I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my tardiness in posting our Irish blogs reflects any negative feelings about our three weeks there. On the contrary, it was possibly some of the best weeks we’ve had.
Unfortunately mundane things like work and house viewings have prevented me sitting down to write up all my notes. And thank god I did take notes too because it has ended up being over two months since we disembarked from our French ferry (the ‘Oscar Wilde’) and pushed tandem into Roslare harbour.
Suddenly and for the first time we were in a country which was incredibly familiar to one of us and fairly new to the other. Apart from the holiday to Doolin in Feb 2013 on which Paddy and I first met, I have only ever visited Dublin. So I was delighted to have such an in depth opportunity to learn more about Paddy’s Irish heritage not to mention having time to spend with members of the extended family.
And that’s not even mentioning the fact that I too have Irish blood running through my veins. That my great great great grandfather came over to London from Ireland to work as a weaver probably sometime in the mid 19th century has always been a source of interest for my dad’s family. We have been able to track our genealogy back this far but the tragic fire at the Dublin public records office in 1922 has meant we haven’t been able to dig any further.
For Paddy it was special to come home for this length of time and cycle through all his old childhood haunts – it is nearly a decade since he spent such an extended period in Ireland. The plan was to head to the south tip from Roslare, down through West Cork largely sticking to the coast with a few island hops in-between.
Then to head back up the east coast hitting Doolin for a trip down memory lane before catching a coach from Galway back to where we started before our ferry to South Wales. Paddy acted as my official tour guide and there ended up being a few surprises along the way!!
When most people think of Ireland they think of rugged coastline, green fields, mist & rain, Guinness in cosy pubs, traditional music, extremely friendly hospitality… and of course leprechauns! All of the above we encountered in abundance during our time there… even the leprechauns…
It would be fair to say that I was more than mildly concerned about the weather. But we were incredibly lucky and enjoyed back to back sunshine for the majority of the time. It wouldn’t have been an Irish holiday without a few ‘grand soft days’ (misty, damp, rainy days) but they were few and far between and they added to the whole Irish mystical charm.
After our string of 100km days we felt we deserved a restful morning so we didn’t leave the campsite until the afternoon and we used the time to sort out a few things for when we move to Cornwall in late August. Thanks to a good tailwind we manage 60km despite the late start and followed more cycle routes before camping in a lovely spot on the banks of the Loir again. We’ve been passing lots of French chateaus. They litter the countryside around here with their quintisensial round towers and many windows.
The next afternoon we reached Orleans giving ourselves enough time to visit a dentist because Paddy’s filling, which he had done in China (along with the root canal), fell out. We’ve had good weather in France but the next day was spent dodging the thunderstorms as we skirted round the bottom of Paris towards Normandy. We managed to find shelter for the majority of the downpours and just got the tent up under the shade of a great oak tree before the evening rain started -we were forced to cook our pesto and ravioli in the vestibule followed by delicious French eclaires in the tent.
This part of France has been pretty flat and we’re both starting to tire of looking at the miles and miles of golden wheat fields. They were fun to start with and we enjoyed making this video about Theresa May.
Thankfully the golden fields soon turned into forests of oak trees as we reached the Normandy border at La Luppe and cycled through the north section of Parc naturel regional du Perche. The thunderstorms made a come back that afternoon and we stop at Abbaye de la Trappe to fill our water bottles at the healing spring there dedicated to St Bernard. We have to wait in line – clearly it’s the done thing for local worshippers to fill large 5l containers with the water to take home with them! While we refill we get chatting to a nice Frenchman from Paris who invites us into the Abbey’s art gallery where his Japanese wife has an exhibition of her paintings.
Needing no excuse to stop and hide from the rain we gladly follow him in and really enjoy chatting with them and looking at her work. By the time we were ready to get back on the bike an extreme downpour had started. Resigning ourselves to another damp camping spot we prepare to mount the bike.
We end up not having to camp though. Within the hour we’re settled in the private sleeping quarters of the Abbey’s monastery instead. It’s a long story which involves some very nice French ‘Trappist’ monks who essentially took pity on us and offered us a place to stay for the night!
We’re offered the use of the kitchen and a hot shower and shown to our own room by the head monk – a cheery man of 80 years who looks a bit like Albus Dumbledore in his long white robes and matching beard.
While we’re preparing dinner we notice the cathedral service times on the wall and decide to head along to the last service of the evening. The monastery complex is very beautiful and the Cathedral itself is an amazing building. After the short service we head down to the lake and walk around the forest grounds. The skies clear and we laugh at the fact we probably could have camped after all… We will definitely miss finding ourselves in these random situations once we are back!
