Friday, December 31, 2010
Across seven countries and over 3,000 kilometers. Bit by bit and within a decade, I plan to wheel myself across a continent. Pointless? Not to me. Escapism? Certainly. An adventure? I hope so.
Next stage Dortmund to Hamburg in the spring, I think..... Better work off the beer belly.
Still 90 odd kilometers to go on another sun-blessed morning, this was the part of the trip which we really needed a plan for. By bike, it is one thing dawdling through the peaceful empty roads of the countryside, quite another to approach a large metropolis surrounded by motorways and stuffed with traffic.
We left Compiegne along the river that runs through it and enjoyed ourselves with a brisk peleton (well at least it felt brisk in our tight lycra) along the narrow tree lined path. This far too pleasant part of our journey slowed as the path disintegrated. We cut across the river, but it only worsened. Cutting our losses we headed towards a main road, thought twice about it and doubled back across the river again. Just when we were feeling a bit directionless a small brightly coloured arrow indicated a change of luck.
One of the reasons for choosing Brussels to Paris for our tour was the distinct lack of hills on route. For two and a bit days the countryside had flitted between flat and lightly undulating. A while into this third day this changed. We encountered a number of hills, but one stood out. By some distance the most thigh-drainingly high and steep. Being sensible we took to the slope slowly, no pushing it, wheeling in the top in an efficient manner. This was until we came across the main pack of London to Paris riders. As you do, we upped a little to pass without too much issue. Ahead, but still climbing we caught up behind the leading group. Think your average late thirties, early forties banker who has something to prove to whoever will look about some dwindling alpha'ish male status. Add Tour de France team racing lycra, a £5,000 bike, no luggage (being escorted of course) and a pissed off expression as three amateurs on a mixture of hybrid, racer and mountain bike loaded with baggage breeze past.
A bit of an idiot thing to do – I paid for it later in knees – but there is something a cheap and satisfying about bit of ego pricking when you encounter such people. We nearly pissed ourselves with laughter when one of them felt the need to make a snide remark when he passed us later in the day as we dawdled along. I'm just glad he was able to reassure his self-certainty. I can't wait to leave the City...
The final stretch
We passed through tall forest and then through the open fields. The longest enduring memory will be gliding down this long, sharply inclined hill. The air forcing back cheeks pierced by a Cheshire Cat grin. Unbridled joy. Freedom on two gravity powered wheels. We pedalled our way through old villages, past centuries old farm houses and fields high with crops. It was early afternoon when we climbed onto a broad rise and were greeted with, well, one of those sights. Just discernable across a broad shallow valley, almost a plain to the eye, the unmistakable outline of the Eiffel Tower. Whether you view it as a glorified bit of scaffolding or timeless design, it is burned onto the collective memory. I took in a few satisfied breaths of surprisingly crisp air as I stretched my eyes to make out our aim. The sprawl of Paris 20 kilometers distant.
With extra impetus we pushed on and raced towards the French capital, reaching the outskirts in double time. For those not enlightened with Paris's layout, the postcard centre is surrounded by the Banlieue. A ring of often decrepid new build towns which house those who can not afford to live elsewhere. We had crossed well over 300km of relaxed country and never encountered anything but wide berths and friendly toots from passing drivers. Literally 500 meters into the outskirts proper an obnoxious driver nearly ran me into a concrete siding. It did not quickly improve. The Banlieue lived up to their name. Stuck in shitty traffic through neighbourhoods of post-war concrete design. A genuinely unpleasant experience that went on and on.
My memories of Paris were mixed and faint due to lack of time since my last visit and I was starting to wonder what all the fuss is about. Then, with sore knees pumping we hit the Seine, took a right and breezed into the famed tree-lined boulevards. Spectacular. Charming. Refined. Immediately in love.
Reconfiguring, we chucked a u'ee, left the little brightly coloured arrows for dead and, with Sacre de Cour gracing our frontal view, glided towards the Gare du Nord. 350 kilometers and three days since we set off from Brussels Midi, we saw the grand building ahead, zipped between the taxis, turned the final corner and..... in my case.... promptly fell over. All that time without even a wobble and I fall on my arse 50 meters from out final destination. Hilarous.
