Hungary and our accidental cycle on the Eurovelo 6

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_109b2We reached Hungary in depressed spirits. It was cold, rain was imminent and we were both lacking energy having spent the better part of our last night in Slovakia awake and unwell. Our first stop was Lidl; when in doubt head to a budget supermarket. Here we reached a new low of actually eating lunch inside the supermarket. I had no idea how I was going to cycle into Budapest, or even close to it that day.

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Hungary!

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A new low? Lunch inside Lidl

After a short deliberation (between mouthfuls of ? vegan treats) we decided we needed to go somewhere else and just warm up a bit and make a plan. It was already late in the day, Astrid looked as broken as I felt. The idea of a few more hours of rain and wind, then crawling into a forest somewhere, into our damp tent did not appeal. She didn’t even really need to say anything, I got out my phone and started googleing hostels.

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So grateful for a warm space

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Cooking pasta in the shower as you do

It’s hard to describe the feeling of having a small, cosy, warm space to yourself when you are feeling low and expected to be facing several more hours of cold cycling. It’s moments like these when I just feel so grateful and lucky. To be able to occasionally pay to for a hotel and escape our common reality of outdoor living, is a privilege.

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Drying the tent outside the hotel..

From the obscure border town of Ballasagyarmat we cycled into Budapest the following day, even the unexpected rain couldn’t dampen our spirits. We passed many small villages and were buoyed by the friendliness of the people; there were shouts and waves and big smiles following us all the the way into the grand Hungarian capital. We were so excited to reach Budapest, it felt like a real milestone as we had heard so much about this beautiful city.

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Hungarian village

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Towards Budapest

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First vegan biscuits since Denmark!!

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side of the road walnuts

We’d struggled to find a host in Budapest, which we only realised later probably had something to do with the city being on the Danube and the Eurovelo 6 (meaning lots of cyclists and lots of requests). Hilariously we’d completely forgotten about the Danube cycle path, and realised with a little embarrassment that we could actually ride all the way to Belgrade on it. Some people spend months planning to ride this rather iconic path. We stumble on it quite by accident. Oh well.

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Yay!!

Eventually we did find a host, Zoltan, who so very kindly responded to our last minute request. Not only was he the loveliest human (who had a passion for craft beer like us), but he also introduced us to the Budapest Bike Mafia; an organisation of cyclists who make sandwiches twice a week and deliver them to the homeless of Budapest (by bicycle) in a radical act of kindness. I’d long been feeling like I was missing a something but hadn’t quite been able to place what it was. I certainly enjoy going to museums and exploring sites but I think I have also been looking for something more meaningful; something that would connect me to a place and it’s people in a deeper way. This can be difficult when traveling by bike, our stays are often fleeting and unless you meet the right people or happen to come across something, it can be hard to find out about projects such as these. Luckily Zoltan was exactly the right person and after spending a day exploring Budapest, we spent the evening making sandwiches, chatting to the super lovely volunteers and seeing a very different part of the city. Definitely the most heartfelt thing I’ve been part of on this adventure so far.

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Exploring Budapest

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Fisherman’s Bastion

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Pedalling around in the sun

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The palace

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The amazing Parliament

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Streets

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A treat

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Towers on our heads..

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Local craft beer

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Yes!

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Chatting and making sandwiches

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More sandwich fun

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Ready to go

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Delivering the goods

Although Zoltan couldn’t host us for the entire time we were in Budapest, everything began to fall into place; Wouter and Margot, a Belgium couple messaged me and said we could stay. Not only that but they literally lived around the corner from Zoltan. Our time in Budapest continued to be magical, the sun shone, we explored the gorgeous city and in the evening hung out with Margot and Wouter, drinking too much wine and generally having a brilliant time.

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Bike path happiness

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Happiness is giant blue fairy floss..

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A Ruin Bar

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Lying in the park on the island

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Lazy sunny days..

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Beer by the Danube

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Margot and Wouter

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_109a2By the time it came to leave, I was sick. An unpleasant stomach bug would haunt me all the way to Belgrade. To this day I have no idea where it came from. I usually have a stomach of steel and am the only person I know of who didn’t get sick in central Asia.

