The International Writers Magazine: Follow Me to the Middle East
Three continents. Twenty countries. Seven thousand miles. One 30-something who deeply regrets not doing any training
I am a journalist from London, and on July 29th 2015 I set off on an ill-advised seven-month cycle trip through Europe and the Middle East. My aim is threefold: cultivate a pair of toned, shapely calves that will be the envy of all I meet; survive; and shed light on a region long misunderstood and misrepresented in the West.
DECEMBER 5th Update:
Zagreb, Croatia to Kostajnica, Bosnia (14 – 20 Sep)
Total miles so far: 825 (1,325km) - Thigh status: Unnerving
Croatia starts badly. I don’t intentionally cycle ten miles on a series of ever-shrinking country paths – each mile lumpier and less path-like than the last, until it’s almost entirely country with no path at all – but that’s what happens when you sacrifice independent thought to the whim of technology. And by the time you find yourself pedalling across a thick, spongy field with only the odd insouciant cow for company, it’s already too late to make amends.
On this particular route it takes me the best part of three hours to get not very far at all, and by noon I am seething, sweltering and ravenous. I am saved, however, by the appearance of an attractive restaurant on the bank of the Sava river, where I am directed by a group of suspicious looking soldiers loitering beneath a bridge. When I ask what they’re doing there, they smirk. ‘This is a military country,’ they say. I think they’re joking, but I can’t be sure. According to my satnav, this is an ‘unpaved road’. I am sceptical.
At the restaurant, I guzzle a big bean stew, basket of bread and real lemonade, all for €4 (£2.80), and chat to the manager. You can discover almost everything worth knowing about a country following a five-minute conversation with a local barista, I’ve learnt, and this one is no exception. It’s tough here, he tells me. The average monthly wage is about €750 (after tax). There’s free healthcare and education, but no jobs. Anyone with half a brain leaves.
‘There’s no industry,’ he says. ‘No production. The tycoons came in after independence and swept everything up. They built huge skyscrapers and nothing of lasting value. Money is poured into places like Dubrovnik, which nobody can afford.’
Corruption and tax abuse remain serious problems, he adds, but companies are slowly modernising. Before, a tax inspector would arrive and pluck a figure from the air; now, receipts are required for everything. ‘We have a phrase, which means something like “clean bills, good friends”. Meaning, if you settle your debts, you’ll get along well.’
|Desperate to avoid more of Croatia’s fecund grasslands, I decide instead to engage in a little suicidal experimentation with the six-lane motorway for the final stretch into Zagreb. When I exit five miles later, alive but mildly traumatised, I find myself in deep industrial suburbia. The landscape is exactly as I imagined Ljubljana would be (but wasn’t): an ex-Titoist, tenement-heavy dystopia of cheerless, grey gloom.
Photo: Zagreb skyline
Tonight I am staying with a young couple who very kindly offered to put me up for free after a mix-up with the reservation on their Airbnb flat. They live in a small, modern apartment a few miles outside the centre with their six-month-old baby. Over dinner, they repeat the concerns of my friendly barista almost verbatim. No industry; no investment; no agriculture; no jobs.
The couple still remember the 1991-1995 War of Independence between Croatia and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army — or the Velikosrpska agresija (Greater-Serbian aggression), as many refer to it domestically. Twenty thousand people died and relations remain tense now. Nobody in Croatia talks of crimes committed during the war; those that do are labelled anti-patriotic ‘Yugoslavs’. ‘I have no problem with Serbs, though,’ says D, the husband. ‘The people didn’t want the war. For most, it was imposed on them.’
I ask what was better, pre- or post-independence? I am surprised when they hesitate. ‘It’s hard to know,’ they say. ‘Everyone had jobs then. What is freedom without money and security?’ It’s a good question, which I mull on at length afterwards. Across the world, those demanding the former are almost always those denied the latter. And is it freedom at all if subverted by crooks and corruption?
Where the latter is concerned, Croatia currently seems to be at an awkward crossroads. The couple are waiting for a property licence from the council, but haven’t received it yet and are unsure if a bribe is expected or would get them into trouble. ‘No-one knows where they stand anymore.’
After a declicious breakfast including dried ham, kulen (smoked sausage made from minced pork and paprika), burek (filo pastry filled with meat or cheese) and sirnica (sweet bread), I reluctantly move on. My next stop is the home of a young journalist, M, who runs a Balkans-wide magazine aimed at 15-29 year olds. His office is next-door to his family house, built by his grandfather, where he lives on the middle floor, his aunt above him and his grandfather below. His parents are two doors down. Until recently, they and his four siblings lived with him and he used to sleep on the living room sofa.
He tells me about Croatia while we drink cold red wine from the fridge. ‘We didn’t fight for independence, we fought for privatisation,’ he says. Everything was sold: the banks to the French and Italians; the telecoms to the Germans; the oil to the Hungarians. ‘Our 23-million market shrank to four million and no-one had any idea how capitalism works. Politicians are corrupt. Policemen are corrupt. Doctors are corrupt.’
M recently cycled from Zagreb to Iran and gives me advice about the country. Women don’t always cover their hair, he says. Many work and socialise, and fashion is taken ‘to a whole new level’. It’s apparently more liberal than Turkey, where women are rarely seen in public. Near Tehran, M was stopped and handed a spliff by a man in a car. Just for the hell of it.
I am given a cycle tour around the city centre, which is suitably historical and filled with cobbles, colour and patches of green. En route, we pass former female Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor walking along the pavement. It’s not unusual to see politicians wandering about, free and feral, apparently. ‘You cry “fuck you!” and they cry “fuck you!” back,’ says M. ‘It’s like a form of hello.’
The old town is particularly pretty, comprising a long, pedestrianised strip of lively haunts, as well as a statue of Croatia’s first female journalist, Marija Juri Zagorka. The area is getting busier every year, apparently, as the government throws everything it has at promoting the tourist industry (to the detriment of everything else). Even now, dozens of selfie-stick barnacles are pouting and posturing – a phenomenon I still don’t entirely understand. Surely if you want to boast about visiting somewhere, the very fact of taking the photo is proof enough without thrusting in your girning chops and ruining it for everyone?
After the tour, we drive to a villa high in the hills to meet some of M’s friends. Beautiful views stretch into the distance, thick with fir and forest, while apples, pears, oranges and pomegranates burst from the garden. Everyone here loves cooking, tea and ‘non-industrial foodstuffs’. They work in a range of fields; one is a hairdresser and another an archaeology graduate, while our host gets up at 4am every morning to work at the market with his parents. All are sad about their country.
‘It has such good potential,’ our host says. ‘Great location, great natural resources, great coastline. The water is the cleanest in Europe. But it’s being squandered.’ The problem is not just with politics, but with people. ‘Everyone is very superficial. Some people buy cars just to have them in their driveway, as they can’t afford the petrol.’