There are a few other people staying in the same building as us – mostly worshippers who have come for a few nights. We get chatting to a nice guy called Sebastien who is here with his son and godson for a few nights -in the morning we find a little handwritten note from him tucked into our frame bag inviting us to stay on their Christmas tree farm. We leave the abbey feeling very humbled and glad that we have found people in Western Europe just as kind, friendly and open minded as they are everywhere else we’ve been.
The next day was another rainy one but we managed to hide from the worst of it by sheltering in various farm buildings. Sometimes the farmers catch us munching our lunch next to their tractors but they don’t seem to mind, in fact they are normally very amused. We reach a town called Falaise and I decide to check the warmshowers ap to see if there might be any hosts in the area who might be able to welcome us on such short notice. Jean-Marc answered our plea almost instantly and so we end up having a lovely evening with him discussing everything from cycling to politics. We are well looked after considering we gave him just 30 minutes notice!!
The next two days we have some long days in the saddle as we head west and into the Contentin peninsular. The World War Two landings and military action which took place here are heavy in our minds as we head towards the coast where we decide to stop at one of the landing beaches – Utah beach.
It’s a stunning day and it’s hard to believe that this peaceful, sandy long beach was once a place of such atrocity and suffering. While we walked around the various monuments we also come to terms with the fact that we have finally reached the English Channel.
With only 35km left to Cherbourg and our ferry not leaving until the evening the next day we felt it was fitting to check-in to a nearby campsite and celebrate properly – we had done it! We had reached the other end of the Euro-Asian landmass!
We reached the summit at Montgenevre by lunch the next day and we were soon crossing into France. It had been quite a stiff climb to get here with a few very long tunnels to climb through – especially the very last – we were glad to have got up here. France here we come! This would be our last foreign country and we both felt it was a bit surreal crossing the border. The views were fabulous and I got quite emotional!
We needed to get to Lyon by the evening of the next day so I could catch my flight back to the UK for another interview. Although we had reached the border we hadn’t finished climbing yet – we still needed to cross Col du Lauteret which would be our last pass over 2000m.
We celebrated reaching France in typical style by feasting on fresh baguettes, three types of French cheese and a bottle of French wine for lunch. Then we started tackling the climb and managed to brake the back of it by 7pm. 8km from the top we found a great camping spot off the road on top of a disused tunnel and we finished the wine while lapping up the view of the glacier dominating the mountain range across the valley.
The next morning we set off early as we had to reach Grenoble by mid-afternoon so we could catch a train to Lyon. It was a beautiful day and we stopped for a quick picture at the top. It was still early but the hotel and cafe was packed with bikers and cycle teams and there was a celebratory good atmosphere.
We enjoyed the downhill after that before reaching a reservoir where we had to endure another short climb before zooming down to Grenoble. The temperature climbs as we drop down and by the time we hit Grenoble it’s well over 30 degrees. The whole of France is experiencing an intense heatwave right now.
Amandine and Jean were our kind warm showers hosts in Lyon and despite them having just moved into their new flat they were super welcoming. We enjoyed a dinner with them when we arrived and loved hearing about their cycle trip in Africa which they had completed a few years ago.
The next day I flew home to London and started my epic journey down to Plymouth for my interview. Paddy enjoyed his few days in Lyon despite the weather which reached into the high 30s. It was the summer solstice the evening I returned and Paddy and Amandine had been out partying -enjoying the street music festival which takes place all over France every year on the longest day.
The next morning we had a late start as I was super tired from all the travelling. Paddy literally had to kick me out of bed in the end. It was incredibly hot and our departure was delayed because we left the battery pack in the flat… Paddy managed to retrieve the house keys from where we had just deposited them in the letter box by using the magnet on our tent lamprey. We managed 44km before pulling the bike up a wood lined verge where thankfully there was a running stream nearby for us to cool off before climbing in the tent.
We managed an early start on the bike the next morning and we were cycling by 7.45am. I doubt we’ve been cycling this early since our dash across Turkmenistan… After an 8km climb we were soon crossing into the Loir region and making our way to Roanne. It promised to be very flat from now on so the 80km day average we have to keep to ensure we reach Cherbourg in time shouldn’t be too challenging.
Day 3 saw us complete a 103km the first of what would turn out to be a string of 100km plus days! We’ve been following the canal routes and are enjoying teaming up with the great Loir river every so often. We see lots of birds of prey hunting in the fields many many herons and the canals are home to many ducklings who we spook out of their reed nests as we cycle past.
There’s quite a few people holidaying on canal boats and we pass some impressive barges and boat houses. Soon we reach our first locks and enjoy watching the boats come through as we stop for lunch. We’re both tiring of the soft cheese and are dreaming about Irish cheddar already.
The good weather continues and we have been doing well at getting up early so we can escape the Suns high point for a long lunch. Even if the morning is cloudy the sun has been burning away the clouds by noon every day. There are lots and lots of camping grounds along our route but we’ve just been camping on the side of the canal mostly. Locks tend to make a good spot as there is always a patch of grass to pitch the tent and even sometimes toilets.