Picking myself up, I wheel into the station. We handover our bikes to the Eurostar, walk out to Gare du Nord's grand facade, plomp our sore posteriors on the hard street-side chairs of a Parisian cafe and salute the journey with an ice-cold Kronenberg.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
The legs were a little wobbly and the posterior on the achy side (I was quickly learning to appreciate the extra padding on cycling shorts), but overall it felt good to park myself back on the bike and set off under the morning August sun.
Down a winding hill out of the town and into a countryside of gentle hills and wide arable landscapes. At the edge of the corn fields were strips of weeds frequented by blood red poppies. Ever since I was a small boy, the horror of the First World War battlefields have had a strong hold on my conscience and the sight of these flowers which, for those who have little connection to the conflict, are the lingering symbol of its pointless loss, made me quite emotional.
We were cycling along the Western Front not too far from the river Somme. Twice I have visited these sights before and nothing can prepare me for the feeling of sorrow and helplessness that pervades. As one would, those who live in these scarred lands no doubt push from everyday thought the events of less than a century ago. A century sounds like a long time, but my grandfather fought in this conflict and his brother died in a field, I would think, similar to this one. It casts a long shadow.
We stopped at the small graveyard of Quietiste. Like all Commonwealth war graves I have seen, it is kept beautifully. This small corner of a foreign field pays as a good a tribute as could be hoped for for the sacrifice of those who lie there. A low wall surrounds a few dozen white stone gravestones. At the center a solitary stone cross. Many names of those who are fallen and others simply marked “Known unto God”. Words that bring a quiver to the stomach.
One corner of the graveyard holds fallen German soldiers. Part of the idiocy of the conflict is summed up by how natural it feels that soldiers from both sides should share the same small patch of soil. To be there with Jan, a new German friend, shows how far we have come from a war in which Europe ripped out its own heart, gave up its sons and, incidentally, laid ruin to its world dominance.
As we rode on, I thought of Wilfred Owen's poem “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old”:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Fields, water and forest
We kept up a brisk pace through the morning on the slowly arching roads which followed the low ridges of the land. During a brief break we spotted a solitary deer which bounced away through the high crops and watched him until he bounded out of sight.
The roads then broke into windy tributaries through the odd hamlet, before we hit a canal. Broad and mostly empty, we followed the scrabbly but straight tow-path for many a kilometer, only stopping for a brief lunch stop in the park of a small French town.
We then broke out to the South and, via some interesting navigation (a small map, uncertain compass and no fixed plan has its benefits), headed into the forest. At first on minor roads and then onto mere paths, we rode our way in our general South-Westerly direction. Jan's chest wound (see previous article) was holding up OK and we were making good time through the tall trees and green light of the glen.
Having clicked over 120 kilometers we decided to not push it too far and stay the night in the first significant town we had seen since Brussels, Compiegne, just a few more kilometers the other side of the trees.
We parked our bikes, checked into a slightly dodgy looking hotel and spent the remains of the day in the idyllic central square sipping beer and glugging expensive water. Perfect.
We then wandered through town admiring the sizeable Napoleonic barracks and savoured a proper, mouth-watering steak-frites, washed down with strong, cold beer. Joy filled the tired muscles as the protein kicked in. We just about made it on to “the” (read “only”) club in town, but ran away soon afterwards, the clientele being limited to a group of large, loud women and a couple of middle-aged men propping up the bar.
Back to the room and out like a light. The final leg of the journey awaited...
Sunday, October 17, 2010
The plan. Buy a half-decent bike to guilt me into a two-wheel commute and find a willing conspirator and a couple of tickets for us and our bikes to one place and back from another. Quite dauntingly, the more than able conspirator was Steve (daunting as he has in the past cycled from the top to the bottom of France, is, and I imagine always has been, fitter than me and has a faster bike to boot). London to Cornwall was ruled out on the grounds that English motorists hate cyclists, London to Paris on the grounds Steve had done it before, so…. Brussels to Paris was born. Nothing could be easier than jumping on the Eurostar at St Pancras, easing the journey to Brussels Midi with a couple of beers and rolling back onto the train at the Gare to Nord for the return journey. Except that is for the 350 odd km straight line distance between the two.
Brussels, Wallonia (French Belgium)
We were buzzing as we jumped onto the saddle and meandered our way through the old streets of Europe's bureaucratic capital. It always surprises me just how pretty parts of this city are. Many may ridicule it less if they wandered through the central square and surroundings alleys on such a barmy summer evening. We were even greeted by a local fair complete with flicking lights and roaring sound. I had to keep repeating “drive on the right, drive on the right...” Certain continental habits are important to remember!
