Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Route IV: Farewell Germany - Hello Baltic

Now a firm annual adventure, part IV of the St Petersburg to Lisbon cycle trip set off from Hamburg, destination Copenhagen. Three days to set aside what remained of Germany and make inroads into Scandinavia via just under 380 km of road and track.


Dave and I had flown in from London mid-afternoon, arriving just before Uwe who had taken the train from Rostock. We had convened a night early to celebrate Dave’s birthday and were in the mood for a few drinks, though perhaps not quite the level of carnage which adorned our last night here after the Dortmund to Hamburg cycle (I am still scarred). No Reeperbahn this time! Instead we stayed around the corner in gritty, yet enticing Schanzenviertel are of St Pauli. 

To most of the world Germans are famed for being straight laced and efficient. From my own encounters and experiences I can’t deny this strong part of the national character, but think that, at least in the big cities, it is counterbalanced nicely by an edgy grungy counter-culture which the Germans do so well. Graffiti, dreads, beats, off the scale art work and anti-establishmentarianism. Put it all together in an area like St Pauli and it is undeniably cool. Needless to say we had a good night, starting out at the best fish and chips place I have ever been to, before milling about from one bar to another, sipping down the beer and caipirinha and soaking up the atmosphere. Generally getting in the mood for the trip ahead.
A little too in the mood as it happened… I woke at 6am to run to the toilet and said hello to second hand caipirinhas. We did not even drink that much! Age and overly-acidy drinks had clearly caught up with me and I spent the next couple of hours feeling distinctly sorry for myself. The sensation of fresh lycra, talcum-powder and vaseline did not help (the daily pre-cycling routine I will have you know) and as my bum nestled onto the seat of the old trusty bike, I felt terrible.
Fortunately the first part of our cycle took us less than 500m to a bakery where a session of strong coffee, juice, chocolate milkshake, croissant and unidentified baked goods set us back on the right course. Efficient as ever, it was half ten by the time we set off proper. I for one was though feeling markedly better. As we weaved our way through the streets of central Hamburg, the caffeine, adrenaline and excitement at the journey ahead merged to elate and have me positively bouncing along past canals, churches and a series of lakes dotted with small sailing craft. Then to more canals and grand residential streets, guided by my compass and a vague heading of Lübeck (well at least north-east’ish).

It was a surprisingly pretty start to our ride, especially given the industrialised ugliness that had greeted us when first entering the city from the south on our previous cycle trip into Hamburg. The city is though huge, and within 40 minutes the distractions of the centre had given way to seemingly endless bland suburbs. On and on as the hangover trickled back in and the sky greyed over. An hour or so of relative drudgery later we finally broke out into a semblance of countryside and tried to work out where we were.

Our swivelling guess at a north-easterly heading on winding suburban roads had taken us out further south than we had hoped. The disadvantage of additional distance was more than counterbalanced by stumbling across a rather exquisite 16th century castle at Ahrenburg. An uninspiring landscape was lit up by a whitewashed multi-storey block of fortification rising from a moat. I pedalled off in its vicinity, with Dave and Uwe close behind. Quite fittingly it turned out to be a castle originating from Danish aristocracy. A sign informed me that nearly all of our journey to Copenhagen was once part of greater Denmark (even though a good half of it is in modern day Germany).
Cycling on, we passed through fields and small towns through the early afternoon. Against the odds the heavens had not opened up, leaving us in good spirits which were further lifted by the inevitable pit-stop for sugar fuel and some medicinal Jaeger. We flew along and were soon on the outskirts of our first major destination, Lübeck.

Having passed the city sign, we were pelting down a hill on the outskirts when I screwed up. Lapping up the smooth cycle path with greed, I was positively zooming past other cyclists when I made the mistake of running 20 cm wider than intended and touched my front wheel on to the soft leaf strewn turf which ran beside the path. Most cyclists will know with dread the sensation of losing control. The wheels take on a mind of their own, ignoring the breaks and veering on their divergent paths. Attempts to control the skid inevitably make it worse and before you know it the bike is crashing sideways and you are left with little option but to jump. Jump I most certainly did, transferring into an early Man U era Ronaldo multi-barrel-role and, to my surprise, out onto my feet. Adrenaline pumping, my thoughts quickly shifted from survival via embarrassment at the fall to marginally compensating pride at ending back on my feet. I then snapped out of the self-reflection to tend on the elderly German gentlemen who had to skid stop as a result of my mild calamity. He was not overly impressed, but was OK and seemed to take on board my half-German apologies before peddling off in a bit of a huff.