By day 4 we were making really good headway and decided it was time for a shower and charging session. We keep getting caught out by Sunday’s in France. Everything closes on a Sunday and we were low on food and diesel. Annoyingly France has been the first country to impose a minimum fuel allowance at petrol stations – 5l – which means we have to wait for a diesel car to turn up and ask if we can pay them to fill our 75ml fuel bottle when they re-fuel. Luckily Paddy has enough French to explain why we need it!
We met up with the Loir again and found a beautiful campsite right on the banks of the river. Because we hadn’t been able to find any open food stores we had to just cook what we had in the bottom of the bag and the meal wasn’t the most appetising but we did wash it down with a lovely crisp bottle of white wine which we procured from the friendly campsite owner.
We had a lovely time in Ireland visiting Paddy’s mum and dad. We both had to catch a flight down to Falmouth for a job interview and so quite a bit of time was spent preparing and practicing interview questions… It was all worth it though as we were both successful! This means that we will definitely be finishing the trip in Cornwall, now soon to be our new home. It wasn’t long into the start of the trip that we agreed we weren’t going to go back to London after finishing. One of the best things about the trip has been living outside for so long so the idea of going back to the concrete jungle, however wonderful it is, seems so alien now.
I will really miss climbing out of the tent every morning to somewhere different. Falling asleep to the sound of the wind in the trees and waking up to the dawn chorus. Setting up the chairs and cooking breakfast in a wooded clearing, a desert, a beach or on the edge of a mountain lake… So being close to the sea and the wide open countryside is an important life choice for us now.
We had always had Falmouth in the back of our minds as somewhere we would like to live – suitably rural but with a lot going on and beautiful countryside all near the sea. But practically it would all depend on securing jobs down there after 19 months away so it feels great to have most of it all sorted. Now we can really relax and enjoy the final 2 months of cycling.
Robbie and Margherita had looked after tandem well and had even organised for our bags to be dropped off at the bike shop so we could pack up and get going soon after our early morning flight from Dublin. It would have been nice to spend an extra day in Bergamo but the clock was ticking away to our ferry – already booked – from Cherbourg in France! It was time for us to complete the final leg in what has been an epic ride across the Eur-Asian landmass…
We kept on a route north of Milan – it felt like the city sprawled out for miles and miles and that we were cycling through its suburbs for most of the day. We kept to a canal route to make things easy which was good as it was super hot, the air heavy and the wind like a hot hairdryer blowing in our faces the whole time.
They have recently cancelled all roaming charges in Europe now which means using our UK SIM cards here is the same as at home. In one way this is good as it has meant it has been easier to keep in touch with people at home – useful for negotiating job contracts, searching for rental properties and looking up car insurance. It has also means that we have both fallen back into the bad habit of being glued to our phones in the evenings however – something we were going to try and stop!
On the second day out I received an another job interview invitation (another part-time role to potentially go with the one I’ve already secured) which slightly put a spanner in the works for our schedule. It would probably mean taking a train for some of the distance and after looking at all the flight options we chose Lyon as a good place for me to fly out and back from. We were still keen to cycle over the Alps so we headed to the nearest local station to see if we could catch a train to Turin – covering around 150km.
We weren’t sure how easy travelling with the tandem in Europe would be… We have found getting the bike on various modes of transport in Asia relatively straightforward as there is a much more relaxed approach to transport. Now we were in the ‘regulated west’ we weren’t sure how a tandem was going to go down… As it turns out – it was a piece of cake – and the Italian tickets were very cheap. €17 euros for us both and the bike. Paddy was delighted at the prospect of sitting in the air conditioned carriage for two hours away from the mid-day sun – he struggles with the humid weather!
We reached Turin by 3:30pm and although it took us an hour to cycle out of the city, with the summer solstice only a week away we still had plenty of daylight remaining.
From here we headed up towards the Alps starting the gentle climb up the longest valley in Italy – Susa valley. This would eventually lead to our last major mountain range and final 2000m+ pass! We slept in a disused quarry that evening and reverted back to our Cambodian practice of having a ‘litre bottle shower’ to wash away the sweat and sunscreen followed by a diorolyte because we had lost so much salt in the heat.
The next morning we were delayed because Paddy’s helmet was missing. We realised he had left it on the side of the track leading up to the quarry overnight and it seemed an early morning walker had picked it up… He would have to do without for a few days… we started to climb proper and although the road was quite busy with cars and many campervans the trucks mainly kept to the motorway tunnels and there was a decent hard shoulder. Quite some time has passed since our last big climb in Slovenia so our legs were feeling it a little bit. The scenery was very nice and we passed up through the Susa valley with spectacular views of the Fort of Exilles which sits on a spur dominating the narrowest section of the gorge. The site has played an important part in the original string of fortifications between the House of Savoy and France and the castle passed from one side to the other throughout the 16th century. Napoleon demolished the fort after he captured it in 1829 and it was then rebuilt in its current form and used by the Italian army until 1943 after which it was completely abandoned.