I leave M’s the next afternoon and make it to Lekenik, just 28 miles away, when dusk starts to loom. I am beginning my usual gently panicked search for a camping spot when I inadvertently run over a dead snake on the road. My heart freezes. Oh god, I think — the fields are clearly swarming with them. As someone with a deep, irrational phobia of anything limbless, this is a worrying development.
Desperate to avoid anything over-grassy and therefore inevitably reptile-infested, I sidle instead into the backyard of one of the many half-built houses in the vicinity to snooze in in their cabbage patch. I am just about to unload when I am accosted by a busybody neighbour, who irritatingly and entirely reasonably insists on calling the owners to ask their permission on my behalf. They say no, predictably (‘a grubby vagrant wants to trespass in your tomatoes – is that ok?’), so I am once again cast into the wilderness. The man clearly feels bad, however, as he hands me an apple in recompense. Thanks, mate, but how will an apple save me from being devoured by serpents in my sleep?
As night falls, I veer impetuously into a large building site by the roadside, where dozens of trucks and bulldozers are parked beside heaps of mud and litter. It’s a dry, barren, sterile place; a graveyard of calcified souls. It’s also almost certainly snake-free. Perfect!
After a nightcap of 2011 Rojac Istra Refosk (an excellent Slovenian red with hints of berry and old boot), I fall deep asleep – only to be rudely awakened what seems like minutes later by a deafening roar just outside my tent. I scrabble out of my sleeping bag in terror, convinced I’m about to be flattened. What a way to go, I think. Crushed in a rubbish dump in my underpants. What will my parents tell the neighbours? Then, suddenly, the roar weakens, and I peek tentatively through the door flaps. I’m safe, it seems – but only just. The machines are all alive and trundling into the fields just metres away, their metalwork glinting in the pallid morning sun.
Energised by my survival, I bound out of bed and am on the road by 8am. The route to the Bosnian border is hot and flat, each mile poorer and more rundown than the last. The land is thick with pocket-sized patches of fruit, veg and grain, while houses comprise ramshackle collections of brick and timber, as if thrown together in the dark. None, curiously, are rendered.
At first I am confused by the vast level of construction work underway, as this equates in my mind with a booming economy. But I am later enlightened. People spend all they have on building huge houses for their family – a mark of both security and prestige – and often run out of money before completion, apparently. Houses are frequently abandoned or whole floors left derelict.
After a couple of hours I hit the hills, and it’s not long before I’m tired and gasping. Suddenly, as if by magic, a young man in a car appears by my side. Do I need water? Yes! A little food? Yes! Maybe a sit-down? Yes yes!
We go to his grandmother’s house nearby, who lives opposite his other grandmother. It’s a tiny, cluttered bungalow, built by her husband 30 years ago, comprising one room separated into kitchen and bedroom by a green curtain, alongside a pantry and filthy bathroom. She quickly whips me up a banquet: eggs (from their chickens); tomatoes (from their garden); bread (from her oven); and salami (from their pig). It’s a wonderful feast, and I feel my belly expand like bubblegum.
‘We only buy meat sometimes, when we want a quick snack,’ says R, my 19-year-old saviour. He has recently graduated from high school and is now going to Germany to work ‘cleaning the environment’. If it works out, he will stay there and send his money back to his parents, as his father has just been made redundant from his factory job. ‘There is nothing for young people here,’ he says.
It is R’s first time abroad. Airfares are prohibitive, he tells me. Holidays are prohibitive, full-stop, even inside Croatia. Many people in the village chop and sell wood illegally to buttress their income, with ten metres fetching around €200. As I sit there exploiting their hospitality, I feel a gnawing sense of guilt. What luck to live in one of the most expensive countries in the world, allowing me to spread my wares liberally across the globe. Grow up in the wrong area and your postcode can become your prison cell.
Grandma gives me some chocolate, orange squash and the largest salami sandwich I’ve ever seen to take away with me, along with a bottle of her home-brewed cherry brandy. When I ask her how strong it is, she laughs heartily and pats me on my knee. I am then taken to meet R’s parents. His father is 44, jolly and portly, and is wearing a t-shirt that says ‘this would look great on your bedroom floor’ – in English, though he doesn’t speak it. His mother is 37, with short, blonde hair, bad teeth and a mischievous grin.
They give me coffee and wafers, and I have to almost physically restrain them from feeding me again. Instead, I am given a tour of their farm, comprising 100 chicks, one pregnant sow, nine chickens and two dogs. Plus tomatoes, lettuce, chillis, peppers, apples and herbs.
I wasn’t going the best way to the border, apparently, so R leads me to the more direct road on his rusty bicycle (‘my Ferrari’). He then tells me I look in my 20s and casually mentions he recently split up with his girlfriend. Is he flirting with me, I wonder? I do hope so. He’d be the first non-geriatric to do so since my trip began and it’d be a nice boost for my ego. There are few more bothersome things in the world than constant unwanted attention from men, but one is no unwanted attention.
||I arrive in the border town of Hrvatska Kostajnica in late afternoon and cross the Una River into Bosnia. With only tacky bars and no green space in sight, I decide to shun canvas for a wanton night under leopard skin in the local motel. Goodbye Croatia, I think; you affable, insolvent, unrendered renegade. I very much hope we meet again one day.
NOVEMBER 25th Update:
Trieste, Italy to Zagreb, Croatia (Sep 1 – 14)
Thigh status: BB- (negative outlook)
I don’t realise I’ve crossed from Italy into Slovenia until all the signs suddenly start appearing in mirror writing. ‘Restavracija, okusna hrana!’ says one, beside a picture of an enormous slab of bloodied flesh. ‘Nevaren cestni odsek!‘ cries another, alongside a faintly alarming illustration of a motorcyclist flying spreadeagled through the air. You’re in the Balkans now, the country seems to declare. No more of those metrosexual Mediterranean pansies!
Slovenia — known aptly as ‘the sunny side of the Alps’ — certainly feels far less Italian than Austro-Hungarian. This perhaps isn’t surprising, considering most of it was under Habsburg rule for the best part of 600 years, until 1918. Terracotta tiles blaze under a bleached sky, each village a Technicolor smattering of reds, yellows, greens and blues. From above, I imagine it must look like a giant painter’s palette.