Checking myself over I was relieved to find nothing more than the odd bruise, minor scrape and a disconcerting cracking of my left wrist every time I turned it. As this was not accompanied by pain, I chose to ignore it. We had the best part of 3 days cycle ahead of us after all. The bike was a little scratched, but not in obviously damaged condition. Gingerly jumping back on, I followed the others down the remainder of the slope and into the historic German city.


Once capital of the mighty Hanseatic League which effectively ruled the Baltic in 14th century, Lübeck is a beautiful city blessed with a grand legacy from its past. Entering through the gothic Holsten Gate and over the river Trave, the towers of churches and cathedral punctuate the sky above the old town. Despite the trickle of rain, it really was a delightful place. We meandered our way past medieval streets, up through the more modern commercial centre and ended up in the main square. Time for the first wurst of the trip. Just the ticket!
As usual, setting off late meant we couldn’t linger too long on route, but we had just enough time to visit St Mary’s church with its searing twin towers and cracked bell. A chilling reminder of European self-destruction, an Allied WWII bomb damaged the cathedral and sent one of the giant bells hurtling down from one of the high towers. It crashed into the ground splintering as it gauged out the earth. Today it lies as it fell in 1942.
There was also just about enough time for a beer… An almost overly-friendly buxom middle-aged German bar lady let us wheel our soaking bikes and kit into her narrow old fashioned bar. She clearly found us amusing. I digged the 80’s big hair rock on the radio. The beer was good as always.

The rain having slightly abated we jumped back on the saddles. The day quickly running by we decided to head to the Baltic coast by the most direct route, straight up. It was mid-afternoon and we still had half the day’s distance to pedal.


Out of the city and through more greenery, we cycled for an hour or so via Bad Schwartau - I don’t recall anything of the town but the name just stuck - fields and then the sea. The Baltic conjures up images of ice-strewn channels, wind, cold and fjords. If we are to make it to St Petersburg we will circumnavigate half of the sea via Denmark (imminently), Sweden, Finland and Russia (god know when). Our first sight came at Timmendorfer Strand.
Startling. Special. Unexpected. We waddled – disembarking from a long cycle you always waddle – across the boardwalk and onto the powder white sand. This picture-perfect beach stretched into the distance on both sides. Neat German buildings fronting small grass-tufted dunes, the beach and then the blue sea.
Apart from its beauty, the other stand out feature were hundreds of what looked like large hooded wicker chairs. On closer inspection, this description did not do justice to a quintessential German invention. Scattered across German beaches since 1882, Strandkorb (literally beach basket) are a product of the co-mingling of the deck chair and beach hut to produce something of pure practicality and a sort after dollop of privacy. Carefully designed to shelter from sun and wind, (the latter being a bigger problem in the Baltic), Strandkorb include comfortable cushions, easy-boy type adjustable foot-rests, airline type fold away tray tables and ample storage space. Past their heyday but carefully preserved, they are items of local pride and are largely frequented by older members of society.
The sun had burst out and we decided to push on to Neustadt our absolute minimum end point for the day. It was a lovely ride. The smooth road followed the beach-line and, via a bridge over a river, led us to the small old port. Our luck was in. As it just so happened, the river front was adorned with a brauhaus. Time for strong, cold local beer and herring in the late afternoon sun. Perfect.
With our spirits when and truly up, we all agreed we had a few more km in the legs and carried on to the north on the beach side road. Another 45 minutes and we would make it to the upmarket seaside resort of Grӧmitz and, with a bit of luck, to a bed for the night.

By the time we made it to the town we had travelled nearly 120 km, the legs were starting to feel it and the sun was sinking low. We popped into the first hotel we saw and asked for a room. No rooms. Where do you recommend? A response of no rooms in town accompanied by a bewilderment at why on earth people would ask or expect to obtain a room at such short notice in high season. It clearly was not the done thing in these parts. It is Germany after all.