The streets fell away leaving flat countryside interrupted by crumbling industry. Despite the huge effort which went into digging these canals, much of their use fell by the wayside with the propagation of the railways and later highways. This, and no doubt other factors, has left a peaceful setting of greenery and wildlife. Gulls, ducks, swans, basking cormorants and a rodenty thing which ran across our path.
Belgian beer and a tumble
Except for Jan's injury, we had had a great day. We had churned up 126 km of road and I already knew this cycling thing was for me. Our “no real plan” plan had led us to this random town somewhere in a random part of France. We piled into some steak-frites and vin rouge and looked forward to the next leg of our journey.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
In case you are not initiated, the idea is to climb the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales within a 24 hour period. This may not seem a lot until you consider they are hundreds of miles apart and have a combined height of 11,178 feet (that's 3407m in metric, thought lets keep to imperial as it sounds more impressive). There is little I would prefer to do with a day then jump around some of the most scenic parts of the country with a couple of mates and some treks thrown in!
In the light of this, the best response I could come up with was “Why on earth not?”
BEN NEVIS 16:45
Excited, rearing to go, we pull into the car park at the foot of the Britain's highest mountain. Hurriedly throw everything out of the car and prepare for the climb. Mental checklist - sunnies (tick), rain-coat (tick), walking stick (tick), sustenance (tick)...... boots (bugger). Showing the talent that flows deep in my veins I had left my trusty decade old walking boots in the airport pub. Those beauts had accompanied me to 50 odd countries and been lost for the sake of an early morning Guinness.
My response to the not so impressed reaction of Christina and the laughing of Dave, was to jump back in the car, put pedal to metal and some how return within 20 minutes with a brand new pair just waiting to blister me raw. Total shop time 4 minutes, leaving behind £60 and some laughing sales staff. Always be prepared.
Sweating already and in a minor fluster we set off at 4.45pm. We had 24 hours and were off in a hurry, marching up the gentle slope of Glen Nevis in the muggy late afternoon. Climbing Nevis is at no point particularly strenuous and, on the marked path, is in no way technical. It is rather a case of putting one foot in front of the other for a few hours and keeping your fingers crossed that the heavens do not open.
After a short while the path cuts back on itself repeatedly as it begins to zig-zag its way up the lower slopes. The route crosses numerous little streams and, as you take the wide arching turn up to the mid-way plateau, small waterfalls cascade across the adjacent ravine. From the minor plateau you have your first sight of the wider Highland surroundings. Beyond a lake lie green mountain after green mountain stretching as far as the eye can see. This is all set off by a patchy, changeable sky. At one point we even had some sunshine!
As the criss-crossing started again on the ever more rugged slopes of the Ben proper, a chunky Rescue Helicopter blasted its way up the valley and lingered on the path just above us. Some poor fella had hurt himself and was winched up and away for treatment. A reminder that, on the one hand, even in Britain mountains can cause problems and, on the other, this is not quite rural Bolivia, rescue is close at hand.
Now really into our stride we lolloped up the mountainside, only stopping for evidence that the proverb "don't piss in the wind" has something to it. In the last km we even encountered the last snows of winter and plenty a trekker clumsily slipping on the sludgy, steepest part. A couple more false summits and we were on the top of Britain. 4406 ft (1344m) up and only at the final moment in the clouds.
A satisfying feeling, but with a mind to the ticking clock we only stopped for a “high funf”, some sugar and a photographic tribute to our naturism inclined mate Mik (available to friends, not family).
The descent was swift and dramatically beautiful. It is probably nothing to do with my Highland routes, but this part of the world really captures me and crashing one foot after another down the mountainside with views of loch, ben and glen was a complete pleasure. My mind ventured back to the strange question, “then why do it?”
Only slightly worse for wear we stripped off the sweaty clothes, grabbed a chippy and piled in the car. I took the wheel for the first couple of hours through the southern Highlands. As the light faded we skipped past Glen Coe and the desolate moors which lie to the South, before flanking Loch Lomand. Windy, dramatic roads all the way. By the time we made it to Glasgow I was happy to hand over to Dave and catch a couple of hour's shut-eye while he breezed the motorway to Cumbria and the Lakes of North-West England.