That evening we pulled the bike off the road down into the riverbed which is almost completely dry now thanks to most of the snow having melted away. Our grey tent camouflages very well on this white stoney ground so we didn’t worry too much about being completely out of sight. It was another spectacular camping spot with plenty of opportunities to sit and watch the wildlife including an adult Chamois (we think!) who made his way slowly from the river up a sheer cliff face into the safety of the alpine woods above. The night sky was incredible that night.
Tomorrow we cross over the Montgenevre pass into France. Italy has been great and we definitely hope to come back here in years to come.
Knowing that the campsites along the banks of lake Garda would cost an arm and a leg we needed to come up trumps with a good wild camping spot if we were going to stay and go sailing for a day. The lake is a top tourist destination for water sport enthusiasts because the wind patterns are so predictable here – a thermal southerly breeze begins to build just before noon and blows continuously getting stronger and stronger until the evening.
We cycle into the top of the town and before winding our way down the steep road to Riva del Garda town we consult the map to see if we can see anything suitable. Paddy spots a green park like area not too far away – it sits on a producing cliff and looks as if it might give amazing views out across Garda town and the lake. It looked more than perfect but would we be moved on quickly if we were spotted setting up camp there?
It’s a lovely spot – lush green picnic areas with tables and water taps and plenty of tree cover. We cycle up to the cliff edge and can’t quite believe the view… This is going to be one of our best camping views of the whole trip! We peer down into the town and seeing all the tents and caravans squeezed into the various campsites below makes our chosen spot all the more sweeter. We will certainly miss moments like this once we are back…
There’s no one around so we wash at the tap and while I set up camp Paddy decides we need to celebrate in style so goes off with tandem to seek out some wine. A few people pop up every so often to look at the view but we mostly have the place to ourselves and we enjoy our evening before climbing into our tent for the night.
Neither of us had any inclination to leave our spot the next morning and with enough food and access to water we decide we’re very happy to avoid the crowds for one more day and enjoy the views from here. So we have a rest day up here, whiling away the morning by playing an epic game of scrabble which saw Paddy lose by just one point! He thrashed me in the second game however! It’s Saturday and by lunchtime there are lots of people already out on the water so we spend some time setting up an awning to avoid the pounding sun and settle down to our private regatta! I can’t help but hummm snippets of the song cycle La regata veneziana by Rossini – it made up a good chunk of my final year recital at University – it’s sung by a girl called Anzoletta as she watches an Italian regatta in Venice.
The next morning we decide it’s our time to get out onto the water so we pack up and say goodbye to the view. There were plenty of boat hire places to choose from but Paddy had his eye on a 18ft catemeran so we chose a club which had a few of these for hire. This would be my first time trapezing in a harness and Paddy was practically hopping with excitement.
A lovely Italian lady called Nora signed us in and showed us where we could get our wet suits, boots and harnesses. Once kitted out we were helped into the water by two attendants and by 2.45pm were sailing out onto the lake. The wind had reached a good 25knots and we were absolutely flying, Paddy at the helm and me looking after the jib sheet (under close instruction). It was brilliant fun twin trapezing off the side of the boat – it feels like you are flying over the water – and the only slightly irritating thing was when the metal harness clips would bash me over the head before we could clip in after every tack.
Only once did we nearly capsize but we both lurched our weight quickly enough to the tipping side and P steered us upright again. It was great fun trying to race the windsurfers zooming along beside us and with the sun shining and the spectacular surroundings it was a great two hours.
Windswept and with our legs and and bodies aching from using a completely different set of muscles we de-rigged and came ashore. Nora had kindly sorted us a great discount for one of the campsites on the lake but it was still the most expensive night in our tent of the whole trip – 28 (down from 40 thanks to Nora’s help!)
We sat out in our helinox chairs in one of the lake side parks that evening with a few beers. We had tactically sat close to a bar where there was a group of musicians playing Irish jigs and trad songs so we had a good time singing along to the ‘Auld Triangle’ and ‘The Wild Rover’!
Because we had stayed an extra day on lake Garda we decided it was a good idea to try and quickly cover some distance the next day. Fortunately this is easy with the regular ferry service which operates on the lake. You have to choose your ferry carefully because not all boats go to every destination and not all agree to carrying bicycles. We managed to catch one at 9.30am to a town called Salo which sits on the west side of the lake. Another very warm day and it was enjoyable docking briefly at all the picturesque lake towns along the way. We ate lunch in Salo’s town square where we got chatting to a British family for a time before tackling the steep climb up away from the lake.
