill, Eastcheap, King William, Cheapside Poultry, Newgate and Holborn Streets before joining Oxford Street. I knew that it would eventually become Bayswater Road and would take me all the way back to our hotel in Hyde Park. Along the way I crossed a succession of famous roads – including Regent St, Fleet St, Bond St and Park Lane. I could not help but feel like I was walking on a giant Monopoly board.
I arrived back at the hotel around 4 pm. I was footsore and tired, having walked over 20 km through the crowded city. I was ever so glad to finally collapse on the bed and kick the shoes off.
Later in the day Maggie and I returned to the French Cafe in Notting Hill for a delightful meal. We both knew that, with only one full day left in London, our adventure was now rapidly drawing to a close. Although this was a little sad, we were both very ready to return to the sanctuary of our own home again.
Saturday October 29th
In Which our Long Odyssey is Drawing to a Close
We were both very conscious that today was going to be our final full day in London. By mid afternoon tomorrow we will be at Heathrow Airport, awaiting the start of the very long journey home. Neither of us felt like doing anything too energetic. After 10 weeks of almost constant physical activity and travel, we both were feeling fatigued and mentally drained. It was time to go home and we were ready.
Although the sunshine had disappeared, there was still no sign of either wind or rain. We crossed Bayswater Rd and wandered back into the Kensington Gardens. This time we decided to continue to Kensington Palace, most famous for being the royal residence of Charles and Diana. It is obvious that thousands of people still make the pilgrimage to this place to pay homage to Diana’s memory. Near the Serpentine there is a Princess Diana memorial fountain and walk. It seems a fitting tribute to someone who was so affectionately regarded by the British people.
We paid our own form of homage to Diana by having an impressive morning tea in the palace tea rooms. We even went against all our normal travel principles by buying some souvenirs from the gift shop. (What an admission).
Our wanderings then took us out of the park and into Notting Hill where we stocked up on baguettes and fillings for a picnic lunch. Although Hyde and Kensington Parks are really amazing places, they do suffer from a shortage of seats and it took us some time to find a free seat for our picnic. It happened to be right alongside the Round Pond and we were worried that we would be overrun by thousands of hungry birds. I made an early statement by stamping my foot and making a raucous sound to let the birds know that the lunch was ours, not theirs. It must have worked because we were about to share a lovely time together, reminiscing about the adventure we had shared together. It really had been something special.
Since we will be starting our return journey tomorrow, this will be (almost) the final entry in this blog. I hope that it has been informative and entertaining for anyone who has been following it over the past 70 days. We now look forward to seeing you all again in person.
In Which our Odyssey really Ends
There is simply no getting over the fact that Australia really is a long way from Europe. The trip is never going to be easy (unless of course you have the luxury of riding up the front of the plane). Although we had shared an incredible adventure and had collected so many memories, neither of us were looking forward to spending so long in transit.
We packed our bags, hoping that somehow we could utilise the “Tardis Effect” to cram so much more in than we had on the way over. It is inevitable that souvenirs and gifts just seem to accumulate along the way and it is always easy to justify each purchase by claiming “it’s not really that big” or “it doesn’t weigh much”. As we sat on the bed in our tiny room and looked at the huge pile in front of us, we both knew that the hour of reckoning had finally arrived.
I started by emptying my case, looking for anything that could be discarded to save space and weight. I found about three sheets of A4 and proudly tossed them into the bin. “That’s gotta help”, I explained to Maggie. A few more tourist brochures followed the journey into the bin, along with a small booklet about cycling in Germany (it was in German anyway).
I then started the reverse process of stuffing everything back. If you fold something up really tightly, surely that will make it weigh less ? Over the next few minutes the pile on the bed slowly reduced, the bag got fuller and I got more apprehensive. Finally the last item was jammed inside and I fought with the zipper, hoping that it was stronger than it looked. What a disaster it would be to suffer a zipper aneurism at this late stage.
Somehow I got the zipper closed. That was the first challenge completed. I then attached the small electronic luggage scale and heaved the bag into the air. I struggled to read the small dial, but was relieved and elated when I saw that it read 22.9 kg. Since my luggage allowance was 23 kg, it looked like I had pulled off the impossible. Of course the real reason for this miracle was that I had relocated all the heaviest items to my carry on bag, and they never (hardly ever) weigh those on check in.