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In the countryside once more

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lunchtime

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The beautiful golden afternoon

We set off amongst the throng of the Budapest Marathon and it took us a very long time to get out of the city. Try pushing a fully loaded touring bike through peak hour at a busy London train station.  It was pretty much as unpleasant as it sounds. Although the atmosphere was great, and not at all like London commuter rage.

Finally free of the city, it was time to follow the Eurovelo 6. Not always easy or well sign posted, it is mostly a beautiful cycle. Sometimes we were right on the banks of the river, other times high up on the flood barrier, or on a detour through a town or village. Aside from the moments I had to run into the bushes with my stomach issues, I really enjoyed the Hungarian part of the Danube. The seemingly endless summer continued; it was hot. Only the evenings and morning were cool, a hint that this wasn’t to last, that it really was autumn. That and the beautiful colour of the leaves and the hazy golden light of the afternoon sun. Our cycle between Budapest and Belgrade we had calculated would take us about 8 days (it ended up taking 9), however due to my stomach we weren’t exactly moving fast. We also needed to decide which way after Hungary; wether we would take the possibly more developed Croatian side of the river, or the potentially slower Serbian side. These kind of decisions are best made over coffee so we sat in a cafe and weighed up our options. In the end adventure won out; neither of us had ever been to Serbia and it sounded more exciting. Decision made, now we just needed to get there.

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Such lovely pedalling

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It’s hot! Time to get out of the ninja outfit..

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This lovely man let us camp on his land

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These pumps are everywhere and are great! Took us a while to get the hang of them

At night we began finding some of the best camps of the trip so far, picking out spots where the path lay close to the river. We’d push our bikes down an embankment and invariably find a place to camp right by the water. Then we’d watch the sun set over the Danube, the sky turn a mass of pinks and reds. Sometimes we’d swim, or meditate. Later we’d look up at the stars in the clear autumn sky.  I can’t help feeling that this is what life is about. For me anyway. It feels like exactly where I want to be.

Unfortunately Hungary like several Eastern European countries is trending towards fascism. The media is becoming more and more controlled and fear and racism towards refugees is prevalent, especially outside of Budapest. No one we spoke to echoed the government’s sentiment, but as we approached the border we were greeted by scores of police. Literally every few hundred metres, on a basically deserted country road were groups of police. At one point we ducked into the forest to make camp but all night could here them patrolling and see their flash lights. It was eerie and a little frightening. I can only imagine they are there to send refugees back to Serbia, to keep them out of fortress (EU) Europe.

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Our last night in Hungary

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The road towards Serbia

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_109c8Our last day in Hungary dawned warm and sunny, we emerged from our forest camp, ignored the scores of police and pedalled towards the border. It was time to say goodbye to the EU and head into the Balkans. Thanks Hungary, you have been rather splendid.

 

Our mountainous road south through Slovakia.

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The glorious High Tatras.

I just saw a selfie of our cycle touring friends Pedals & Paws from the Slovakian border.  They are in full winter gear, including ski masks, and it looks freezing.  It reminded me a bit of the day that we chose to leave Poland prematurely and cross into Slovakia early.  Watching the rain fall at the old border station of Lysa Polana, chewing on another jam roll, stamping our feet to keep them warm, we deliberated between hiking the Polish five lakes trail in the cloud and drizzle, or to turn left and cycle the 10 metres to cross into Slovakia and start our cycle south. No brainer, right?  Decision made, we took the obligatory border photos and within minutes the drizzle ceased and we were getting hot from the first of many climbs in this mountainous country.

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Munching on a jam roll at the old border post.

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Obligatory border crossing photo 🙂

Glimpses of the Tatras returned through the clouds as we wound our way up and over to the southern side of the range.  Sleepy towns greeted us as we cycled through, while disused chairlifts and pommas hung limp in the autumn air.  Only the noise of cars and chainsaws broke the silence.  I came to realise yet again that in many countries the title of National Park offers no protection to trees from logging, as large swathes of forest were decimated.  I wondered, had Slovakia declared a war on nature without informing anyone?

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The High Tatras hidden by the clouds

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The southern side of the range became clear in the afternoon.

