Friday, April 28, 2017

The Route VI – Swedish Cycling and a Touch of Viking (Days 3 and 4)

Ups and downs
After limited sleep and a little worse for wear, we piled in as much breakfast as we dared to soak up the night before (Blog Part One), before jumping back on our bikes for the final leg of our journey to Gothenburg (or “Jurt-a-boy” in local pronunciation).
Up until this point I had found our ride through south-western Sweden often pretty, but rarely show-stopping. The scenery though stepped up few notches on our path north from Varberg. We hugged a coastline that began to break-up, flanked by a mixture of forest and field. After a heavy day pushing up the road it was fantastic to take it easier, meander around on country lanes and take in a bit more of our surroundings. This added up to a great morning's ride.
Somewhere in the middle of a bike tour, I invariably find a standout period of calm, contented, satisfaction. Fully in the moment, yet removed from myself by the meditational monotony of the wheels going round and round and round. This generally occurs at a point of voyage equilibrium, where the initial excitement of setting off has been broken down by a few hundred kms of asphalt, yet the end is sufficiently far over the horizon to hold off thoughts of pending normality. Once the hangover had worn off, this day entered just such a period. It was glorious.
Everything comes to an end and, rather predictably, a stumble for me and a puncture for Dave snapped me back to reality.
Stopping off for a lunch of meatballs in Kungsbacka, a town of limited aesthetic attraction, we managed to experience a dollop of authentic Swedish culture. You may ask, was it a castle? A museum? A folk festival? A sauna? An elk farm…? No, it was a booze shop.
With the knowledge of how exorbitant drinks are in Swedish bars and having the full intention of a big night out in Gothenburg should we ever arrive there, a trip was required to Systembolaget, the Swedish governmental alcohol monopoly.
Sweden has long been a country with a complicated attitude to alcohol, veering from the tendency to drink like Vikings in Valhalla (I still have mental blanks from a good mate’s wedding in Sigtuna – a different drink for every toast… and there were a lot of toasts), to major abstinence movements. The latter is no doubt a cause of legislation banning the sale of anything constituting more than piss strength alcohol anywhere except bars and the monopoly shop. More stringent still, Systembolaget is only open for limited hours, closed all Sunday and closing at 2pm on Saturday. Party on Sweden.
We scraped in just before the 2pm close. It was a peculiar place. Row after row of pricey imported bottles, transversed by old ladies carrying shopping baskets full of vodka and gin. We purchased a fair bit for ourselves and hit the road for the final leg to Gothenburg.
Swedish Paradise
Trying to get back to the coast, we followed the trusty compass west and found ourselves rather lost on small roads through the countryside. When it eventually came, we welcomed the sight of the North Sea. Switching north on a path signalling Gothenburg, we searched for a sweet spot for a beer, and chill. We found it and some.
If you look at the map of Sweden, you will see that from just south of Gothenburg the coast starts to break up. At first there are small inlets, then larger ones, before islands and full blown fjords. Passing over a rise, we sighted a beautiful little inlet. Gentle green slopes dropping into the sea, backed by forest and speckled in one or two places by picture perfect Swedish summer houses. Following a track, we cycled beyond the porch of one the dwellings, nodding to an old man was sat on his porch, peering out at his view with an expression of contentment. I intrinsically felt we were invading his own personal paradise, but fortunately he smiled at us and had no issue with us dumping our bikes as we scrambled out onto a set of large boulders which protruded out into the water.
While we chilled and sipped weak beer in the just about warm sun, I had a growing urge to dive into the calm, dark waters. Dave did not want to get his beard wet, but Uwe was game, and we soon were stripped down to our boxers and throwing ourselves into the bay. I won’t lie. It was cold, but in a strikingly refreshing way. The chill searing into the muscles, penetrating the ache from the 3 days on the saddle. We scrambled back on to the rocks and, lying back, slowly drying in the Scandinavian sun, I was about as content as can be.
We eventually put our clothes back on and pedalled the coastal path towards our final destination. It was the most attractive part of our ride, leaving me with a desire to one day come back to this spot and follow this rugged bit of coast all the way to Norway and beyond. Unfortunately that was not be on this trip, and our path finally took us inland, out the countryside and into the outskirts of Gothenburg. The other side of some big roads, parks and the ‘burbs we had made it to the city centre and what I had assumed was the end of our road.