We asked in another hotel. Same answer. We asked in a bar. Same answer, accompanied by confused laughter. Bugger. In a stick or twist scenario, we chose to twist. A couple of km up the coast were some campsites and, if that failed, a final flip of the coin at a smaller town 10 km to the north.
No luck at the campsites where we were greeted with friendly signs of “No reservations after 1800”. There went my dream of adding caravan to the lengthening list of accommodation on the route (boats, hostels, prisons, floors, B&Bs etc.).
We were getting desperate and the sun was setting as it dawned on us that we might be sleeping rough. Still surrounded by lovely scenery, we took a “short-cut” along a coast edge path. A thin, wobbling dirt track which went over dunes, fields and then into a wood. Something appealed to me about dodging roots in the dark in a Baltic forest. Well past 9 pm it was getting quite comic.

Finally we arrived at Kellenhusen. We asked at the first hotel. No luck and the same bewildered looks. We asked at another. No rooms, but a glimmer of hope. A friend down the road had a place that might just have a room. We rushed across town and in the pitch dark arrived at a plush yet homely small hotel. A lovely lady greeted us with the even more lovely news that they had two single rooms. One of us would get the floor, but who gave a damn. We had shelter!

It had been quite a day and I soaked up our post-clean up walk along the sea front. A huge helping of 
pizza, a beer and we were off to bed.


After a calorie fuelled German breakfast, with talcum powder, vaseline and lycra in place, we were off again for our final stint in Germany.

Veering inland, we pressed ahead at good speed throughout the morning, passing pretty countryside as we went. Despite our rather freestyle approach to navigation, we made it to Hellingenharfen in good time. Our last meaningful stop in Germany, we stocked up on German baked goods (to be missed on the rest of this journey) and loitered on the twee high-street of this tourist town. Away and over the sea bridge to the isle of Fehmarn. We had left continental Europe and had one small island and a short ferry between us and Scandinavia.

Wind turbines littered the landscape to both sides as we detoured off the main roads. A small village or two later our approach to the port was heralded by the onset of ugly industrial buildings and cheap hotels. Appreciating the wonders of free movement of people within the EU we pedalled through customs and straight on to the waiting ro-ro ferry, at least in my case, singing as I went.

After a combined 7 days on the saddle across Germany via some 700 km, dozens of differing towns, villages and cities, the Rhine, the Weser and the Elber, a prison and castle, wurst and beer, we were on to the next country. We parked the bikes and went on deck to sip a beer and try to sight Denmark!

Friday, January 03, 2014

Hellenic Octopus Hunting

The weather in Greece is usually good, sometimes great. Heading out for a week at the crossover of October and November, I expected early winter weather and hoped for blue skies. To my surprise, we arrived to 26° C basking sunshine and were in for some beach time.

Spending the morning at a public Athenian beach on the Saronic gulf, a middle-aged Greek man in speedos gave me an offer I could not refuse. Want to come Octopus hunting?

While on the Greek islands, I have seen fisherman using long tridents to skewer octopus from small boats, but I have never before seen it done the more hands-on way. Here I was being invited to not only see it, but help do it. While I was traditionally squeamish of such things, I am increasingly interested in seeing how things end up on my plate.

Costa is a specialist. Whenever on the beach, he kits up, leaves his wife to the sun and sets out in search of eight-legged food. The kit I mention is nothing more than a snorkel, mask, fins, knife, hand-spear, buoy on a rope and a small bottle of unidentified liquid tucked into the back of his tight speedos. Before I have had time for second thoughts, Costa has chucked me his spare, rather tired, snorkel and mask and we were off into the shallows.

The water was much warmer than expected. The beach was hemmed in on one side by a marina and on the other by the coast itself, as it turned at a right angle before opening back up into the wider bay. We swam straight out, beyond the sheltered cove and into more open sea. I immediately saw why the buoy was a necessity. Costa’s hunting ground was in a channel frequented by speed boats (and crazy Greek speed boat drivers), and a fluorescent buoy on the surface gave him a chance of not being hit when diving under the waves.

Only having bare feet, I had to front crawl at some pace to keep up with the fin propelled Costa. At regular intervals he would duck dive, glide down to the bottom and investigate the scene for our prey. I dived down after him, looking where he looked, and trying to understand his approach. If I picked up enough, I could hope to catch my own 8-legged delicacies on Antiparos!