To clear the nature loving blues we decided that a walk in the mountains would lift our souls.  Backpacks that we had been lugging around for the last few months were finally pulled out and packed with enough gear for an overnight hike.  Our bikes and remaining bags were hidden in the forest and we started climbing alongside a gushing river towards the pointed peaks above.  Autumnal colours shone in the golden afternoon sunlight and all was well with the world again.  Reaching a height of 1,300m as night fell we camped next to the river, purposefully ignoring the no camping signs we had seen earlier.  I reasoned that as logging, dogs and human excrement were a constant in the National Park, this rule could (and should) be broken.

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Ready to hike.

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Heading towards the peaks.

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On the trail, loving the colours.

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Dinner time.

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Our campsite next to the river.

Glowing red peaks were the backdrop for our morning dip, followed by a warming meditation in the sun, and a hot breakfast and cuppa to finish our daily ritual.  A growing trickle of walkers that had driven to the carpark nearby were trudging up the well worn path already, so we followed a solitary hiker as he diverted from the path behind a crag.  Luckily we didn’t bust him taking a wee, but found an old path that climbed through a beautiful pine forest rejoining the track after a few kilometres.  Back with the crowds I had to stop often to let others pass, as I dislike the sound of walking poles clacking and humans panting behind me.

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First sunlight hits the peaks.

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Glowing red.

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Heading to Rainer’s Hut to meditate and eat breakfast.

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Hiking.

Words cannot do justice to the scenery that opened before us above the tree line.  Snow dappled giants of grey stone towered above us and that feeling of awe that nature induces filled my being.  It was soon pouring out of my sweat glands as we climbed the rock wall in front of us to reach the lakes and mountain hut we had been aiming for.  Refreshed with a big bowl of lentil soup we continued along the circular path I had eyed out on the map.  After another half hour of climbing and scrambling over rock and snow we rounded a corner to another snow covered grey giant and my heart fell.  A group of people were gathered half way up the face, a wall of snow and ice above covering the path that is usually there.  A brave few were attempting to rock climb the crag to the side, while others were turning back.  We sat for a good half hour deliberating our next move.  Was today the day that we should attempt the toughest mountaineering of our lives or the day that we were thankful for the climb we had done so far and be satisfied with what we had?  We chose to be satisfied and turned back as hordes of other hikers rounded the same corner to deliberate the same question.  Returning via the same path the slow trickle from this morning had tuned into a torrent of hikers – the Slovaks truly are hardy mountain people.

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My queen of the mountain

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Hiking joy

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Looking back on where we had hiked from.

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The upper mountain hut.

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Steaming bowls of lentil soup.

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Scrambling up the rocks.

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The grey giants.

It was near sunset when we returned to our bikes and bags.  After slipping a few times on the snow and rocks during the descent, I was quite battered and my feet were metaphorically broken.  Food and a forest camp were balm to the body, and just for pleasure we forwent our alarm and had a luxurious sleep in.  Over a couscous breakfast, we planned our route through Slovakia.  Time’s fingers were starting to flick our rear mud guards and as such our cycling in Slovakia would be brief.  The straightest line from north to south along minor roads was plotted and we head off that morning invigorated to be moving fast again.

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Our bags were still there when we returned

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Cycling away from the High Tatras, heading south.

Fast is a subjective term, especially in such a mountainous country.  There were many ranges and valleys between us and the Hungarian border.  Gradients were usually 12%, and despite my initial trepidation at the beginning of every ascent, each down stroke reminded me that I really do love to climb and I’m surprisingly good at it.  I was picked on as a teenager for having thighs like tree trunks and I used to hide them in shame.  I now look at these same legs and am eternally grateful for their size, strength and power.  And as my tan line can attest – I have no shame of showing them off 🙂

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Mountains…

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Hills…

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Forests…

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Autumn cycling is awesome…

Historical sites, natural phenomena, feats of human architecture and enchanting villages were welcome additions to our ride.  Information plaques constantly reminded us of the pervasiveness of the wars, the history of human struggle, and the resilience of the human spirit throughout Europe.  Our interactions with locals were fleeting and my connection with the country was mostly through its natural beauty rather than its people and current culture.  This I am sorry for, as connection with people and place is what I now seek in our travels.  Hopefully next time…

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Lunchtime

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Forest camp.

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Sunday morning pancake breakfast.

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Autumnal colours.