Occasionally, a hunched old crone will appear, a basket or broom clutched in a shrivelled claw. They are so quintessentially peasant-like that I can’t help wondering if they’ve been placed here for the tourists – just as I had my suspicions about that reassuringly cantankerous hotelier in Dieppe. Maybe countries feel a duty to fulfil a few cultural cliches on their border, just to ensure foreigners don’t leave disappointed.
||I have decided to call my bike Maud, by the way. I’m not entirely sure why it’s a girl, considering I’ll be intimately astride her for the best part of eight months. But at least this arrangement may prove more palatable to the Iranian imams. My first stop in Slovenia is Postojna, where I deposit my things in a campsite so I can walk to the famous caves nearby. Outside, they prove to be a disappointment, surrounded by the usual glut of tawdry tripe that infects most popular tourist attractions. Inside, however, they are breathtaking: a vast, craggy Hades of stalagmites and stalactites, formed three million years ago by the Plivka river
It’s a macabre lair, the landscape a taut cadaver skin of rock draped on rock. But there’s life here too. There’s the cute if hapless troglodytic olm, for a start: a ‘neotenic’ creature that keeps most of its juvenile features into adulthood, and with which I can’t help feeling a natural affinity. There’s also water everywhere, ebbing and flowing, carving and eroding. Stalagmites, formed from dissolved calcite dripping from the ceiling, are testament to its dogged patience, growing just one inch in 40 years. I look on in awe and envy. If only my thighs would grow so slowly.
|The best known symbol of the caves: a 5m high pearly white stalagmite called the Brilliant. I see a chicken down here, as well as two pteradactyls and a camel. I also spot several goblins and monkeys, and phalluses everywhere. If the place is a giant Rorschach test, then I think I have problems. Our guide keeps me focused with a flow of excitable superlatives, however. We are, at various points, at the ‘highest point’ of the tour, and the ‘lowest point’; at the ‘thickest part’ of the roof, and the ‘thinnest part’.
From Postojna, I make my way to Ljubljana, the capital. I arrive harbouring some impressively uninformed preconceptions, and am expecting something rather forlorn and hopeless; some kind of drab embodiment of post-Communist disenchantment, with wisps of grey at the temples. What I find is an attractive, bustling, modern metropolis. When I ask a cafe if it has wifi, I receive a look of hurt incredulity. In fact, they have three: two city-wide networks, plus their own (take note, France!).
||View of Ljubljana Castle from the river.
The city has a compassionate side too. It’s heavy on bike lanes, recycling bins and signs telling people to ‘drink tapwater’. Even the graffiti has a kindly edge, stating ‘refugees welcome’ and ‘stop repression’. These things are all sadly counteracted by the morally questionable policy of serving wine in 100ml thimbles, however, which surely does little to discourage the dangerous spread of sobriety among society.
It is dark by the time I reach my host’s house, around four miles outside the centre. His flat is basic but comfortable, and I have a room to myself, which feels wonderfully decadent. M- is an accountant, and we talk over grapes and cold red wine from the fridge. I assume the latter is a faux-pas on his part, until I discover later it’s widespread practice across the Balkans, where summer room temperatures touch sauna levels.
From M- I learn that Slovenians are not too keen on the Italians. They spend most of their time sleeping and preening, he says, and were weak-willed enough to support both sides in World War Two (‘you can’t have it both ways!’). Some Slovenians on the border refuse to speak Italian due to a hangover of hostility from the war, apparently – though whether this is due to anger at Nazi barbarism or concerns about the population’s endemic indecisiveness is unclear.
The Germans appear to have been forgiven, on the other hand, and are now seen as a beacon of economic aspiration. ‘This was a main reason we wanted independence,’ M- tells me. ‘As part of Yugoslavia, we were earning all this money for Bosnia and Serbia, who are much more like the Italians and threw it all away.’
So I think I’ve grasped it. The Italians don’t like the Germans; the Slovenians don’t like the Italians; the French don’t like anyone; and the Germans like everyone who plays by their rules. The Slovenians have good relations with their neighbouring Croatians, however, give or take a few niggly border disputes. ‘They are our brothers,’ M- says. ‘There’s a common language and culture there.’
Like most of his countrymen, M-‘s English is near-perfect. ‘In a country of two million, it has to be.’ With such a tiny population, the economy is reliant on foreign trade. On independence, it lost Yugoslavia’s 24-million strong market and found itself cast into the competitive, capitalist maelstrom on its western flank: a flea among titans. More than two decades later, wages remain below the EU average (approx. €1,100 net, compared to €1,500). However, the economy is strong, and performing extremely well compared to the rest of the Balkans, where salaries continue to languish around the €400 mark.
The next day, I venture into town to sample my first kranjska klobasa (Carniolan sausage) – a plump anaconda of pork, bacon, garlic, salt and pepper – and meet a friend who heads one of Slovenia’s leading human rights NGOs. She tells me about the ‘erased’: the 26,000 people denied Slovenian citizenship on independence, despite living their whole lives in the country. Half remain stateless now. ‘It took ten years to break public opinion and show that these people weren’t enemies of the state,’ she says. ‘It’s now seen as a human rights issue, but we have a long way to go.’
As a newly signed-up hobo, I have had a tiny taste of the impact of prejudice on the ego. Grubby, haggard and surviving on a shoestring, I know I am frequently being weighed up and judged by the people I meet. Yet I am white, British and middle-class, with a huge support network. And I am here by choice. I could brush my matted locks and rejoin the civilised folk of the township anytime I like. How it feels for people destined for society’s scrapheap, I have no idea. It must be bloody awful.
The Roma are a case in point. An itinerant ethnic group originating from South Asia, they have historically faced discrimination almost everywhere they have settled. They are widespread across the Balkans, with around 10,000 in Slovenia. Here, nearly a third of Roma settlements have no water supply, according to my friend, while 40 per cent have no electricity. Harassment at school is common, and drop-out levels high.
In my experience, the Roma are the line where social liberalism ends. Even hessian-wearing, hemp-smoking beatniks with flowers in their hair and peace in their heart struggle to find a kind word. They are uneducated, unemployed, unlawful, unclean and unrestrained when it comes to spawning offspring, it is said. And much of this is true, to an extent. But if you believe that no ethnicity is born to be a societal burden, you have to ask: what came first, the problem or the prejudice? And where will the cycle end if the latter continues unchecked?
After a brief visit to Ljubljana Castle, where I consider replacing my Brooks saddle with a couple more compassionate-looking alternatives on offer in the torture exhibition, I go on my way. Surprising myself, I decide to shun the easy route for the hilly one. This is partly by choice, partly by a subtle hint of peer pressure from M-. ‘You can go the interesting way,’ he says. ‘Or you can go the flat way by the river, where you’ll die of boredom.’ He does own a lycra onesie, however, so is almost certainly not to be trusted.
But it’s good advice, as it turns out. Twenty miles of dullness is rewarded by acres of radiant fields, toy box houses, elegant churches and bursts of crimson blooms. After a lengthy lunch stop, I arrive in Novo Mesto, located in the centre of the wine-growing Krka Valley, by late afternoon. Settling down in a bar for a drink, I casually enquire what local wines are on offer — and suddenly find myself presented with four large, complimentary ‘taster’ glasses by the bar owner. Ah Slovenia, I think; a country truly after my own heart! (And probably much of my liver too.)
While getting completely, ill-advisedly sloshed, I learn everything there is to know about the Slovenian wine industry. Almost everyone in the region has around 250 vines, apparently, and produces their own wine. The speciality of area is the light red Cvi?ek, the only wine in the world other than the Italian Chianti made from both red and white grapes. It cannot be more than ten per cent proof ‘for medicinal reasons’, and is refreshing and dry, with a hint of sweet berry. Predictably, the French hate it.