We had a few days to reach Bergamo and again we followed a great cycle route for the majority of it often along a canal which meant we covered a lot of miles.
That night we camped in a field just off a horse race track and had fun watching some jockeys putting their racing horses through their paces in the cooler evening air. The next we continued on our road north-west of Brescia and reached another lake where we stopped for creamy gilatis in Sarnico.
We reached Bergamo by 5:45pm and headed straight to our warm showers hosts Robbie and Margherita. Robbie owns a bike shop cooperative in Bergamo and has been big into cycling all his life. Him and his girlfriend Margherita who is just about to complete her PHD had kindly agreed to store the tandem and most of our bags while we flew back to Ireland for a week to see family.
We met Robbie at his bike shop ‘Bike Fellas’ and then rode over to their lovely apartment where we could take a shower and get things sorted for the next day. Margherita and Robbie then took us to a great traditional Bergamese restaurant that night owned by their friend Gianni. The man himself explained everything on the menu himself and you could really tell that he had a passion for his local culinary traditions – these naturally included cured meats and delicious cheeses but also polenta cooked in various forms and delicious red wine served up in the traditional Bergamese way – in a bowl! It was a lovely place, filled with original photographs of Jianni’s ancestors and to our surprise and gratitude Robbie and Margherita insisted on paying the whole bill which was so generous of them.
We walked off the rich food with a lovely long evening stroll around Bergamo’s old town centre which sits on a hill surrounded by impressive Venetian fortified walls. There are four gates to the old city each with a stone lion (traditional Venetian symbol) perched on top guarding the entrance. The town is filled with cobbled streets, beautiful old churches and an old fort – not to mention the old house of Italian composer Donizetti!
The next day we have the whole afternoon to explore the city again this time by day light. Bergamo is really beautiful – I can thoroughly recommend visiting for a long weekend! We spend a lot of the day eating and then – because it’s so hot – lying in the park which surrounds the old fort.
We now fly back to Dublin for a time to see family and as it turns out we will also fly to Cornwall for job interviews while we’re there! Glad those log nights in the tent writing personal statements paid off! We really are starting to get back to real life now! Gulp!
Thankfully, the warm weather has finally arrived – so getting a good cycle in before the hottest part of the day is going to be important from now on – at least until we reach Northern France. Paddy is less enthusiastic about the warmth particularly the hot afternoons – I’m a bit of a sun worshipper though so I’m very happy to be leaving the cold mornings behind.
We had easily fallen out of our early rise routine while Andy and Rach cycled with us – not that our early rise routine can ever be considered ‘early’ by most other cycle tourers’ standards. Paddy and I have always enjoyed our 2 hour + morning packdowns… The days are getting longer and longer so we’re not too worried. Nevertheless we will try our best to get going by 9am. Let’s see how we get on!
There was quite a hard climb out of Bled town but then we joined back onto the good cycle route and the cycle turned into a manageable steady incline. This continued all the way to the ‘border’ with Italy and by the afternoon we were soon crossing into country number 22. Like Greece, suddenly we were cycling through a country we have both visited lots before – home feels closer than ever!
Our route will see us swoop across the top of the country, avoiding any of the big mountains on its northern fridges and making a bee-line across the flat plains to Milan. It’s sad we won’t be doing any cycling in the rest of the country; But with only 10 days until our flight home to Ireland (where we are visiting P’s family for a time) from Milan Bergamo we don’t have much time for many rest days let alone a detour further south… We’ll have to save Tuscany for a short cycle jaunt another time!
The great cycle route continued for the rest of the day and well into the next. Taking the place of an old railway line it was blissfully flat and slightly downhill in our favour so we ate up a lot of miles very fast.
It was great to be away from the cars and traffic, we enjoyed great views and liked stopping for regular breaks outside all of the beautiful old station houses. We camped in a wooded area between the cycle path and the river that night.
Whenever we come to Italy we always quickly remember why Italians are known for their style and dedication to aesthetic. Every town or village we seem to pass through is an idyllic hamlet of pastel coloured houses with painted shutters and cobbled plazas peppered with fountains and elegant classical statues. Every garden is covered in blooming roses and the smell of Jasmin hangs heavy in the air wherever we go.
Wine making is big business here and we cycle through miles of vines which must be growing at a rate of a ft a week at the moment. Many of the vineyards stretch across vast fields which often surround a small hill. There is often a beautiful ancient casa perched on top of these hillocks. All the farmers are busy hay making too and we have loved cycling along the wheat fields which are often stained red with wild poppies. It’s all rather idyllic!
Along some of our route, houses and gate posts still bare pink ribbons and bows which we assume are left over from the Giro d’italia – Italy’s version of the Tour de France where it’s all about the pink jersey rather than the yellow.
It’s been very hot but there has been plenty of chances to cool down in the clear blue rivers. The air has also been very heavy and on our second night we had to endure a crazy flash thunderstorm – we just about got in the tent in time and it’s probably the biggest test our MSR Hubba Hubba has had to cope with so far!