Our route is a collage of memories and associations.  Leaving the High Tatras we picked and ate the best apples of my life; in Poprad we rediscovered the joy of olive bread and I read the funniest book ever (All my friends are still dead); we munched on rolls beside Stary Kamenolom, cringing at the signs showing how they plan to develop this lake into an Ikea style “nature area”; we imagined what it was like to be a guard at Tisana – a natural rock barrier that was used as protection against the Nazi’s and to guard the town of Vernar (reported as the site of the Slovak uprising); we admired the autumnal colours that were in their full glory in all the forests we passed through; we brain stormed how to bush mechanic our broken tent pole as dusk set in on a disused back road in the Paradise National Park; I lay petrified in the tent thinking there was a bear or stag outside our tent – when in fact it was Jude snoring next to me;  we watched a shepherd sleeping as his cows wandered under a viaduct near Telgart; we missed our last opportunity to buy food on a Sunday so had to make do with whatever was left in our panniers; we lay in the warm afternoon sun and cooked up a feast next to the waterfall outside the charming village of Muranska Huta; I enjoyed my first sighting of old trees in Slovakia in the Narodny Park Muranska Planina; we enjoyed the glorious downhill into Muran – a ride I will rememver forever; I admired the colourful iconography on the giant cross that overlooks Muran on the other side; we did wheelies in the square outside the old church in Tisovec; a squirrel was the talisman I needed to choose the magical campsite we had one night in yet another stunning forest; we cooked breakfast under the trees in the centre square of Hnusta as a gentle rain fell; our longest conversation was had with a local via broken English and mime under the castle in Halic; I was almost killed by a truck on route 75 climbing the hill near Lake Luborec; Jude built us a fire on our last night camping just outside Male Straciny – but I was too sick with a fever and nausea to enjoy it; and passing a cute little restaurant in Zahorce and being happy that despite the rumours of great beer in this country we have spent our whole time here alcohol free.

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Cycling through the natural rock barrier of Tisana.

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Camping on a disused mountain track.

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Viaduct near Telgart

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Doing wheelies in Tisovec.

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Breakfast in the centre of town Hnusta.

As in life there are many more that I failed to either recall or mention, but I’m sure you get the drift of our journey there now.  Yet, my final memory is of promising myself at the border in Slovenske Darmoty, to come back and visit Slovakia again when I have more time.  Despite loving most of what I have seen and experienced, I have not given Slovakia the time she deserves and I hope to one day rectify this.  So to finish I want to thank you Slovakia for having us, however briefly.

A sense of history and freedom – our long ride through Poland

Introduction

We arrived in Poland with very little idea of what this large, Eastern European country had in store for us. Over our time here we have come realise that the history of Poland – wether it be when Imperial Russia, Prussia and The Austro Hungarian Empire decided to wipe them off the map for a while, or the horror of the Nazi and Soviet occupation, or more recently the brutality of communism, the Polish spirit has prevailed. There is a kind of distrust and disregard for authority (on some level) that we really enjoyed. After the organisation and rule abiding countries of Northern Europe, we felt freer. It suited our vagabond life of wild camping and pedalling. We were treated with much kindness and despite the worrying move of some towards the political right, the people we met and spoke to, convinced us that this Polish spirit will continue to shine against a new nationalism.

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Things immediately changed as soon as we arrived at the ferry terminal to take us to Poland. Firstly everyone wanting to take the ferry was Polish. There was a kind of organised chaos that we didn’t quite get. And unlike everywhere in the last two months, we couldn’t pay for our ticket by card (so I madly rode around looking for an ATM, worried we were going to miss the ferry). Once on board it became apparent we did not have enough cash to pay for our ticket, but the kind captain let us on anyway, saying we could go to an ATM in Kolobrzeg. The boat itself was all red velvet, brass, wood and sailor uniforms. I felt like we had stepped back in time and I liked it.

We arrived in the port town of Kolobrzeg and I loved it in an instant. It’s weird perhaps, but I finally felt like I was somewhere else. Just the feel of it was different, even in the darkness. Our host Maciek greeted us enthusiastically and led us back to his place to meet his family. We probably couldn’t have asked for better people to introduce us to Poland. Maciek, Ewa and their kids were engaging and interesting and we spent a lovely few days getting to know our new surroundings. We talked politics, history and got information about what we should see while in Poland.

