Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Route VI – Scandanavian Shores (Days 1 and 2)

Poitiers to Copenhagen completed over the past five trips, we decided to point our bikes north and follow the cold shores of the Baltic Sea from Denmark’s capital to Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg.

Out of Denmark
Arriving early morning in Copenhagen, things did not look promising. The bikes had gotten beaten up on the plane - Dave inevitably complained about a wheel buckle - and the weather was simply horrible. A shiver went down my spine as I stepped out the terminal into the grey, cold, raining Danish “summer”, with only a thin rain jacket and Lycra to protect me from the elements. 
On the bright side, Uwe had made it from Germany on time and the reunion gave us the shot in the arm we needed to contemplate the long, wet, cold day ahead. After the obligatory picture and butt slaps, we pushed off towards the city centre through curtains of rain.
What could improve the commencement of our journey? A puncture. Barely had we made it into Copenhagen and Uwe had the first blow out of our trip. Fortunately, this occurred near a 7/11 where we picked up some local Dutch courage to warm us up, which uncannily resembled Listerine.
We diverted through Christiania, the odd hippy colony that we had paid a night visitation to on a previous trip (Copenhagen 13). By daylight it had lost its edge and found tourist groups. Hippies and pushers watched on as flag waving East Asian tourists admired its novelty.
Assisted by another puncture (we later learned that the local roads are notorious for popping tyres due the usage of small sharp rocks in the tarmac), it took us an age to come out the other end of the city, but once on the coast road heading north the weather cleared and we hammered it at over 30kpmph. It was a great stretch of ride, with the sea to our rights and one pretty, affluent settlement after another on our left. Our destination was Helsingor or, more specifically, as early a ferry as possible from its port. From a couple of miles out we could see the boat at dock. We put pedal to metal (or whatever the equivalent is in cycling terms) and squeaked onto the ferry just as its doors closed and it departed for Sweden.
Skane, Sweden
On the boat, we drank our last Danish beer and poured over the maps of Skane, Sweden’s most southerly and heavily Danish influenced province (it was part of Denmark for a very long time and it cut off from the Swedish heartland by a massive forest). Oh, for a good route and place to spend the night. Before we knew it, we were disembarking in a new country, our sixth of the route, at the city of Helsingborg. After the obligatory flag picture and pit stop we took set off through town.
Maybe we missed the nice parts, but it did seem like an underwhelming place. The centre was rather grey and, getting lost on small bike paths out, we encountered what seemed like well-meant, but somehow stagnant, newly built estates housing recent immigrant communities. It did not feel like a place of seamless integration.
What I will say for Helsingborg is that somewhere near a roundabout in the centre of town it had a simply awesome bakery with great treats, coffee and unnervingly attractive, yet friendly staff. A Swedish stereotype straight off the boat.
After an annoyingly long time trying to shake off the large roads and industrial estates of the city, we eventually found countryside. Taking a diversion to the east to avoid a whole lot of contours on the map, we passed gentle, tilled countryside before eventually hitting the sea. It was getting late and we turned north, skirting along the coast in search of lodgings. 
It is fair to say we found scant pickings as we followed dune flanked cycle paths and minor roads. Amongst the sea, sand, and trees there were houses, but seemingly no life. So few people and a strange emptiness, I presume emanating from the Swedes not having much interest in their second homes this late in the season (usually I would not think of end of August as late, but Swedish summer is damned short).  
The scenery was pretty and all, but déjà vu was creeping in as the light failed and we still had no idea where we were going to stay. Finally passing some locals, we followed their directions through an ill judged short cut. Instead of following the paved road, we found ourselves on an ever-diminishing dirt trail across fields and then through a small forest that jutted out into the sea. Jumping over roots and down dead drops in diminishing, grey gloomy light. I am not quite sure how we stayed on our road bikes. Oh, OK, I did fall over, but only right at the end skidding across a part of the path that resembled a sandpit.  
Rocking up in the seaside resort of Vejbystrand, we criss-crossed the roads with no luck before finally striking gold. Against all the odds we not only found the only place within miles that was open, but no less than a speciality cycling hostel. If we needed any more indicators of just how dead this part of Sweden gets, we had to brag a lift 7km to get to an ATM, before we could settle down to beers, chill and a massive pizza to see out the day.
Waking up to a great Swedish breakfast of cured meat and yoghurt, we veered back to the sea and just like that discovered the Kattegatleden cycle path ( which, if the sign was to be believed, would take us all the way to Gothenburg over the next 2 days along the shores of the Kattegat Sea. We had lost it within 5km. 
Accidently taking a bending road back in land, we discovered some countryside which put the day before to shame. Steep, bumpy valleys of green. The adrenaline reached pitch as we freewheeled at 60kmph down a twisty, precipitous road before having to swerve past a BMW and around flower boxes that were unhelpfully left in the road to “calm” traffic.
A big uphill later, we were again gunning downhill to the town of Båstad and a small promenade on the sea where we parked up our bikes and savoured one of the surprisingly hydrating Swedish supermarket beers (in Sweden, supermarket beer is capped by law at piss strength, leaving even slightly intoxicating stuff to System Boleget – more on that later). 
It was a great moment, looking out over the sea and a beach strewn coast line arching to our right and up. Not for the first time, the boys rejected my suggestion of a little swim.
We powered on, switching back and forth between bike path and road, past a seemingly endless golden beach. We grabbed lunch and a beer in the sunshine by the river in Halmstad, before doing some serious spinning all the way to Falkenberg, burning up 50km in our impression of a peloton. This was the long leg of the journey, and it felt it. Heavy cross winds did not help!
My poor directions inadvertently by-passed the historic centre, taking us through an ugly industrial centre. With the day already running away, we decided to miss the town and push on up the coast, hoping to make it make the final 30km to Varberg before night fall.
A combo of more strong wind and my puncture did not help, though the latter gave us a good excuse for a tin of beer on the beach as the sun lowered to the horizon, like a countdown clock. 
Twenty minutes more on the bike, willing the tired legs through each revolution, and we rolled into Varberg. On a tip, we made it up the castle seeking rooms. There were none free, but we were compensated with a clear sunset from the ramparts.
Heading back into town, as per usual, we struggled to find anywhere to stay, but eventually shacked up in a strange, funky Lenin themed place. In all truth, I was ready to knock-out. Beer and chocolate had dragged us through 150km of up and down cross-winds and there was not much left in the tank…
Just enough for a quiet beer or, as it ended up, a night-out which went from the ridiculous to the sublime.  From a speedway obsessed seemingly over 50’s bar to an immaculate 18-21 Swedish party club. Neither was particularly sociable (we were quickly understanding that the Swedes are not the most open of peoples), but a few hours in the latter was a rather surreal experience. Three smelly, scruffy thirty somethings sitting back and watching all these young, beautiful, overly-blonde and perfectly done-up Swedes float about their party business.
This is what I love about these trips. A bit of a challenge, taking in the countryside by day, ending up in a small town you have never heard of and gaining an unexpected glimpse into local life. Only problem was we had a long way to go… with a mild hangover.

(Continue to Blog Part 2...)