From here we wound our way up an impressive gorge towards lago di corlo – a man made reservoir/lake where we would stay in a campsite for the night. Avoiding the main road and tunnel we take a spectacular switch back route up through the valley – the road we took was actually closed with big bollards blocking cars from passing through so we could relax, take our time and enjoy the peaceful climb without worrying about vehicles tearing around the corners. The views were amazing and Paddy got the heeby-jeebies looking down into the gorge below! Half way up we see what looks like a large stone lying in the middle of the road and wonder whether this is why the road had been closed… but as we get closer we realise the object isn’t a stone at all but rather a beautiful adolescent male deer who has clearly played too close to the edge and toppled off from the sheer cliff above. He’s untouched apart from a small trickle of blood flowing from his antlers – it’s definitely the saddest and most majestic ‘road kill’ we’ve come across. We reach the remote hill top village of Incino where we stop to take in the view of the lake and the lush green valley and then make our way over to the campsite.
The next morning we enjoy a lazy breakfast by the lake then pack up and get going. Cycling is big around here and we meet lots of road bikers as we wind our way down another excellent riverside cycle route to Trento, another beautiful town. We’ve made great progress thanks to a strong tail wind and we manage to reach the northern tip of Lake Garda for 6:30pm. The plan is to stay here for at least a few days. We’ve made really good progress and should easily make it to Bergamo. Despite the lake having an almost Mecca like status with sailers all over Europe Paddy has never actually been to Garda… We may even treat ourselves and go sailing!
Sorry I haven’t been updating the blog as regularly as normal. We are still well and slowly making our way home but job applications, interviews and house viewing have been getting in the way of my updating the blog.
Anyway – here is the start of Italy with some other now soon to follow!
We arrived early into Ljublana and luckily were allowed into the apartment we had rented for the night at 11 in the morning. This was good as Annie had some job applications to do (hence some slackness on the blogging recently!) and we got to unpack and shower in preparation for the arrival of our good friends Andy and Rachel from London who would spend a week cycling with us.
With Annie tucked up in the appartment I went to explore Ljublana. I took a walk up to the old castle and looped around by the river which was packed with people drinking and eating icecreams in the sun. It is a small but very pleasant city and I found an interesting free photography exhibition in the old town hall. That night we had dinner in the appartment and waited up until 11pm for the guys to arrive.
The next morning Andy n Rach went and got their bikes and panniers and we loaded up. It was very exciting to have our friends along on the tour! We set off northwards out of town using the extensive and excellent cycle lane system that is prevelant throughout Slovenia. Usually we spurn cycle lanes: they tend to have a poor surface, pedestrians, parked cars and almost always end abruptly leaving you up on a curb somewhere. But these were excellent and made the cycle out of town very easy.
Our planned route was to head north to Skofja Loka, then hit Tolmin and loop aoround to Kranjska Gora ending up in Bled. We were extremely lucky with the weather as the guys seem to have brought the start of summer with them, we have cloudy mornings typically but the sun is now so strong it burns these off in the afternoons.
First stop was for a big shop in Hofer, (Aldi under a different brand). We load up on provisions and resume cycling which becomes very pleasant as we weave down country lanes, past pristene gardens and huge piles of wood. We get to chat to Andy n Rach and they seem to enjoy the cycling so far! We stop for lunch in a field and roll out our standard spread for the guys… all going very well until a farmer pulls up with a lorry load of slurry to dump right where we are sitting… lots of smiles and we decide to move on.
We got to Skofjka Loka in the afternoon and did a bit of back and forward cycling deciding which fork in the road would be quiter. We ended up going the northern road which was NOT a two lane motorway. This gave us a look around the medieval old town which was worth a visit.
In the late afternoon we stop to introduce the guys to our ‘well deserved beers’ tradition. It goes well and we decide to wild camp that night in a meadow off the road.
The following morning we pack up slowly in order to dry out the tents from a heavy dew, a pattern for the week. We cover a much shorter distance this day with many photo stops, particularly past Tolmin where we link up with the Socca river. During a downhill section we do some bike swapping with some interesting results…I spend some time on the back on the tandem with Andy driving which is terrifying! Annie loves the single bike but needs a fatherly push start to get it going. Maybe we will do some single bike touring in the future but we are all happier back in our chosen steeds for now.
That night we head to a campsite right on the river, I go for a paddle and discover the water is icy cold: not good for swimming but good for chilling beer.
After another slow morning and a good breakfast and we find ourselve cycling up the Socca valley and the scenery just gets better and better as the day goes on. The river is busy with canoes and fly fishermen. We stop at the Kozjak waterfall along the way which is pretty impressive.