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Exploring Kolobrzeg

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Loving the colours and vibrancy

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Delicious craft beers

The Baltic Coast

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I wouldn’t have thought of Poland as a seaside destination…

Armed with information and bucket loads of enthusiasm we headed off on the Eurovelo 10 towards Gdansk. Eurovelo’s for anyone not familiar with the concept are long distance pan European bicycle paths. It depends really on the enthusiasm of the country and municipality on how the funds get spent. It Poland this varied a lot. At times we were on smooth bicycle paths complete with bicycle work stations, other times pushing through sandy tracks, or on awful soviet era concrete slabs. Never the less we much enjoyed our ride along the Baltic coast which was heaving with holiday makers. In the towns that hugged the beaches we were confronted with a brilliant mix of communism meets capitalism with and 80’s sense of fashion. Bum bags were all the rage. We remarked that had this been at home we would have cringed and avoided it, but here it was a delight to see how enthusiastically people embraced all the kitsch fun there was to be had.

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The photo can’t quite capture how loud and fun this street was..

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More beach happiness..

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Eurovelo 10 at it’s best…

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Hmmm… a little inconsistent at times..

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Smooth again!

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Probably not meant to be ghost bikes..

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And sometimes it was more a walk your bike kind of deal…

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More questionable biking surface

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Baltic Sunset

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Water refill with stag

Our days consisted of low kilometres, swims in the sea, searches for sorbet in the supermarket fridges, easy to find wild camps and beers in the warm evening. It was hard not to feel like our summer holiday was stretching on and on.

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Sometimes the eurovelo was very well marked

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Thumbs down for the cheapest beer

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Bus stop fish love?

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Sunset beer by a free camp

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Found this lake just by the coast

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Bread, tomato, peanut butter and chilli paste is a thing…

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Happiness is a Polish summer

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This is awesome. Tools on the eurovelo 10

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Cooking dinner on the beach

 

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Choice spot for our tent

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View from my bed

Our first destination was Gdansk where we were embraced by the friendship of Anna, Robert and their cat Ozzie. Warmshowers is always wonderful but sometimes you really end up making friends. So it was with Anna and Robert and we extended our stay. During the day we explored Gdansk (and went to probably the best museum I’ve ever been in – the European solidarity museum) and in the afternoon and evenings we’d hang out with Anna and Robert – going to the beach, eating delicious food and exploring the less known parts of the city.

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Gdansk Ship Yards

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Where it all started…

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Solidarnosc…the beginning of the end for communism in Poland

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Old town, Gdansk

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Robert sharing the delicious wine he made

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Ozzie

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Relaxing at the beach

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Candid swim shot..

Because the four of us really didn’t want to part ways, to give us an amazing send off, Anna and Robert rode 80k with us to Robert’s friend’s farmhouse in the countryside. There we sat by the fire, eating amazing food and sharing wine. It is these connections with people and the landscape that bring me the most joy. Looking up into the sky, the fire warming my face, conversation flowing around me I thought: this is why I travel. It was such a heartwarming, life affirming feeling.

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On our way with Robert and Anna

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Lunch!

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Through the Polish countryside

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Bus stop break

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The farmhouse

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inside the farmhouse

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fire and polish sausages 

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wine time…again

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Malbourg Castle

Saying goodbye to Robert and Anna was hard. We all shed a few tears. What wonderful, generous and fun people they are. I know we will meet again some day.

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Goodbye beers

The Mazury Lakes

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_10a96After exploring the Teutonic Castle of Malburg our route took us east towards the lakes of Mazury. This area is a network of more than 200 lakes, connected by rivers and canals. People mainly come here to sail and when we turned up at a (free) campground we were greeted by a handful of yachts already moored. We were quickly invited over to join the group around the fire. Astrid and I both felt a bit awkward as we didn’t want to make people speak english on our account. We decided to go over for half an hour to be polite. Of course this being Poland we were warmly embraced, given food and spirits and spent a wonderful night chatting and listening to the occasional spontaneous outburst of Polish song. I think we stumbled into our tent at about 3am.

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Right near where we camped

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sunset..

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The lakes are hugely popular for sailing

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Ready for a morning swim

The next day i kind of lived out my Robinson Crusoe fantasy. Being a little unfit to cycle we decided to stay. As it was the end of the summer holidays all our new polish yachting friends were leaving. So it was just Astrid and I and this beautiful lake. We built up a fire and kept it going all day, heating water for endless cups of tea. There was swimming, reading, meditation. A perfect, lazy day like we don’t often have, completely devoid of any technology (all our devices after days of camping were flat).