I rather enjoy it. But after six hours on the bike, my palate is admittedly more forgiving than most. I am less keen on the local cocktail mis-mas, however: a concoction of red wine and orange Fanta that has the hue of a bloodied urostomy bag.
It’s dark and I am thoroughly hooned when I finally harness Maude on to Ototec. Luckily, I am not completely unversed in this kind of cycling, and have a nostalgic pang for home as I gently slalom through the dimming streets. By the time I arrive, the campsite barrier is firmly locked and nobody is around. It’s fortunately nothing a little light trespass and athletic limbo can’t solve, however, and by 10pm I am tucked cosily inside my tent.
Before going to sleep, I do my first (and most likely last) interview with the Slovenian press – which, put through Google translate, contains such insights on the Syrian refugee crisis as: ‘Attitudes towards refugees is negative, but the theme for policies like a hot potato that you provide, but nobody wants to be addressed. British policy was the fear that the people of Britain to understand their response as a policy skinned door.’ How I am the first person to be saying this, I have no idea.
More maize (corn) for grain was grown in 2014 than any other crop. It’s often used to make the popular national dish ˇganci: similar to polenta, but with finer grains.
The next morning, I head for Croatia. It’s a lovely cycle, as houses blend into barns and cattle sheds, and gardens into allotments and arable land. Hot wafts of manure ebb and flow, while cows look demure and pretend it’s nothing to do with them. By mid-morning, I am in a thoroughly good mood, and am just ruminating on the quite remarkable achievement of a borderless Europe when a burly policeman stops me in my tracks, looking gruff.
‘Where are you going?’ he says. ‘How did you get here?’ Well, technically by squeezing through those inconvenient road blocks around the corner, which had a nice, bike-sized opening in the middle, but I decide not to go into detail. ‘Why, is there a problem?’ I ask pleasantly. There is, as it turns out. Unbeknownst to me, there is indeed a border between Slovenia and Croatia. The latter is not yet in the passport-free Schengen zone, apparently, despite being in the EU – unlike Switzerland, which is in the zone despite not being in the EU. How very confusing.
This is not the official crossing, however, so I have inadvertently entered the country illegally: my second foray into criminality in just 24 hours, both of which I have rather enjoyed. I ready myself for an ear-bashing, but when the guard sees my British passport, his tone changes. ‘Ah London. I love London! Have you cycled from there?’ It’s not the first time I’ve made a friend based solely on where I am from — a piece of tremendous good luck, in which I played no part whatsoever — and I suspect it won’t be the last.
As I make my way to the official crossing and am waved swiftly through, I reflect on what it must be like to have no nationality, no freedom, no formal identity. To be erased. It is surely not a fate to be wished on anyone.
To be continued…
October 28th 2015 Update
Geneva to Trieste (Aug 15 – Sep 1) Total miles cycled: 600 Thigh status: ominous
For those who have seen the film Melancholia, you’ll recall the scenes depicting a giant planet looming menacingly on the horizon, growing ever-larger – before (spoiler alert!) it ploughs point blank into Earth and smashes Kirsten Dunst and a few billion less important members of the human race to smithereens. Now, if you replace the planet with the Alps and me with Kirsten (plus the rest of the human race), you’ll get a good idea of how I feel leaving Geneva for Chamonix.
For several days, I’ve viewed the silvery peaks from afar, my trepidation soothed by the comforting salve of distance. But now I’m aiming right at them, watching their soft shading morph from white/grey to grey/blue to blue/green as I’m slowly digested into their giant mountainous bowels.
The only difference, in my case, is that the impact never really comes. For the best part of 45 miles the road slopes only gently uphill, wending its way through the valley. And for the first time, I’m feeling strong. After a two-day break filled with good food, deep sleep and a newly configured bike that shifts my weight from hands to arse – courtesy of the lovely Clement from Geneva’s ‘Bike Passion‘ shop – I have the sensation of a corner being turned. I am no longer a complete bike touring amateur, I think exultantly. I’m no longer a Ramsbottom United or Ossett Albion. I’m a Bromley or Kidderminster Harriers – at least. Maybe even a Grimsby Town.
It’s an uplifting thought. But I’m still not quite big league enough yet to make it all the way to Chamonix with my chunky 100lb load. This would entail an additional 13-mile slog, the first third of which comprises a daunting 800m, 11% climb (to give an idea what this means, the gradient of the average Tour de France climb is around 6-9%). Instead, I stop in St Gervais les Bains and catch a train. The ride is steep and stunning, and I hang my head out the window like a dog, cleansing my cobwebs with deep gulps of crisp Alpine air.
At the top, I’m disappointed to discover a throbbing Disneyland of designer tourists and overpriced tat, so I swiftly escape to a nearby campsite with a clear view of Mont Blanc. Here, I spend a soggy, semi-sloshed night under canvas, cowering from the elements. It’s my final night in France, and it’s with no small relief that I’m forced to jump on a train to Milan the next morning: my only escape route to Italy, as the Mont Blanc tunnel is closed to cyclists.
I don’t stay in Milan for long, however. I find I am developing an aversion to crowds, which now ooze and blister about me with cloying regularity. So instead I journey east, through Vaprio D’Adda, Lake Iseo and Desenzano del Garda. The Italian countryside is not as pretty or relentless as France, but the roads are (mainly) fast and flat, and laden with friendly cyclists. Particularly prevalent are swarms of spandex-clad old goats, their nuts and buns hoisted with wishful elasticity. When does that moment come, I wonder, when such attire seems appropriate? Is it a gradual constriction over time or do these men wake up on their 70th birthdays and find their pants suddenly shrunken to half their former size? I’m genuinely interested to know.
Accompanying me are all the ingredients of a glutton’s paradise: Prosecco, pizza and pasta, plus a dangerous array of excellent cheap local wine. Lugana, made from the Turbiana grape, is ever-suppable, while the Soave Classico Superiore is pure silk. Such ‘superior’ wines, I am told, have to pass a multitude of stringent tests, covering grape ripeness, barrel maturation and production standards, so the moniker is hard-earned.
Understanding how much Prosecco and pizza I can consume while still remaining upright in the saddle is an important lesson I learn early on. In fact, every day is a learning curve. I have learnt, for example, never to put loose cartons of soya milk in my panniers. Or loose bananas in my bar bag. Or wear my clip-on security alarm to the loo, where it is at risk of falling into the toilet and going off for ten minutes, attracting the frenzied attentions of half a dozen restaurant staff and an off-duty policemen.
Most importantly, I have learnt that you can never have too many wet-wipes. And if I don’t take anything else away from this trip, that alone will be enough. After two days on the road, I arrive at the vast, serene cobalt pool that is Lake Garda, and I’m delighted to find a camping spot right on the water’s edge. Here, I fully intend to schmooze with the locals, but instead find myself wined and dined by a couple of bolshy Lancastrians who motorcycled here from Blackpool to celebrate their 50th birthdays. I bond with them over my Boltonian roots, and they shower me and most fellow females in the vicinity with roses, while talking animatedly about the forthcoming Lancastrian Tractor Pull.
