Tuesday, 7 January 2014

135. The End (as we know it)

Setting off from Staffordshire, I crossed into Wales about 40 km later and was 100 metres into the last country of the trip, trying to pronounce the new language appearing on road signs in my head when I had one of the closest calls on the trip to-date. A young woman who was stopped at a side-road junction that joined the main road I was riding along, suddenly decided it was time to cross, completely oblivious to my high visibility presence which was blocking her view of the road behind me. Missing my front wheel by inches, I skidded to a stop and yelled in disbelief at the fast disappearing car whilst a fellow cyclist passing by came over to see what the fuss was about.

My last night before reaching Ireland I spent with a lovely Irish family, Mary and Dermot, who had settled in the north Welsh hills nearly 30 years ago. With retirement approaching they had undertaken some long bicycle trips (including the Trans-America trail last year) and Mary and her friend Helen were setting off from Istanbul in a couple of months time and following the Danube back to western Europe. The following morning the dire weather conditions could be heard battering the house outside and I set off with the hail stripping my left cheek as the southwesterly storm blasted across the Snowdonia national park. On a lighter bike I might have struggled to beat the crosswind all the way to Holyhead but with 50 kg of bicycle and gear beneath me, Rocinante weighed us down like and anchor and only occasionally veered off when gusts hit over 100 kph. 

The evening ferry ride to Dublin was one of the roughest I've experienced, with bottles flying off the shop shelves whilst many of the youngest passengers filled up sick bags. I arrived into a somewhat calmer Dublin port at 10:30 p.m. and made my over to Dun Laoghaire where I had been very kindly put up by Roland and Annette, old family friends and perhaps my most doggedly determined readers of this blog.

Leaving the ice time to melt the following morning, I headed off around midday and climbed up around the Sugar Loaf hill and headed south towards Roundwood. The browns and blacks of a snow-capped Djouce mountain gazed down from the west. Saturday hill walkers gathered in the Roundwood pubs as I passed through the village and onto the last home stretch, helped along by a tailwind as I turned east. In the winter twilight, after almost 2000 days since riding away in July 2008 and having navigated our way through 63 countries, I returned with Rocinante up our driveway and rang the door bell.



Thank you to all those who have helped make this journey possible, family and friends and all the wonderful people we've met along the road. Big thank you also to my ever determined cycling partner and wonderful friend, Ellie, as we forged our relationship on the high mountains, long deserts and everything in between over the past three years. And, of course, thanks to all those who have donated to the Peter McVerry Trust and if anyone wishes to make a donation they can do so via at my fundraising webpage  on the MyCharity website.

Annagolan, Ireland
Pedalled: 84,780 km

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

134. Wet n' Wild - across middle England on mince pies and tea...

After a week of wonderful excess with Ellie's family in Norwich and delayed departures and tearful farewells as Ellie waved me off last Saturday, I was pedalling solo, the first time since central China two years ago when Ellie fractured her arm and took a got a medical leave of absence for four months. I retraced our route across East Anglia, this time into a strong headwind as I passed through Thetford Forest again, weighed down with Christmas leftovers and enough Christmas cake to see me across the remaining two countries. A hollow, lonely feeling with no familiar partner in my rear view mirror was gradually replaced by the job at hand, and I pushed hard into the oncoming wind that wished me into the North Sea. I arrived at Mildenhall in the mid afternoon passing once again the bastions of American military might in rural England on the two nearby air force bases. I spent a lovely, military-themed evening with John, a warmshowers host and his friend, when we sat for hours by the fireside over the war strategy game - Axis and Allies, which I began to get the hang of as the game entered its sixth hour.

The morning saw frosty roads as I set forth full of fried eggs, bacon and sausages. Another day of clear blue skies and cold headwind as I pushed on across the Fens and over the Wealds. The days all full of reflection and anticipation as The End trundles ever closer at warp speeds approaching ten miles per hour. Gradually the large fields shrunk and the land began to undulate and the trees once again provided shelter from the wind as I headed further into England. My host that evening was Tom Allen, a veteran bicycle tourer who has found his wife, written a book and made a film (Janapar) all as a result of going for a little bicycle ride six years ago. I spent a wonderful evening with Tom, his wife Tenny and Tom's family and it was wonderful to be able to reflect on the past, present and future with someone who has already been there. I said goodbye to Tom 20 km up the road after he road through another damp dreary morning with me.