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Kettle is always on..

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Living the dream

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Bialowieza National Park

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In the far eastern corner of Poland on the border with Belarus lies one of Europe’s last primeval forests which is also home to half of Europe’s Bison. In 2017 the Polish government began logging parts of this forest that had until now not been logged (plus tripling the quota of logging permitted). There was an international outcry and EU’s top court ordered Poland to stop. While logging has slowed, it remains under threat with Poland’s conservative, anti EU government fairly keen to continue to devastate this wilderness for profits. Having heard about what was going on and wanting to see the forest for ourselves it was here we headed next. And what a magical place it was. It resonated with my soul, there was something truly wondrous about standing in a forest that had barely be touched by humans. Even though we had spent so many nights camping out in the woods, this place felt different.  It was wild in the true sense of the word. These places are precious in a way that cannot be easily described, let alone translated into profits. I hope for a day when human’s will stop decimating this finite home of ours and realise that we are all connected to the planet and by destroying it we are destroying ourselves.

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Watch out for Bison!

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Sadly we didn’t see them

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Old growth forest

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Mushrooms!

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There is magic in the forest

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Exploring

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Zubr beer in the Zubr forest?

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Our sweet camp spot. With vodka.

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more forest deliciousness 

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Meditation and forests

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While Bialowieza was the only true old growth we visited in Poland, our time here has been dominated by forests. Asides from the Baltic Coast and the lakes, almost every night has been spent in the woods. Often plantation pine but also natural forests. Being autumn and knowing a little about mushrooms we were able to pick and eat chanterelles and a new one for us “chicken of the woods” (this mushroom seriously tastes like chicken when cooked!). It was exciting to forage part of our dinner and it was very delicious. We also began meditating every morning, which fitted in so well with our quiet, natural existence. While this may be a cycling blog, I’ve never been one just to write about our experiences on the bikes. For me it’s a one dimensional way to tell this story. Travelling by bike with hours each day to think, reflect, meditate, really makes you face yourself; you cannot hide from who you are, or what is going on inside. I have written before how I find this life makes you feel and experience things more acutely.  And here in Poland we both began using meditation as a tool to foster even more calmness and happiness. At first I found it very difficult but before too long we were both meditating up to an hour each day and have completely made it part of our day.

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A typical forest camp for us

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I love lying on the forest floor and looking up..

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Many forest tracks were found

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Waking to this is always good

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such good cycling

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Salmon and Astrid on a mission

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Fungi!!

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Ready for the day

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Yum!!!

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Chanterelles, “chicken of the woods” and something else

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Bike repair

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Bliss

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Goodnight

 

Warsaw and Krakow

I kind of always enjoy seeing the capitals of the countries we visit as after all this is where the majority of the people live. A lot of locals questioned why we would want to go to Warsaw but Warsaw ended up being one of my favourite cities. It’s not always pretty but it is vibrant, rich in history and full of amazing vegan food. In fact Polish cities all had an amazing selection of vegan food which surprised and delighted us. Heading south towards Slovakia we of course visited Krakow, which everyone had told us we must visit. And yes, it is beautiful and special in a way those rare cities not destroyed by world war two are. It also would be weird to write about Poland and not talk about the Holocaust. The horror of the Nazi occupation, concentration camps and mass graves are hard to ignore. At one point we unintentionally wild camped right near a memorial where mass murder had occurred in a forest. And in Warsaw we stared at the place where the Jews had been loaded onto trains to be flung across Poland into various Nazi concentration camps. By the time we reached Auschwitz both Astrid and I felt like we had had our head in this dark part of history for many weeks. The camp’s themselves were obviously horrific. State sanctioned incarceration and genocide on such a scale with such organisation is absolutely petrifying. It left us feeling emotionally raw and haunted by the spectre of Fascism that is once again spreading across Europe, felt especially strongly here in the east.

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We made it!

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Love the street art

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Gardens in Warsaw

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These dudes

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Exploring Warsaw

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Exploring Warsaw

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This building still has shrapnel damage from WW2 

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University library with a garden on the roof

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Looking hot in a vegan cafe

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Bar in a train station. My kind of place.