At Lake Garda, I also meet my first solo female cyclist: a charming 50-something Belgian who is on her way to Rome. Like the Blackpudlians, she is a keen motorcyclist, riding a Honda Transalp XL700V at home, but downgrading to an electric bicycle for this trip. The hardest part was telling her mother, she says, who begged her not to go and forced her to write a blog. It all sounds oddly familiar! If anything is universal in this world, maternal angst is surely it.
Having met no lone women bummlers until now, two then come along at once. I meet the second en route to Verona: a pretty, 20-something cardiovascular surgeon from Munich, who has spent the past week biking in the Alps. ‘It can be tough,’ she says. ‘There’s not a lot of women doing this kind of thing.’ No, I say – though I happen to have just met two of them. Perhaps there are more lurking in the shadows, waiting to be smoked into the open?
Women may be few and far between, but tour cyclists now appear in droves. I have mixed feelings when I see one. I feel an instinctive kinship, but also a slight affront. You’re nothing special, they seem to say; you’re on a well-trodden path. And cyclists can be an odd bunch. They love cycling for a start – a perverse, solitary pursuit requiring little skill other than steel will and steelier buttocks – and seem often to combine an almost antisocial single-mindedness with a penchant for bonding with strangers. One man with a pair of truly enormous panniers (not a euphemism) tells me he has cycled 1,000km across Italy despite having a wife and baby daughter at home. Did they mind him leaving them behind, I ask? ‘È complicato!’ he exclaims, throwing up his hands. ‘My wife – she, how you say, molto difficile!’
My next stop is Verona, where I stay in a campsite high on a hill. It’s clearly a beautiful city, but in August it’s not at its best, its charms choked at source by crowds of selfie-snapping feeders. Many are British, and reflected in them I see myself, swarming and pestilent, like some kind of grotesque fairground hall of mirrors. So I stay only one night before moving on, bypassing Padua for the countryside. Following a little stream, I cycle until the buildings fall away and sun starts to set, and settle in the centre of a soft, spongy wheat field. It turns out to be the best night’s sleep I’ve had – as well as one of the loveliest mornings, as I awake to a glistening meadow of sunkissed dew.
The road to Venice is perfectly flat and punctuated by a series of featureless villages. There seem to be a lot of them about in Italy, as if they’ve poured all their beauty into their chief attractions, with none left over for the parts inbetween. The entrance to the city is particularly gruesome. A huge, convoluted intersection leads onto a vast 2.5-mile bridge, where the walkway ends suddenly at a gnarly knot of roadworks, spitting you into the path of speeding cars.
The worst thing about this experience was that it turns out to have been completely unnecessary. Unable to lift my bike without assistance, I am as useless as a Dalek when it comes to staircases — and when I arrive, staircases surround me on all sides. I am stuck fast. Am I destined to end up rotting here forever like that randy, choleric old pederast from Death in Venice, I wonder (this being my only cultural reference point for the city, other than Don’t Look Now, the 1970s Gothic horror with graphic sex and a psychopathic dwarf — both of which would considerably liven up my trip).
But I’m not, as it turns out. With alluring youths few and far between, I instead I return to the mainland and check into a campsite, returning an hour later by bus to explore. I am excited to be in one of the world’s most beautiful cities – but, like Verona, the crowds prove oppressive. And I am not the only one to think so. ‘Everything is tourist, tourist, tourist,’ a cafe owner tells me. ‘There’s nothing for locals anymore. And prices are crazy. My brother earns more than €100,000 as a gondolier, but even he can’t afford it. The soul of Venice is dying.’
Much like the cholera-ridden water of Death in Venice (to labour a theme), tourists are clearly both the lifeblood and death knell of the city. They provide the income, but also suffocate local industry and inflate prices. Even vaporettos, one of the city’s great historic symbols, are now reportedly being imported from Greece. As a conseqence, the place is emptying fast, its permanent population dipping below 60,000 in 2009. To mark the occasion, a coffin was borne down the Grand Canal, symbolising the death of the great Venetian republic.
Without serious intervention, this former great trading hub is at risk of becoming a faded fresco; a lifeless parody of commoditised beauty and romance plucked from the shelf. It’s a deeply sad state of affairs, and I console myself with a delicious pizza and glass of Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore – the finest of the sparkling wines, made exclusively in the Treviso province of Veneto.
Back at the campsite, I meet a couple of cyclists from Germany who cycled from Fuessen via the famous Via Claudia Augusta: a Roman road through the Alps dating from 15BC. Apparently they met a couple en route who told them about a woman cycling around the world from Canada, and they thought I might be her. So there’s another one, I think! How many more hiding in the woodwork?
My final stop in Italy is Trieste. It’s a fairly easy cycle, and when I’m three miles away I text my hosts to say I’ll be on time. And I would have been – had it not been for the small matter of the Scala Santa.
The Scala Santa, in a nutshell, is 1.5 miles of hell. This is not an opinion, it is fact. Its average gradient is 16%, but frequently surpasses 20%. Small cars avoid it. Motorcyclists think twice. Rock climbers perish. Unfortunately, at the start I know none of this, and start up it with mindless, naive optimism. This lasts about four minutes – perhaps a little less — before descending into deep, unremitting despair. And then I start pushing. And pushing. And pushing. And sweating. And swearing. And despairing.
Every ten steps I stop, gasping for breath, arms and legs screaming, my full weight needed to keep the bike at a standstill. At times, I feel amazed I remain attached to the slope, rather than tumbling to the bottom by sheer force of gravity. At one such moment, I meet a wiry old walnut of a man zipping down on his bike and we stop for a chat. ‘Yes, it’s very hard,’ he says helpfully. ‘It’s probably not the best way to come on a bike.’
An hour later, nearing death, I finally heave my clammy carcass to the top – and run straight into N-, my host, who has come on his motorbike to find me. ‘I’m so sorry!’ he says, genuinely distraught. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell people about that hill.’
Despite such an inauspicious start, Trieste turns out to be lovely. It is also interesting geopolitically. Bordered tightly by Slovenia, it has been influenced throughout history by its location at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and German cultures. Italy annexed the city after World War I, forcing out several thousand Slovenes, and it was returned to the country in 1954 following seven years of independent rule.
N- has an American wife and two daughters, and they are the perfect hosts. I learn about the wild boar, plentiful and aggressive, and Aperol Spritz, the go-to Italian cocktail made from oranges, rhubarb, gentian root and fizz. I learn about the local Osmizza, when people sell their own food and drink tax free for eight days of the year, and the local dialect, Triestine, which is markedly different from Italian and apparently often spoken to non-Triestines to emphasise their outsider status.