We enjoy cycling with two single bikes, but like other time we have done this we find some differences in speeds. Uphill Rach n Andy glide past the lumbering tandem, but on the flat and downhill we can power through. This means some stopping and waiting for people and during one stop we meet some very unfriendly policemen. Apparently we weren’t off the road enough and we got the full death stare and oir detail written in a little book. We have met a lot of police and military people on the road and these two were easily the most unfriendly, maybe they were having a bad day or missed the class in manners at the police academy.
After our minor altercation I decide we should navigate off the main road and over a little bridge on my map which will take us to a camp site for the evening… Annie calls this a typical ‘Paddy navigation’ expedition as we end up pushing the bikes though narrow forest paths and over two extremely wobbly suspension bridges. We make it to the campsite and that night the guys generously buy us a hearty dinner of Schnitzel and chips! We are close to austria now and German tourists are common here and we ofter are greeted in Deutch.
We know the following day we have our big climb over the Vrisik pass so we get and early night. An early start the next day and we pedal up the Socca valley the scenery really is stunning, as good as anything we have seen on the trip and a nice smooth road to cycle on. The valley starts to kick up and the cycling is slower, we find the last shop before the climb and stock up food including our staples of fruit and chocolate spread but not the local cheese despite the hard sell from the friendly shopkeeper.
At this stop I casually check what the incline for the climb to Vrisik pass will be. I am shocked and need to double check… the incline is 9% average over 9km. Translated to: extremely, extremely steep! Oops! I secretly worry that we all might struggle to get up since we typically consider anything over 6% very hard and we are fully loaded up! After a quick lunch we approach the climb and I tell Annie about the challenge ahead. ‘Lets just see how we go’. ‘OK’.
As we start the ascent we all settle into some kind of rythem in order to deal with the challenge. Andy ‘Chris Froome’ Bailey has no problems zipping up as fast as he likes, he is lightly loaded on a good touring bike. The real hero is Rachel ‘Nairo Quintana’ Jones who is on a ‘womens tourer’ style bike which is heavey and lacks anything like suitable gears for a climb like this. Rach does 3-4 minute bursts pumping the pedals around out of the saddle, then stopping to catch her breath. She is still a lot faster than the lumbering tandem as we grind it out doing about 4.5km/hr and stopping every 20 minutes. This all continues on and off for aboit 3 hours – the joys of cycle touring!
Andy and Rach get a taste for what we have experienced for the past year as half way up we meet a group of american tourists shocked at our ‘madness’ of climbing such a pass. It is not madness, just one km at a time! But the rewards of such big climbs are evident in the spectacular views and sense of achievement. We are all on a big high at the top and enjoy a stunning decent into Kranjska Gora.
We attempt a wild camping spot that night, but eventually decide a fine from the police is not worth the risk (we are still in the national park), so we proceed down the valley to ‘Camp Spik’. The next day is a slow start since it is just 30km to Bled from here. After a long slow morning we follow a gorgeois route down to Bled (except for one punishing and unexpect climb). We go straight to camp Bled and Andy heads off to buy beers and wine for a celebratory eveing with sausage casserole. The next morning we dine on pancakes which might become a new staple for us on the camping stove.
For our final day in Bled we have a B&B booked which we go straight to after the guys drop off their bikes. We go for a weaving hike up above the lake and that evening feel very sleepy and decide to go get some pizza and beer in Bled. On a little walk down to a cash machine Annie and I spot a big stage by the lake a band doing a sound check….hmmm. This turns out to be a top notch Beatles tribute band which we sing along to all night against the stunning lakeside setting. A perfect ending to a great week with the guys.
We now had a week to kill before meeting up with our good friends from London, Andy and Rach, who were coming out to join us for a bit of cycling in the north around lake Bled. So we hatched a plan to wind our way up through the east of the country for a bit and meet them in the capital Ljubljana on Sunday.
We were in dire need of re-charging all our electronics and neither of us had had a hot shower since Sarajevo (2 weeks) so we had a look to see what warm showers hosts there might be on our route. There was one who instantly caught our eye – Noel Fitzpatrick. ‘He has to be Irish’ Paddy said, so we got in contact.
Noel was indeed originally from Ireland and him and his lovely wife Gilly (who is originally from the north of England), got back straight away and told us we were very welcome but they’d be away skiing until late. We were welcome to find their house, let ourselves in and help ourselves to a shower and the washing machine though. They also invited us to eat as many eggs from their chickens as we could and were told there were beers cooling in the fridge. Although we’ve become accustomed to this kind of unquestionable hospitality and trust, we still never take it for granted – here was a couple who were willing to leave a key for two complete strangers.
Gilly and Noel live in a very picturesque village called Drasici which is famous for it’s wine making. The village sits on a hilltop right on the Slovenia-Croatian border and the whole area is covered in grapevines. What’s interesting about Drasici is that the wine is made through a collective effort, with lots of families and farmers contributing their harvests to the central wine press which is situated in an old cellar near the village church. We had been instructed by Noel to find this church from where he’d given us directions to the house.