We found a bar spilling out onto an old ex-industrial cobbled street, parked the bikes, put our feet up and celebrated with a few ice cold beers still Lycra clad. Basking our tired legs in the afternoon sun, setting off in a cold, wet, miserable Copenhagen felt half an age ago, rather than the factual 3 days.
On surprisingly good form, we found the energy to do a loop of the inner city on our bikes, cursing the effects of the cobbles on our posteriors. First impressions were of a surprisingly unpolished port city with a nice vibe. Yes, there were grand buildings and lovely bridges over the water, but these were broken up by the remnants of industry. A working city rather than a showy capital.
Finally stripping off the by this time rather smelly cycle gear, we settled into our hostel with our purchases from Systembolaget, before heading out for a night on the town. We had a good time, the height of which entailed a rather crazy heavy metal bar dominated by massive men undertaking a special type of head banging that involved a dance floor clearing move of enthused, constant, circular hair-swishing (and these men had a lot of hair!). Our first glimpse of Vikings…
We made it to 3 am and the queue for some posh club before age got the better of us and we headed home discussing how, yet again, we had failed to encounter gregarious Swedes on a night out. Given alcohol prices it is not surprising that the bar scene is a bit under-cooked (strangely the clientele seemed to be predominantly 18 or 50, with little in between), but this seemed more down to a culture of keeping to one’s group. 
DAY 4 
"Jurt-a-boy, Jurt-a-boy!"
Any, mild lingering disappointment at the night before was blown away on a perfect Swedish Sunday. Coffee, sauna, coffee, meatballs, coffee, chill in a beautiful park with a coffee and then… football. Seeing an increasingly large number of people walk by with blue and white striped shirts, we followed the crowd and ended up in a stadium to see the mighty Gothenburg. After witnessing the calm and refined every day nature of the modern Swede over the last few days, it was great to find ourselves in the middle of a home stand in full on Viking mode. As guttural chants and roars of noise poured out from the throngs of large men, I could sense why Anglo-Saxons often ran away when faced by such intimidating and seemingly barbaric invaders.  
Gothenburg won and, needless to say, we had a great time. Relieved to see our bikes has not been nicked while we watched the game, we made it back to the hostel, put the racks and packs back on and headed off to the airport via what proved to be one last adventure.
Lost at the last 
Even though it was a good 30km, we expected little of our ride to the airport. No doubt, as usual, a slow ride out of the centre, before speeding up on an easy, well-marked cycle path to our plane. That was the norm, but knowing things can go array, we gave ourselves a couple of hours to make the journey. Boy did we end up needing every minute.
The first part went as expected. Slow exit from the centre, before speeding up as we hit the outskirts. Our map then took us sharp south into a wooded area. Initially it was a pleasant surprise. We followed a hilly path through a thick forest, breaking open to lake below. 
We had found the quintessential Swedish view. Lake and forest, forest and lake. Heading round the water, the path soon deteriorated. First to bumpy gravel, then, after we had made a gut choice on an unmarked fork, root strewn dirt. Dave was understandably worried that his road bike was out of its depth. Our progress was slow and time was running out. Our built in puncture time had expired in the most likely place to puncture.
We were forced to make another gut path choice and, somewhere in a middle of a forest with no signs, were starting to worry. Fortunately, we came across a helpful Swede… Unfortunately, said Swede pointed out that we were heading in the wrong direction…
Time was really running short. We went back on ourselves and pushed on as fast as we dared, following the directions of the Swede. Then, when the directions had run out, another fork. We were fully aware that the wrong choice could mean no plane home. Taking out the trusty compass, we made a punt and pedalled on.
To our enormous relief, the path hit a road, which wound down fast, out of the forest and to an airport sign. A few more km and a sharp hill to the terminal later, we pulled up at the terminal just in time. An unexpected last minute adventure that fortuitously failed to be a misadventure. Close call.
Another year, another trip, another 350 plus km. Next year back to Sweden!
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