SCARFELL PIKE 03:45
I awoke with a jolt. Dave pulled over, gave me a whack, complained about listening to the same Foo Fighters CD on repeat for the past however many hours and clonked out. Still in the dead of night, a full moon glimmered over a landscape breaking up into hills. Another hour or so on, the journey took a surreal twist as we crossed into the National Park and onto an 8ft wide road strewn with sleeping sheep. Mild sleep-deprived hysterics ensued as I barely avoided playing DEATH with a black sheep via an emergency lash to the break pedal. Black sheep with the habit of sleeping in the road in the dead of night do not stand much chance in a Darwinian world, so come see them while you can.
Connecting back up to what can still only be called a minor road we wound through many a little village into uplands and slowed with the out of place three peaks traffic which frequents this part of the world at this time of year. Arriving at Wasdale head, we shoved our boots on, carbs in and set-off through a low rising field in the murk of pre-dawn.
In a slightly dazed state I pondered whether what was soon to be beneath our feet was really a “mountain”. I mean, a mountain, in little old England.
Over a common swing-gate and along a dribbling stream. As if as a punishment for my recent pondering, the terrain quickly steepened. As the path broke off from the stream, the calf-stretching incline did not relent and Christina muttered the first real questioning of the day's activities. She was not feeling well, but soldiered on up.
With every minute the light was changing, brightening and opening up a broody landscape before us. Looking back from a resting point, the narrow valley fell steeply and opened up onto an oblong lake surrounded by green, jutting hills. In the far distance, just visible, the ocean.
Eventually, the slope slackened off as the path wound round to the left. Thoroughly contended sheep munched on the thick grass as panting trampers trundled past. By this point we were starting to recognise many fellow three-peakers from Nevis. The occasional smile and odd word accompanied our steady pace up to the lengthy, rocky escarpment which leads to the peak.
For me, the highlight of the climb came as we crossed out of the narrowing valley and onto a saddle looking over the far side of Skarfell Pike. At that instant I fell in love with the Lake District. As far as my eyes could see, dramatic, immovable hills guarding shimmering waters. The delicate colours of dawn lighting up the mists and patchy, low-lying cloud.
Now rather exposed, we were buffeted by cold winds as we criss-crossed the rugged final ascent. As we stood atop Scarfell Pike a simply breathtaking panorama was serially opened and closed by fast moving clouds passing right through us. I was ready to call this a mountain! Only 3209 ft (978m), yet self-evidently a gem of wild mountain landscape.
We were in high spirits on the trek down, making time for the odd fuel break to take in the views. Apart from a couple of twisted ankles inflicted by the steep lower section, we were rearing to go when we made it back to the car exactly 4 hours after we started. 7.30 am.
One serious stretch, smelly walking boots off, a new set of underwear and we were off. I was happy to grasp a modicum of sleep as Dave took the wheel through and out the windy roads of the Lakes.
A nudge awake, a bottle of caffeine and I was back at the wheel for the motorway. The nearest thing to a panic came and passed with a small section of stand-still traffic as we approached Wales somewhere near Chester. Once I was able to put my foot down the 24 hour challenge seemed very doable, but the small matter of an England v Germany football game was in some doubt. England's World Cup destiny was on the line and, thanks to my walking boots left in pub shenanigans, I was pushing my luck to get a look in. It was happening all over again... http://walter82.blogspot.com/2006/07/race-to-quarter-finals.html
Turning in from the Irish Sea, we parked in the village of Llanberis, jumped in a taxi and, having been dropped off at the bottom of the Miners Track, set off at a brisk pace along the flanks of Snowdon. It was 12.45, 4 hours until the 24 was up (and 2 hours 45 to the game).
I think we were all feeling pretty good once our muscles and joints had warmed up – the stop start nature of the three peaks does somewhat piss off cold body parts each time they are called in to action – and more gorgeous scenery made the task easier. In many ways similar to the last two back-drops with, to put it crudely, reasonable sized green chunks of rock towering over bodies of fresh water, it was refreshing how each peak differed in atmosphere and impact. Snowdon was all together more imposing than Scarfell, yet more tamed. Not as wild as Ben Nevis, but more sheep for company. Perhaps it was the full light of day and the knowledge that we had two peaks behind us, but the largest mountain in Wales breezed by as we took the circuitous track past imposing relics of mining days, small lakes and our fuzzy white friends.