After a long, soggy, undulating day on the backroads of the Midlands, skirting Leicester to the south and Birmingham to the north, I finished up after 149 km with a warm and raucous family dinner in the quaint countryside near Stafford where I spent a wonderful evening catching up with my long lost cousins and family - last seen thirty years ago when I demanded to be driven faster and faster in one of cousin's Land Rovers. A brief evening off became a couple of days and it has been wonderful catching up and meeting with my family here, feeding horses, celebrating the New Year and watching the wind and rain from inside a window pane. 

Tomorrow morning I set off for the last two days across northern Wales and Snowdonia national park to Anglesey island.

Here's to a very healthy and happy 365 days to come...

Croxton, England
Pedalled: 84,420 km

I'm hoping of course to raise a little more capital for the Peter McVerry Trust in their excellent work for young homeless people in Dublin and if you wish to make any donations you can do so at my fundraising webpage  on the MyCharity website.


Sunday, 22 December 2013

133. This is England

A howling wind, rain and crashing waves greeted us on arrival at New Haven port after the four hour stint across the Channel from Dieppe. Ellie's brother Ben (hero of the Turkey trip) was also there, drenched and cold and we followed him west to Brighton, initially along the busy coast road and then on the promenade that was being battered by the sea. After a rest day with Ben and Vicky in Brighton and an early Christmas dinner with Vicky's family it was time for the last stage to Ellie's home in Norwich - a three day journey that took us first to Brixton in south London, then north to Cambridge and finally the last leg to Norwich. Ben had made sleeping arrangements with friends along the route and after saying goodbye to our wonderful host, Tom and his family in Cambridge, we were blown with a very strong tailwind much of the way to Norfolk.

It's been interesting been able to communicate properly with people once again. Ellie and I stood rather bewildered at the chaos and mayhem of a Thursday evening in downtown Brixton, ambulances and police sirens filling the night sky, touts tried to sell tickets to the nearby Pogues concert and young folk stumbled loudly down the street. As we passed through central London the next morning a group of police were studiously examining the junctions for traffic violations in the wake of the spate of cyclist fatalities a couple of weeks ago. One questioned his supervisor as to whether I had made an illegal move down the side of a bus whilst the traffic stopped at the lights. In villages people asked if were we off on holidays, assuming that the middle of the winter is a normal time for people to go pedal-about. One man whom I asked for directions told us about his cycling son who had been detained in Russia after entering. Cars occasionally honked when they felt we were delaying them in their rush somewhere.

Ellie has clocked over 41,000 km since we began cycling in Colombia three years and two months ago and visited thirty countries since then. We weren't sure if tears would be shed or just relief at having finished large, pedally chapter in Ellie's life but in the end tiredness was the dominant reaction and I passed out by the fireside after dinner as they did the paper's crossword.

After a Christmas break with Ellie's family I'll do the last stretch across England and Wales to Ireland.










Pedalled: 84,164 km
Norwich, England

132. More French Days











Sunday, 15 December 2013

131. French days





130. A Tour de France without EPO

After our daily drenching in Italy that forced us to buy some new and improved winter riding gear in Genoa before coming through France, it hasn't rained since. Three weeks of cold but generally blue skies have seen us cover the 1600 km from Provence over to south western France and then an inland route up via Agen, Bergerac, Angouleme and Le Mans. Tomorrow afternoon we hope to reach Rouen and Dieppe on Tuesday where we will board a ferry for a four hour return to the Pretanic Isles at New Haven.

Following some occasional nights of rather chilly camping in southern France we relied on the amazing hospitality of France's warmshowers hosts to get us home without loss of frostbitten limbs. These evenings of wonderful food, wine and crackling fires have been really memorable. Most impressive of all, although not that surprising perhaps from a cycling hospitality network, has been a generally very active commitment to a wide range of ecological issues including organic farming and alternative energy supplies. Frequently the food we ate came from the garden outside and our hot water from solar panels whilst reminiscing over Jose Bove's attack on McDonald's over a decade ago. Veteran bicycle tourers who have crossed continents (including two families with young children) and others who cycle within their city, along with parents of pedalling travellers made our final weeks on mainland Europe a warm and wonderful experience.