We parked up and started our search but we were soon accosted by a group of locals who were sitting outside the aforementioned wine cellar. They waved us down, offered us a seat and placed a glass of crisp, chilled white wine in each of our hands. A huge plate of local cheese and cured meats soon followed. It was a nice welcome!
We spent a lovely hour with this group of locals who were celebrating St Florian day – the patron saint of fire fighters. It’s customary for the women to take a day off on and let the men cook instead! The wine and the platter of cheese and meat were the fruits of their efforts!
Here are the group signing the traditional Drasici wine song.
This encounter meant we were settled at the house for less than half an hour before Gilly and Noel returned home themselves from skiing with their two kids. We couldnt have felt more welcomed and when we met they made us feel as if we were being greeted by longstanding friends.
The next few days were spent being part of the Fitzpatrick household. We had such a lovely time with the four of them, bashing out classic 90s rock songs and playing SuperMario cart with the kids, going for long rambling walks in the evenings and talking politics over dinner that we kept delaying our departure. It wasn’t until Thursday that we set off again.
May is an important celebratory month for Slovenia and for the duration of the month every village and town erects a huge May pole. These are different from the May poles we know. These are enormous pine trees, stripped of their bark and pine needles apart from a decorated Christmas tree-like bush at the top. As far as we know they don’t dance around them either.
The countryside has been lovely but I think we have the best of Slovenia still to come. We’ve heard the north is supposed to be beautiful. We easily find wild camping spots including a lovely one in this wooded area near a reservoir.
We easily reach Ljubljana and find the apartment we have booked with Andy and Rach.
Now we were out of Bosnia it was time to re-enter Croatia again. It wouldn’t be for long – just a few days cycle before crossing into country number 21 – Slovenia.
Croatia, I think it’s fair to say, is a country which has become the next big destination for the established western (and eastern) tourist scene. About 15 years ago it might have featured on the intrepid travellers’ ‘eastern block’ list – safe but still developing – but since joining the EU in 2013 the country’s tourist industry has exploded and Croatia’s hidden charms are now eagerly being rediscovered. It’s easy to understand why, Croatia has a lot to offer, with beautiful coastline, sandy island beaches, picturesque inland lakes and impressive Austro-Hungarian 19th century castles. We had a nice cycle through the middle following a route which saw us cross at Bihac and wind up through Slunj and Generalski Stol.
The biggest thing we have noticed here is that it’s really the first country where most people have had gardens as we know them – nice lawns with flower beds surrounded by fences or trees; well kept gardens with animal figurines and matching furniture. All the houses are very neat and well kept too. This seems like a strange thing to comment on but we think its probably quite telling; people seem to have more disposable income here.
Although it’s in the EU, like the UK, Croatia has retained its original currency – the Kuna. There is roughly 7 kuna to each £1 – it will be our last unfamiliar foreign currency of the trip! As we move further west, each country is becoming more and more expensive. We have found it relatively easy to keep to our budget up to now but Croatia is likely to be be the first big test.
We take a nice half day off to visit Plitvicka National Park – an amazing wildlife sanctuary made up of a series of forest-clad Jazeras (or lakes) which flow into each other via hundreds of waterfalls.
It’s very touristy and pricy with set routes to follow through the waterways. We were looking forward to an afternoon where we didn’t have to think too much, where we could just enjoy being off the bike.
We thoroughly enjoyed the 3 hour walk, the park is beautiful and really nicely done – the pathways actually allow you to twist and turn through the lakes and even down the waterfalls. We also had great weather for the walk which was fortunate as rain was due that afternoon.
We followed a great group of Chinese tourists round for the first section – their excitement was infectious and we enjoyed being featured in their selfies and home-video footage – we enjoyed people watching and this was often more interesting than the waterfalls themselves. 🙂
We didn’t stray far from the park and found a great hidden camp-spot in the woods off the road. We get set up and see another big deer casually walk past us as we’re eating our curry. Heavy rain falls overnight but the surrounding beech trees provide plenty of cover.
The next day the weather feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to do with sunny spells one minute and torrential downpours the next. Paddy navigates a nice cycle through the quieter roads up to and we manage to find an undercover picnic area to hide from the overnight downpours.
We’ve done well not to lose any items thus far in 2017 but in Croatia this all broke down; firstly with some git taking my winter cycling gloves from where I had left them momentarily in a carpark to then us managing to leave my sunglasses one day and our thermos the next on the roadside after a quick stop. These last two things we managed to retrieve but only after retracing our route 40km back… Doh!
We left the rain behind us on the last day and had sunshine to the border this will be our last passport control crossing as Slovenia, Italy and France are all Schengen countries.