The going got a touch tougher when we reached the high rock face which leads up to the summit, but we managed the zig-zag route without too much fuss once those of us with vertigo overcame their fears (perhaps vertigo is the wrong word, being as it was a rational fear of heights!). Fast, whipping fleeces of cloud and strong winds added an extra layer of interest to the very final part of the route, but we were soon walking past railway tracks to our goal.
I have to admit, the sight of a small white hair laden Victorian train passing by as you are about to reach the pinnacle of a “challenge” is a touch disheartening. A great feat of engineering no doubt, but somewhat out of keeping with a cloud covered mountain peak. Such oddity fitted in well with the sizeable sea-gulls which haunt the summit.
Putting this all to one side, we stood on the top of Wales and were pretty damn pleased with ourselves. Three peaks and a whole lot of driving in just a bit over 22 hours. No time to savour though, as the imminent football and a chocolate bar or two got us going.
Despite some wobbly knees, we made our way down as quickly as we collectively could. Thinking ahead, I had bought a small analogue radio, which relayed to us the first half of the so-built up football game. This added a nice dimension to the last hour as we fulfilled our new role of World Cup intermediaries to half the trekkers we passed on the way down. Unfortunately, except for a smiling German and the odd bitter Welshman, our news did not improve people's afternoons.
Putting in a final push and the hint of a jog we bundled into the car park from whence we began at 16.15 on the dot. Two pieces of good news. The taxi was waiting for us, ready to take us to a pre-warned pub for the last part of the match (Germany scored two goals during the brief 10 minute radioless taxi journey). Secondly, and in the long term far more satisfyingly, we had completed the three peaks challenge in 23 hours and 30 minutes. A little tired, but none of us asking the question “why?”
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Over a day and a night wandering around the sights of this tick-tock town it grew on me. From the gray, quiet place we first encountered, the sun broke through, the people broke out and scattered themselves on the banks of the [Zurich Sea]. Sunbeams make people radiant and change a city. You see it in London. The clothes get shed, the muscles relax and the smiles break out. Against its rigid reputation I ask anyone to walk along the Zurich lakeside for an hour or two in the early evening on a bright spring day and not be taken in by the place. Green park-side banks littered with people kicking back, watching the small white sail-boats skirt amongst the swans.
The town is blessed with a mixture of impressive churches, grand town houses, the odd ginger-bread street juxtaposed with bits of modern monstrosity. I suppose nothing out of the ordinary for a central European city, but, sipping a coffee by the side of its crystal clear river, I noted a distinct lack of stress. Just what I needed.
Or maybe that was the 'til dawner we pulled. Highlights include not even scoring a goal against the best table football players I have ever met (an obsessive people the Swiss), being nodded into a far too up its own arse night club by some random stylish ladies we met on the street and ending up in a thoroughly disgruntled, but welcoming Spanish bar. From the slurred banter it was clear Latin and Germanic culture do not always mix well. These flickering memories pale in comparison to a surreal moment of Alice in Wonderland proportions. Had someone slipped us some potent hallucinogens? No? The beerhaller was full of an ageing but energetic “oom-pa-pa” troop dressed as exaggerated Royal Box frequenters of Ascot. (think My Fair Lady on 'shrooms). Feathers, top-hats, boas, monocles the lot. Inane grins intimidated and Dave and I looked at each other confused. Apparently this was a traditional post-Carnival activity.
INTO THE ALPS
Somewhat under par, we jumped on a train to the hills. Where exactly? A place called Braunwald. Neither of us had heard of it before a Zurich'er had pointed us in its snow-capped direction the day before. Our passage took us along the long, narrow. glimmering lake, before skirting off into the rising, narrowing valleys. Before we knew it we were in postcard Alpine territory. Steep fertile valleys cut by carbolt blue glacial streams and sprinkled with wooden houses that combine a twee matchbox quality with necessary hardiness.
On arrival, we made it all of 50m's to a cafe, dropped the pack, took some much needed refreshment and soaked it all in.
Passing (or being passed) by troops of healthy Swiss, we eventually broke off the main path to touch the snowline. A couple of km's high, the predominant flowers were now white crocuses. To my delight, an illusive marmot showed himself. Again, we sat and savoured.
Via a dodgy ice-strewn tunnel we broke out onto the other side of the mountain. A fresh, different panoram, leading down to an alpine lake. Perspective rammed home when, on commenting to a local how special this place is, he replies with a moustachioed smile “this is normal in Switzerland”. Lucky, lucky people. We trekked down and back to normality. Refreshed.