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Border of where the Warsaw Ghetto once was

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Traditional Polish food but without cruelty

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Krakow

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Main square, Krakow

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Walking. In Krakow.

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Astrid v Herring

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Autumn is coming..

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Auschwitz 

The Tatra Mountains

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Lying on the grass in a park in Krakow, our bikes packed and ready beside us, Astrid and I realised we were a bit exhausted. Since leaving London we had been on the move most days, camped 98 percent of the time and been hosted the other 2 percent (aside from our cottage in Copenhagen). We had spent very little time inside, just the two of us. It’s a mental exhaustion I had forgotten about. The one that creeps in (at least for us) after a few months. We didn’t want to talk to anyone or see any sights. I wanted a kettle, a kitchen, a space that was ours (not our tent) and some wifi. I wanted to sit in my pants (undies) and watch netflix, or a film. Read a book. Write. Drink wine. Do yoga. Maybe go on a run. I didn’t want to engage with anyone but Astrid. I didn’t want to cycle. I wanted tea. And toast.

We made a decision and booked a flat on the edge of the Tatra mountains. This happened to coincide with a severe weather front that was about to hit (we’d had weeks and weeks of sun and it was September). We pedalled two days from Krakow into the beautiful mountains and late on the second day rolled up to a cute little place we were going to call home for the next five nights. What utter luxury. It was amazing to have this space and exactly what our brains and souls needed. We did all the things I mentioned above and by the time we were ready to leave felt well refreshed.

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Towards the mountains

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Towards the mountains

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View from our balcony

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Happiness is sometimes a kitchen

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Snow on the mountains…happy to have been indoors!

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Breakfast!

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The End

Now it was time to leave, not only the comfort of 5 days of indoor living, watching weather fronts rather than being in them, but also to finally leave Poland. When we arrived at the beginning of August, summer was still in full swing. Our two weeks here had somehow very easily become six and we could feel the hint of autumn. The trees were slowly turning, the air in the morning had a hint of cold and the light had shifted to be infused with gold. It was time to head into the mountains of Slovakia.

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Obviously gang material

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“Arm exercises”

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Graveyards is where we often collect water from

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Drying out and phone charging at the church..

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Lunch

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Pancakes with freshly picked berries

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Vegan pierogi. the best.

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A rest stop we decided to camp at

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Radler stop

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We got into “arm exercises”

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Morning swim spot. We ignored the sign that said NO.

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We were not expecting to see a bear. Warsaw Zoo is right on the main road. Disturbing.

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Chilling

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Churches offer a good place to place to do some subtle cloth washing…

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Love a pink church

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Typical lunch scene..

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Our favourite! We ate these most nights..

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Outside the budget supermarket..

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Oh dear..

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A tub of vegan ice cream! 

 

A Danish Summer Holiday

 

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Back to summer!

As hoped we rode off the ferry and back into the long awaited summer. Heat, wind and sun hit our faces and layers were quickly removed. Having grown up in a place with long, hot summers and recently lived in a place where summer lasts for about 2 weeks (this year being an exception obviously) I don’t think I realised quite how much I would miss the warmth and sunlight until our cold and rather dreary (weather wise) 5 weeks in Iceland. I don’t want to take away from Iceland. It is a magical place and I am so happy we went it’s just that the worst summer in 100 years put an ever so slight dampener (pun intended) on our experience.

Our first stop was the supermarket where we bought all the things we hadn’t been able to afford in Iceland. Like hummus, fresh fruit and good bread. We gorged ourselves and then headed for the northern point of Denmark, Skagen. Here the North Sea and the Baltic meet and it was a popular place for impressionist painters in the late 19th century due to it’s unique light. We were mainly going because Carsten had told us we must. And Hannah’s parents had so kindly lent us their house (they were on holiday) so it seemed the perfect place to relax and re group after Iceland.

Arriving in Skagen after a swim in the sea and a day of sunshine our spirits were high. Having an entire house after 7 weeks in the tent was also complete luxury. I am deeply grateful for the kindness we so often receive. We relished the chance to drink wine in the garden, bake focaccia, do yoga, meditate, wash our clothes and relax. During the day we visited the seaside, ate sorbet, walked around the town (a popular tourist destination) and watched the sunset (where everyone claps when the sun finally sinks below the horizon). It definitely felt like a summer holiday.