On the way to the Croatia Border
I also learn the expat view of Italians. They are style-obsessed, I am told, and highly conformist. Wardrobes completely transform between summer and winter, and few deviate from the code: light shoes in summer, dark in winter; a thin piumino in summer, a thick one in summer. Summer ends on September 15th, no matter what. And draughts are to be avoided, for health reasons. I could stay in Trieste much longer, but know I must push on. So as August draws to a close, I head off towards Slovenia: my first stop in what transpires to be a fascinating two-month tour of the Balkans.
To be continued…
Chablis to Geneva (Aug 6 to 14: 280 miles)
Thigh update: manageable but mottled
‘Cobble’ is a great word, isn’t it? So cute and soft, but with a satisfying firmness at the edges, like a perfectly ripened plum or kumquat. It’s one of those words you can’t say just once, but have to really roll around the mouth and savour. Cobble cobble cobble cobble cobble. The problem, however, is that the word cobble and the concept of the cobble are not the same thing. In fact, they are very different. And for far too long I feel people have been mistakenly confusing the two.
The fact is, cobbles are a menace. They may look pleasant; they may repel mud and dust, and grip well on horses’ hooves – but so what? Hooves are few and far between these days, and aesthetics a long-proven obstacle to modernity and progress. In many ways, cobbles are a worrying anachronism; a throwback to a bygone era of discomfort, hardship and haemorrhoids.
Why a civilised, 21st century person should be exposed to such indignities in this day and age is beyond me. Because, to be absolutely clear, there is no respectable way to cycle along a cobbled road. None. Believe me, I’ve tried all of them. Sit down and your rump is pulverised like an soft-boiled potato; stand up and you triumphantly impose said rump on the world. Go fast and you appear to be having some kind of seizure; go slow and there’s the concern people might think you’re enjoying it.
Almost every French town I go through has cobbles. They are ubiquitous to the point of a national obsession. Whether this is by choice, chance or some kind of psychological illness the nation has succumbed to en masse, I don’t know – but it has to stop. My suggestion is that we be done with them once and for all. Phase them out. Not immediately, perhaps, but gradually and inexorably over time. And I say this not just for me, but for every poor, innocent bystander who has had the unfortunate experience of seeing me glide into their home town over recent weeks with all the languid grace of an oversexed electron.
Avallon and Autun are cases in point. I arrive at the former from Chablis after a steaming, sweaty schlepp that tests my sluggish resolve to its limit and hit a minefield of the rotters like a bed of hot coals. Luckily, the town redeems itself by being otherwise charming, with a lovely 12th century church and an economy curiously dependent on the manufacture of gingerbread (it also, shockingly, has wifi).
From Avallon, the road to Autun is not a happy one. Having had no rest days so far, I am spent almost before I start. By noon, I have run out of food and water, and start to imagine the hay bales as giant water buffalo angling for attack. Ten days in the saddle and I’m clearly already turning into some kind of deranged female Don Quixote, one step away from a punch-up with a horde of belligerent windmills. Crazy thoughts start to fill my head — like ‘what the hell am I doing here?’, ‘maybe I should have done some training’ and ‘why are the cows all so enormous?’
I am less worried about my mental breakdown than my physical aches and pains, however. My lower back burns, shooting pains spear my left leg and my Achilles tendon creaks ominously. More concerningly, I seem to be losing the use of my right hand completely. Simple tasks are now beyond me, like taking the top off the toothpaste or swearing at bad drivers. A series of increasingly alarmist internet articles tell me I have something called ‘handlebar palsy’ from putting too much pressure on my ulnar nerve, and should stop cycling immediately or risk crippling myself permanently. Perhaps I’ll end up losing my hand altogether, I ponder, and become one of those celebrity amputees who wins the love of the nation by raising money for disabled children while climbing Kilimanjaro. I imagine being interviewed by Jon Snow and the tone I’d assume: modest and stoical, with a hint of self-deprecating charm. I’d be a massive hit, I know it
It’s a reassuring thought, but I can’t distract myself for long. My thermometer reads 36 degrees and the hills feel monstrous as the sun beats down. The first is a fully blown masochist*, rising steeper at every turn, and I feel like Sisyphus heaving his rock up the mountain, ceaselessly, fruitlessly. I try different techniques to urge myself up: the little engine technique (“I think I can, I think I can, I know I can… of course I bloody can’t!”); the Ranulph Fiennes technique (“plod forever, die high”); and the self-flagellation technique (words that don’t bear repeating). I console myself with the thought that at least I still have some emergency Chablis left in my thermos in case I feel the need to quietly crawl into a mossy lay-by and expire.
That time comes sooner than I expect. At the 43-mile mark, I am finally done in and collapse in a heap at the side of the road. There’s no way I’m going any further, I decide, so there’s only one thing for it. Cheat.
With no other options available, this means catching a ride from some kind, big-booted passer-by. I feel a little nervous about it, if I’m honest. The last time I hitchhiked was in Mexico in 2004, when I’d been forced to accept a lift from a textbook psychopath (beady eyes, unscrupulous sideburns) after waking up three hours late for my bus back to California with a splitting headache and a Chinese tattoo meaning ‘bottoms up’ mysteriously inscribed on my lower back. I hadn’t intended to go with someone like him – I’d been aiming for a nice apple-pie family with a couple of brats and a labradoodle – but no-one else would stop for me, strangely.
This time I do better. After 20 minutes of ruthless rejection, during which I half-heartedly stick out my thumb while sitting on my panniers munching a packet of Haribo, I finally stand up and throw myself into it with gusto. A pick-up truck stops immediately, driven by two semi-naked Adonises and an older gentleman. I’ve struck gold! Rushing to their window, I suddenly hear myself telling the barefaced, brazen lie that I’ve hurt my ankle and need to get to the next town for help. It’s a deeply shameful moment that I take no pleasure in recounting here, and that I have absolutely no doubt I would repeat again given the smallest opportunity.
When we arrive, after just 20 gloriously efficient, engine-fuelled minutes, the older man asks if I want a hospital. I assume he is making a joke about travelling in the bumpy truck and shake my head, guffawing loudly. It’s only as I bound away like a gamboling fawn that I remember I’m meant to have a twisted ankle, and break into a belated, deeply unconvincing Keyser Söze-esque limp. (I’m not proud, I’m really not.)
The next day is my birthday and I take the day off as a treat. I wake to the sound of rain and a silky cool breeze, which is a blessed relief after the searing heat of the past week. I feel a little melancholy, however, and wonder if I’m lonely. Am I, like Virginia Woolf, already getting impatient of solitude, of its draperies and sweltering vapours? Am I desperate for company — to speak, hear, be heard?
It turns out I’m just hungry. Two beef bourguinons later and I’m fully recovered. I realise I haven’t eaten properly for days, and I gorge myself shamelessly, senselessly, washing it all down with glasses of delicious, creamy Pinot Noir and Beaujolais. In France, you really have no choice. It’s a sign of cultural respect.