Maggie’s luggage had also grown exponentially over the past 10 weeks, but somehow still came in at under 20 kg. We felt like we had summited Everest.
Since our flight was not due to leave till 8 pm we still had a few hours to experience London. Neither of us had any desire to go into the central city and were both happy to spend more time in the gardens we had grown to love so much. We negotiated for a late checkout and wandered back to the Kensington Gardens. It was a wonderful feeling to walk slowly, just soaking up the marvelous atmosphere of this place. The squirrels were as busy as ever and we watched one little fellow carefully burying his nutty treasure in the soil. After several minutes his job was finished and he left in search of more nuts. As soon as his back was turned, another squirrel immediately ran over and retrieved the nut and ran off with it. Such is life I guess.
After a relaxed morning tea in the Lido tea house we slowly made our way back to the hotel, stored our bags and went out on our final foray. I had read about the famous “Speakers’ Corner” and thought it might prove interesting. On every Sunday it is the place for anyone who wants an audience to stand on a soapbox and start speaking. This famous tradition is actually backed by a act of parliament that sets it aside as a bastion of free speech.
Speakers Corner is located on Park Lane, right in the North East corner of Hyde Park. As we approached we could see fifty or more people gathered round the first speaker. He had a Bible in his hand and was carrying on a spirited debate with some of the audience who were obviously not convinced about what he was saying. We listened for a few minutes before moving on to a colourfully dressed guy who was talking about nothing in particular. His audience seemed attentive, but somewhat confused.
After another meandering slow walk we arrived back at the hotel mid afternoon and waited for our taxi to the airport. The driver must have been eager as he arrived 30 minutes early and we were soon on our way to Heathrow. Although we were happy to be heading home after so long away, it was also sad to think that our long Odyssey was almost over.
A few days earlier we had received an update from Etihad, informing us that the time of our connecting flight from Abu Dhabi to Melbourne had been altered. We would now have only about two hours in transit. That was good. As we sat in the plane waiting to depart Heathrow, the intercom informed us that our departure was going to be delayed by at least an hour. That was bad. That was really going to make it tight.
We finally took off about 70 minutes late and somehow we both managed to get some short sleeps along the way. When we landed at Abu Dhabi we knew that the second plane would be on the point of departure. Running through the extensive terminal building, I was trying not to think of the consequences of missing the flight. Neither of us wanted to spend any time in Abu Dhabi.
After a hectic jog through the airport we arrived at the departure gate as the plane was boarding, joined the back of the queue and hoped that our luggage could move as fast as we had. Outside the rising early morning sun was painting the desert sands bright red. It was going to be yet another scorching day.
The next thirteen hours progressed slowly. The airline food was very forgettable, the seats were too small and I could not find a decent movie to watch. But at least we were on the final stretch.
We touched down at Tullamarine just as the sun was rising on Melbourne Cup Morning.We were both amazed that our luggage had also made the tight connection and was also safely in Melbourne with us. Because of the change of flight times we arrived much earlier than we had originally scheduled and the shuttle bus that I had ordered would not be picking us up till 10 am. Another long wait ! We found a seat and settled down to watch the clock.
The shuttle arrived at 9.30 but could not leave until 10.10 because another flight had been delayed. By this time we just wanted to be home and, about an hour later, we were. I unlocked the front door, turned off the alarm and looked around. Everything seemed unfamiliar. It was an eternity since we had locked that same front door and wheeled our bags to the shuttle to begin our adventure.
After 37 different hotels and B&Bs, 5 plane flights, 12 train trips, 1 major ferry crossing and numerous minor ones, numerous taxi rides, 4 different bicycles, 1 rental car, i Vespa scooter, and hundreds of kilometres on foot, our trip was complete. It had been over two years since the original concept had been put together and it was such a relief that somehow everything had gone according to the plan. Although it had been the most complex cycling trip I had ever organised and with the largest group of riders, we had actually achieved what we set out to do. It might not have been climbing Mt Everest or crossing Antarctica on dog sled, but for a group of 60 and 70 year olds, it was still something we could all be justifiably proud of. It was certainly something that not many get the opportunity to do and I knew that we would never forget it.
Thanks to Maggie for your tremendous support and patience throughout, and to all the others who helped make this dream a reality. I love you all.