Arnieres-sur-Iton, France
Pedalled: 83,657 km

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

129. Cracked rims and cappuccinos

The Italian coast appeared through the grey dusk and we were soon pedalling along the dark streets of Ancona, relieved to be out of the confines of our 18 hour ferry ride up the Adriatic. After a night in the deserted hostel up a near vertical cobbled alley by the train station we left the city and headed west through Marche. A rollercoaster ride followed that brought us through ever more interesting towns with wonderful hilltop fortifications and narrow alleys. We climbed into the hills that would bring us over the Italian spine to Umbria and Tuscany. Finding a camp spot proved difficult. Constant reminders that you were about to venture onto private property seemed stuck to every tree. Not something we have encountered since North America. Unfortunately we turned down the only real possibility, a disused quarry.  Instead we rode on along the rollercoaster in the dark for another couple of hours before reaching Sasso Ferrato and succumbing to a guesthouse. 

Apart from one night in the tent in a forest near Florence, the rest of our eleven days in Italy was spent indoors at night in the company of wonderful warmshowers hosts (Dawn and Luke in Citta di Castello and Mateo near Genoa), with a family friend of Ellie's in Florence, and a couchsurfing couple (John and Caroline near La Spezia). We were fed wonderful food and given a place of dry our generally wet clothes as we had rain most days at some point.

Descending into Florence, we stopped to investigate a new noise from Ellie's rear wheel and discovered a one inch crack. Like Ellie's tumble in Tokyo when she fractured her elbow one kilometre from the hospital, this mechanical failure could have occurred anywhere along the route from Asia to Europe and been a much more significant problem but if it had to happen then at least in Lycra-clad Italy and a city like Florence we figured a replacement would be relatively easy to come by. And it was, although we had to settle for lesser quality rims than we hoped for but within a day we had a new set of wheels (the front rim had caved in but not cracked yet) and after wandering around Florence we headed on for the Riviera. By the time we reached Genoa we had enough of permeable wet gear and our warmshowers host Mateo cycled with us to the near Decathlon store where we fitted ourselves out with winter riding gear and upgraded my dish washing gloves to something a bit warmer.

Our final day and a half to the French border was enjoyed in cold winter sunshine. Passing the deserted frontier checkpoint we entered France and continued along the coast to the principality of Monaco and then Nice where we spent a couple of nights with Yza and Simon who recently returned from their own trip from France to Indonesia by bicycle. 

Frejus, France
Pedalled: 82,236 km

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

128. It's not so far to Tipperary - on across northern Greece

After delaying our departure for a couple of extra days on Limnos island where we were staying with Ellie's brother Toby, we dragged ourselves back onto the boat (the same boat that had been impounded a few weeks prior to our arrival for its poor safety record and also because the company was apparently having problems covering the running costs of the ferry) and headed back to the mainland at Kavala. Dark skies full of rain greeted our arrival and we abandoned our attempt to escape the city at night to find a campspot and opted for a friendly guesthouse up the incredibly steep and windy lanes of the old town, where we heaved our loaded mounts up just before the deluge.

We left in the morning during a lull in the downpour but it caught us later again. Our campsite that night was a building site for a fancy looking sea-view apartment in whose shell we pitched up and dried off. 

In Thessaloniki we were hosted by a comedian and radio show host, Alex, who put us up at short notice and we swapped cycling tales over his homemade tsiphoro (the Greek version of grappa).

Our route across northern Greece to the Adriatic port town of Igoumenitsa followed the old and largely deserted national roads. After Veria, we camped in a leafless orchard and experienced the first cooler night in Greece now that we had left the warmer Aegean shoreline. Winding up to a monastery on the way to Kozani the next morning, we returned to stunning autumn scenes in the deciduous forests on the lower slopes. A couple of days later we were in the coniferous forests in the higher Pindos mountains, camped on a forest track beside a bear-warning sign when something stumbled up on the tent's guy rope. The jingling bell indicated something more domestic however like a goat or sheep. 