The following day, my hand is still a dead weight and it’s starting to worry me. What if I have to end the trip prematurely? Jon Snow isn’t guaranteed to interview me, no matter how many times I climb Kilimanjaro. Perhaps a more subtle version of the film ‘127 Hours’ could be made about the first 12 days of my trip, I console myself, in which my hand gets increasingly achy until I have to seek medical attention? We could throw in the topless truck drivers and call it ‘One and a Half Weeks’ in the hope people might think it’s somehow related to the Kim Basinger classic.
A little anxious, and with the rain still hammering down, I decide to rest my hand a second day and take the bus to Chalon-sur-Saone. It’s a large, attractive town on the Saone river that was once home to Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography and – in keeping with my newfound appreciation of motor vehicles – the world’s first internal combustion engine.
I am behind schedule, however, so decide to move swiftly on towards Switzerland, where I can have my bike adjusted to take the weight off my wrists. I pass through Bourg-en-Bresse and Oyonnax – hilly, buttock-pummelling rides – before commencing my final push to Geneva. Here my labours finally bear fruit, as slow, uphill slogs morph into triumphant, winding descents. Emerald lakes, plush valleys and thick, tree-clad gorges surround me, robed in morning mist. Truly beautiful.
Then, suddenly, I am in Switzerland. I am surprised not to have been asked for my passport, and discover afterwards it is one of four non-EU members of the Schengen Agreement to eliminate border controls. It’s a good feeling, swooping seamlessly into another country without any kind of barrier. On a global scale, this is surely the ideal — a world without boundaries, where all can move freely — even if forever elusive in reality.
After an enjoyable back-route wheedle into Geneva, courtesy of my Garmin satnav**, I emerge in the bustling city centre. Trams and buses whisk by, swift and perilous, and chain stores loom at every turn. Everyone speaks English, as nearly half the residents are ex-pats. After two weeks in prehistoric France, it all seems intimidatingly dynamic. I feel a mixture of relief and disappointment, as though returning to the familiar comforts of home from a Where the Wild Things Are rumpus in the wilderness.
In fact, I have mixed feelings about Switzerland generally. Is it good or evil, a sinner or a saint? While most European states are content to exist in a murky grey area of moral ambiguity — neither particularly good nor bad — Switzerland seems to swings wildly between the two extremes. As the global headquarters of diplomacy and human rights, it is home to the UN and Red Cross, and provided the setting for the Geneva Conventions. On the other hand, it happily acts as a shadowy playground for rich financiers via banking secrecy laws that perpetuate criminality and inequality across the world.
For me, the country is a little like a rich, philanthropic uncle who I like and respect, but whose polished, professional exterior belies a myriad of unsavoury secrets — not to mention a deeply traditional set of social values. My friend K, who very kindly offers me a bed while I’m in town, tells me that women are not expected to work, especially when they have children. When she and her husband wanted to open a joint bank account, the bank at first simply offered her power of attorney over her husband’s account, surprised to discover she had an income of her own.
|There is also a worrying strain of racism among society, she adds. In 2009, a constitutional amendment banning the construction of new mosque minarets was approved in a national referendum by 57.5 per cent of the vote, with only four of the 26 cantons opposing. As part of the campaign, a group of mainstream, right-wing politicians from the Swiss People’s Party and Federal Democratic Union released posters of niqab-clad women standing beside minarets that resembled missiles. Image: Poster Issued by Right-Wing Parties
Eastern Europeans, especially Romanians, apparently face similar prejudice. Border controls were lifted six years ago and many people remain unhappy about it, K tells me. There is some basis for such feelings, she concedes: people used to keep their homes open at night; now theft is reportedly more commonplace and doors kept firmly locked.
It is a sad counterpoint to the Schengen ideals. Country borders may dissolve, but new, stronger ones emerge – between people, communities, cultures. In a world of winners and losers, where wealth and opportunity seem so arbitrarily apportioned, it’s perhaps inevitable. And as the world casually gets on with its business, the gap is slowly growing.
To do my part in the global game of laughter and forgetting, I dwell only momentarily on the gross injustices of the human condition. Instead, I slip into a deep, refreshing sleep, undisturbed by the figments and phantasms of my unruly subconscious for the first time in days.
||16.09.2015 update here:
If there’s one lesson I hope to take away with me after this trip, it’s this: there is never a good reason for taking a ukulele on a bicycle. Remember it, write it down; it’s important. If I save just one person from suffering in the way I have suffered, this whole endeavour will have been worthwhile. I just wish P had never talked me into bringing it.
The problem is that bicycles were never designed to carry ukuleles. They are designed to carry bags, panniers, parcels; sturdy, docile things that stay where you put them and lack an independent spirit. Ukuleles aren’t like that. They are fickle and flighty, and have pretensions of freedom far beyond their station. ‘I could have been a star!’ you hear it cry behind you as you puff and splutter along a country lane. ‘Jammed with George Harrison! Plucked by Pearl Jam!’ But instead here I am, bound and gagged three inches from your rump, forced into a life of humiliating depravity.’
At which point it issues a rousing war cry, throws off its manacles and pitches itself boldly onto the road – where it lies, stunned and subdued, until it is whisked back up and lashed with punitive impropriety against my arse again.
Two or three times a day we go through this ritual. If I ever actually had the time or inclination to play the thing, it might still feel worthwhile. But as half my day is spent cycling and much of the rest curled pitifully in the recovery position, Mr Wu and the Chinese Laundry Blues is sadly yet to have the airing it deserves. So instead we simply endure one another’s company, each wallowing in our own personal sense of outrage and long-suffering martyrdom.
In the meantime I haul myself, inch by inch, across France. Over the course of six days, I progress leadenly through Gisors, Paris, Brie-Comte-Robert, Sens and Chablis, interspersed with endless sun-soaked fields of wheat, corn, barley and oats. Tiny villages appear and recede, each a charming, rustic nutshell of cobbled streets, stone homesteads and ivy-clad barns. Flowers sprout everywhere, on walls and windows, balconies and balustrades, and I am saturated by smells: honeysuckle, cinnamon and rose; lavender, sun-cream and manure.
Of course, I can’t enjoy any of this. I am focused purely on survival. Nothing hurts excessively, but everything is sore. Particularly troublesome are certain anatomical parts that I won’t ask you to dwell on too closely. My Brooks saddle, I have been reliably informed, will ‘soften up’ eventually, although at this stage I hardly see how that can be possible short of performing La fille mal gardée’s clog dance on it every morning. According to my buttocks, which have become fairly expert on the matter, it is constructed from a form of steel-reinforced granite, almost certainly embraced by medieval disciplinarians for the punishment of unruly degenerates. The day it transforms into a sugary puff of clouds and fairy dust will certainly be a day of celebration, and no doubt go down as one of history’s great scientific miracles.
I am keen to share my ordeal with people – suffering is so much more satisfying when imposed on others – but sadly France turns out to be almost entirely empty. Cafes and restaurants are closed, patisseries and bougeries abandoned. Even when I meet someone, communication isn’t easy. Almost nobody speaks English and I am forced to dredge up dusty relics of GCSE French, punctuated by increasingly desperate gesticulations. It’s not ideal, but people generally seem receptive to my vivid descriptions of their pets and aunts – few of whom I have met – and my unsolicited directions to la discothèque.