He explained the tell-tell signs of octopi. They like to hide under ledges or burrow down into holes, covering themselves with stones for camouflage. The octopi in these parts have a habit of flinging out small white stones from their hiding place, providing a give-away circular pattern.

Over the next hour of swimming, diving and searching, we found a number of these lairs, but each time they were empty, the previous occupant either having moved residence or been eaten. I was beginning to lose hope when Costa gestured to me excitedly. I looked over and he pointed at an outcrop of rocks roughly 4m down. “Octopodi, Octopus”. As hard as I peered I could not make it out, so he dived down and pointed his hand-spear right at it. Undoubtedly an octopus. Great! What next?

I dived down as it retracted its tentacles and all but a sliver of its body under the rock shelf. Costa took some air, finned down next to the shelf and thrust his spear into the body of the octopus. It jerked back and disappeared from view, leaving only the end of the spear poking out from the overhang and jiggling in protest. Another dive down and Costa reached in to retrieve the octopus, but to no avail, as the creature backed up further, out of reach.

Just as matters looked forlorn, Costa took out the small bottle of liquid from the back of his speedos. We dived down together and I watched him squirt a small amount of the liquid under the shelf and into the vicinity of the octopus. There was no immediate effect, but after a few seconds delay, a couple of its legs unfurled in our direction as it repulsed from Costa’s liquid and made the fatal error of moving within Costa’s grasp.

In an instant Costa had grabbed the octopus by the head and wrenched it out of its hole. All flailing, rasping, sucking limbs, the animal did all it could to right itself and sink its sharp beak into its adversary. Costa surfaced, fighting fiercely with both hands. As the octopus clenched all of its limbs around his forearm and writhed one way and then the other, Costa felt for a lip over the back of its head, pulled and inserted his hand.

To my shock and wonder, he stuck his digits right in and ripped and retrieved what looked like a significant portion of the octopus’ brains. The fight of the octopus only fortified. It expelled gushing quantities of black ink which enveloped Costa’s arm. Costa flipped between thwarting the octopus’ attempts to turn on his flesh by ripping the grip of its legs off his arm and delving back into the head cavity, pulling out more brains and internal vitals.

After a last furious effort, the fight fizzled out, Costa ceased his internal excavations and handed me the octopus. Yes, that’s right, handed me the oh-so-recently flailing animal. I took hold of the head only to quickly reject it as the legs of the brainless mollusc reached up and tangled around my arm, gaining purchase with their suckers. I regained my composure and took hold of the head again before the octopus sank down.

With a smile, Costa ushered me on to find more octopus as I struggled behind in an awkward one-armed freestyle. My other arm was doing its best to drag the octopus in just the right way so that its limbs were left trailing behind by our forward propulsion (and hence as far as possible from my arm). Intermittently I lost this little battle, one tentacle after another creeping back up my hand and sucking onto my skin before I slowed and wrenched it back into the slipstream. An enlightening, if slightly grizzly experience. Eventually, the octopus stopped moving.

After a long, drawn out search for the first octopus, our luck was in. Costa soon found another hidden in a crumpled rock formation. After close inspection he informed me it was only a juvenile and better left alone.

We moved on, in a wide arch back towards the beach and, unfortunately, to the inevitable return to normality… until… just as we passed the shallow outcrop of flat, creviced rocks that spread out from the edge of the bay… I spotted it. A large octopus squeezed down in a narrow channel carved through an otherwise flat rock. I raced in front to grab Costa’s attention, ungainly resorting to pulling his fin. To my relief, the octopus was still where I left it when Costa and I came back.

Time for a new technique. Costa explained how an octopus in the hand can make it easier to catch more. They are cannibalistic and are attracted to the smell of their kin. On Costa’s instruction I dived down and flailed the recently deceased octopus over the opening above the very much alive octopus. Its tentacles tentatively reached out, but not enough for me to grab it (to this day, I am not sure if I would have actually grabbed it).

I surfaced ready for another attempt, only to be interrupted by a call from a swimmer. I had completely lost track of time. What had been just a blink of an adventure in my head, had taken over two hours. I was needed back in reality. I gave my apologies, left Costa to take another octopus for the pot (or grill - I prefer it on the grill) and raced back to shore.

That night I dined on octopus.