It's hunting season now and on permitted days the report of shotguns booms across valleys. Camouflaged middle aged men drink their coffees at the ubiquitous caf├ęs, weighed down like Pancho Villa with cartridge belts slung around their waists and their dogs whining loudly from the nearby pickup trucks.

Our final two days were a washout as we packed up our soaking home in the high Pindos before stopping in the pretty but touristy town of Metsovo where we sat in the brief sunshine drying ourselves and clothes in the central square amid well-heeled visitors and curious locals. We rode on into Ioannina in a dusk thunderstorm with ocassional flashes of lightning guiding our way. Neither our jackets and trousers nor our panniers give any pretense of being waterproof any longer. Indeed my jacket seems more adept at keeping the water in than out.

Yesterday we reached the Adriatic and stocked up on provisions for our 17 hour journey up to the Italian port city of Ancona. Celebrations for our own mini Hellenic Odyssey were a gyros (wonderful Greek fast food) and a beer. As our tent and clothes dried off in the warm passenger terminal, truckers from across Europe waited for the midnight sailing. A loud Tipperary accent shouting endless expletives down his mobile phone stood out from the rest.

Ancona, Italy
Pedalled: 81,332 km

PS apologies for those following my route on google maps. It is doing stupid things and won't display my updated info at the moment.

Monday, 4 November 2013

127. Following the Via Egnatia

Our route out of Istanbul followed the Bosphorous northwards, past families, couples and fisherman thronging the shoreline on the Sunday afternoon. Turning inland and climbing up to the Belgrade hills that have supplied the city with drinking water since the Romans built the aqueducts and cisterns, we found refuge for the night by asking one of the park's watchmen if we could camp in the picnic area near his hut. Some of the forested area is threatened by the government's plans to build a contentious third bridge across the Bosphorous, near the Black Sea coast and alleviate some of the traffic congestion in Istanbul.

After a couple of days on Thracian backroads we returned to the main highway west at Tekirdag and followed the 110 across to the Greek/Turkish border at Ipsala. On our route through both Turkish and Greek Thrace we've been encountering remnants of the original Roman highway, the Via Egnatia, that linked Rome and Byzantium via the Adriatic. 

We camped by the Aegean at night. On our second night we were about to set up camp by an abandoned fishing hut when a small four-wheel drive with tinted windows rolled slowly past. On its return back up the sandy track the uniformed figures inside - two Greek coastguards - waved back and let us be despite the 'no camping' signs. Towards the end of 2012 Greece stepped up its border controls on its land border with Turkey. Many illegal migrants now choose the maritime option - especially to Lesbos island further south of Limnos and just 6 miles away from Turkey.

We rode through the harvested cotton fields, the remains littering the roadside with a trail of cotton. Once lively villages lay quiet in the autumn sun. Reaching Kavala we caught the night ferry to Limnos island, four hours south, to visit Ellie's brother Toby and have spent the past couple of days exploring its main town, Myrina and the surroundings. Yesterday we rode out with the local cycling club that Toby has started and visited one of the guys old family house in the hills where the almond, pomegranate and persimmon trees were ready for harvesting.

Tomorrow we return to the mainland to continue our journey across northern Greece over the following week, to Igoumenitsa on the Adriatic coast and our ferry to Italy.









Myrina, Limnos, Greece
Pedalled: 80,703 km

Many thanks for the latest donation to the Peter McVerry Trust, which brought the amount raised now over 1200 euros! If you would like to make a donation, you can do so via my fundraising page on the mycharity.ie website (click here). Thank you!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

126. Across the Bosphorous

Today we will cross the Bosphorous and enter geographical Europe here in Istanbul. The past month crossing northern Turkey has seen summer become a faint memory as the snow fell on the high eastern Anatolian mountains. Conditions thawed in time for Ben's arrival in Merzifon and we continued our journey west along the backroads of Anatolia, where blue sky autumnal days in the yellowing forests turned to chilly nights around crackling campfires and made for magical cycling. 

We have spent the last two days with a wonderful warmshowers family in Istanbul who treated us like family and fed us and wined us on Dincer's wonderful homemade wine. Rocinante received loving care and attention from the crew at Biciklet Gezgini (www.bisikletgezgini.com) and today we leave Istanbul, bound for the Greek border in a few days time.

Istanbul, Turkey
Pedalled: 80,039 km