One of dozens of closed shops and restaurants I pass along my way. Have they heard about my impending thighs and gone running for the hills?
I am surprised by the lack of English. Not in a judgemental way – the parlous state of my French disqualifies me from any opinion on the matter – but simply because it is now so widely spoken around the world, and surely has its uses for the world’s sixth largest economy. R, a Frenchman I meet in a bar, tells me shunning English was a deliberate state policy until about 20 years ago; a means of asserting national identity and pride. ‘People over 30 can speak it a little,’ he says. ‘But they are embarrassed to try. They were never taught.’
France’s reluctance to embrace change seems almost a point of principle: we’ve nailed it, the country declares; surely others should adapt to us? And it has a point. When it comes to the important things in life, the French are hard to beat. Here you eat well – cheese, charcuterie, bread, boeuf – or you don’t eat at all. Shops close at lunchtime and restaurants shortly afterwards. Work is a means to an end and Sundays a day of rest.
American ideals of fast food, convenience and consumerism have no place here. Customers are endured rather than embraced, and services provided with a grudging sigh. Any why not? Nobody knows they want convenience until it’s given to them, and then they just want more.
It can be frustrating, however. I soon discover that almost nowhere has wifi, even in the bigger towns. Instead, I am directed time and time again to McDonald’s, which more often than not is tucked a couple of miles out of town like a tolerated but embarrassing family member. Soon I started associating the golden arches with my portal to the outside world, my heart leaping as a small portion of my soul dies.
Indeed, after a few days my trip starts to assume an unexpected corporate edge. As well as visiting McDonald’s, I also take up drinking Coca-Cola for the first time: a highly effective energy booster. Having left the UK as a lowly paid journalist, am I going to ‘find myself’ during the course of my pilgrimage and discover there was a FTSE 100 exec lurking inside the whole time? (Let’s hope so; it would make life so much easier.)
My good friends Lauren and Michel, who feed, water and shelter me in Paris. The best hosts a bummler could wish for.
Beyond such diversions, however, cycling through France is a pleasure. Unlike in the UK, cyclists here are not a parasitical species to be scorned and exterminated, but sit at the top of the food chain. In the towns almost every main road has a cycle lane, often competing with that lowest of life-forms: pedestrians. One of the great joys of my trip so far, as any cyclist will understand, has been careering brashly along the pavement, sending children and pensioners flying into hedges and cars with utter impunity.
Most nights I camp in the wild, though it takes me a while to get the hang of it. Dusk is not until 10pm, but I frequently leave my search for a site too late, culminating in a panicked dash into the undergrowth as darkness descends. In Gisors, Brie Comte-Robert and Montereau, I find myself racing sundown like a doomed extra in Dracula, desperate to find a suitable spot before night falls and Christopher Lee appears in my headlights, baring his gnashers and beckoning me into his clammy embrace.
The towns themselves are pretty, but perplexing. They all have their beauty, their rivers and rustic charms, but where is the life? The people, cafes, culture? Look closely and you see their edges are worn, left to droop and curl like parchment. According to R, a retired oil rig worker who takes me under his wing in Sens – and the first person I meet who speaks near-fluent English – France is a ghost-town due to a recent clamp-down on drink driving. ‘Nobody can go out and have a drink anymore. They’ve killed the country,’ he says – adding perhaps unnecessarily, ‘like Mussolini.’ (I look it up afterwards and see that the limit was lowered to 0.5mgs in July, compared to the UK’s 0.8 mgs – though whether that means the entire country is now cowering indoors with stockpiles of Chardonnay, I don’t know.)
R has travelled extensively, across Africa, South America and the Middle East. He loves Iran the most ‘because of the people’, and is keen on Egyptians too. He’s never been to London, however, because he ‘ates the Eenglish’. Why, I ask? ‘No, I’m just joking!’ he responds jovially. ‘Though actually I do ‘ate them. Not really.’
A man nearby is trying to get his attention. He, his young wife and baby are visiting from Riyadh and they met R two years ago, in this exact spot. The couple are warm and open, dressed casually in shorts and t-shirts, and insist that I stay with them if I ever visit Saudi Arabia. I wonder if they have a subversive edge, keen to dish the dirt on their homeland, and ask them what the country is like. Do they ever feel restricted in any way?
‘No, it’s good,’ they say, ordering a couple of whiskies. ‘Non-Muslims can drink, and we can drink in the home too.’
‘And driving? Is it frustrating not being allowed to, as a woman?’
‘No no,’ she says. ‘I have no need. I have a chauffeur. Most people do.’
In Sens, I stay the night at the bungalow of R’s friend, B, a local nature morte painter. R assures me it will be fine. ‘You have my word,’ he says. ‘I’m doing it because we’re fellow travellers and I want to give back some of the kindness shown to me.’
I trust him implicitly – a trust that falters briefly when, after following B for ten minutes on his motorbike, he leads me into a large industrial compound and padlocks the gate behind us. Images of Wolf Creek dash through my mind again. Could this all have been an elaborate ruse by R and co? Is Sens a ghost-town because a drunken group of middle-aged maniacs has polished everybody off?
No, it turns out. B is the perfect host. He lives alone, with his dying, incontinent German Shepherd, Rocky, who sleeps in his studio. The room emits an overpowering stench of dog piss, to which B is clearly now immune. He talks in rapid French and I pick up snippets. He has a teenage daughter, but is separated from the mother. His lifelong passion is painting. He brings out a bottle of 12-year-old Bowmore, exclaiming ‘Écosse!‘ and pouring us both a glass. Un autre? he asks when I finish. I shake my head; I must go to bed. He pours me another.
I sleep like a stone and awake fully refreshed. B cooks me a breakfast of champions – omelette, pancakes, bread, coffee, orange juice – before seeing me on my way. It is just the first of many kindnesses I am to experience during my first few weeks on the road, and I am deeply touched by his selfless generosity.
The road to Chablis is long, hot and hard. At noon, the thermometer hits 37 degrees and I start to struggle badly, melting into the asphalt. By the time I finally arrive, I am parched. I head straight for the first ‘wine cave’ that I see and order an emergency half bottle of 2009 Domaine Vocoret et Fils Les Forets, Chablis Premier Cru. It tastes like pure nectar. After gulping down a restorative slug, I pour the rest into my thermos flask for later. I don’t want to be caught short again.
Yes, France is a bloody nuisance in many ways, I think to myself. But it gets the important things right.
My hope is to scratch a little bit deeper. At least to the level of the average cod or seabream. If you have any thoughts or comments along the way, I would love to hear from you, so please do email or tweet me at the contacts below.
*Three continents -Twenty countries
Rebecca Lowe's Bicycle Blog to the Middle East - Kostajnica, Bosnia to Podgorica, Montenegro
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