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Sorbet!

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Craft beers in the park

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Breakfast in the garden

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Beautiful sunsets

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Watermelon anyone? All our clothes are being washed!

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we can afford to eat salad again!

After a few days it was time to tear ourselves away from the luxury and head south. It was hard to leave but we were excited to see Hannah and Carsten in Aarhus and meet up with Bec who was coming to join us. The three days it took us to cycle down to Aarhus opened us up to a few surprising things. Firstly we found loads of fruit on the side of the road apparently going to waste, so we picked it. Next we found an entire dumpster full of artisan bread outside a supermarket, we also helped ourselves to that. Then, on an afternoon swim we found mussels and after some discussion we helped ourselves to a few of those too. Mussels are one of those borderline things where due to a lack of central nervous system some articles argue they are more like plants than animals. They don’t for instance react or move away from painful stimuli. And from an environmental perspective they rate quite well. I love mussels (we both do) and so after some deliberation we took a few of those too. It felt wonderful and surprising to have been able to forage a large part of our food in a country as developed as Denmark.

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Dumpster dived

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Foraged (aside from the bread!)

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So much fruit!

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Fresh bread from the dumpster

At night we slept at some of the best shelters we had encountered yet. One was like a mansion cubby house, built in the dunes with a view out to the sea. Another boasted running water, a toilet, multiple shelters and even recycle bins (so European). The landscape itself was baked dry from the long, harsh summer. The browns, yellows and bright blue of the sky reminded me more of home than how I thought about northern Europe. I must say, I enjoyed it immensely.

In Aarhus we were warmly greeted by Hanna and Carsten and proceeded like usual to mess up their lovely flat with our chaotic panniers and dirty clothes. Being cycle tourist themselves they completely understood and pointed us towards the washing machine and shower. It was wonderful to share food and wine and catch up with friends. It had been a while since we had spent any time with people we knew.

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So happy to see Carsten

The following day we embarked on a mission that could have gone horribly wrong. For a while now Astrid has been riding on a seat that is too low. Unfortunately we didn’t know that one needs to regularly grease the seat post, otherwise the aluminium post and steel of the bike sheer together in an unmovable mess. After consulting Carsten (who knows a lot more about bikes than us) and visiting his cousins bike shop for tools, Astrid bravely cut the seat post off. Now we were committed. In order to continue our trip, we needed to saw the remaining seat post out of the bike in order to fit a new one. At least 10cm of the post (still firmly stuck in) needed to be removed. It seemed an easy enough task and Astrid and Carsten started off in high spirits. By 7pm with many hours already spent seemingly achieving nothing, a mild panic set in. What would happen if we couldn’t get it out? Would Astrid’s bike be completely fucked? And what about Bec, who was arriving the next day to cycle with us?

While Carsten and Astrid slaved away I made food and occasionally had a go at sawing myself. I think we all went to bed thinking about that damn seat post.

The next day armed with fresh enthusiasm that a rest brings, Carsten and Astrid rode off to the bike shop to use some more heavy duty tools. Several hours later I got the good news that they had been successful. What a relief.

We then picked up Bec and proceeded to have a lovely evening and night, exploring Aarhus and eating lots of delicious food. It was wonderful to spend a few days with Carsten and Hannah and sad to say goodbye. Hopefully they will be able to join us on the road at some point.

The summer holiday vibes continued with Bec as we rode towards Copenhagen, hugging the coast. Pedalling was followed by a swim, then lunch somewhere by the sea. In the afternoons there was sorbet, or sometimes beer. We also continued to dumpster dive, finding an unbelievable amount of unspoiled food. In the evenings we found shelters or forests to camp by, cooking up delicious curries, washed down with beer. Although not used to cycling such big distances, and not on her own bicycle, Bec, like always was amazing. She powered through with high spirits, even though at times it must have been hard. It’s always such a pleasure to share our lives with friends and we feel so humbled and grateful that Bec made the effort to join us.

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Badass cyclogang

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Fresh veg from the side of the road

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Hiding from a summer rain storm

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Our last day into Copenhagen we even managed to “tourist”. Exploring the castle Hamlet is set in and the Louisiana MoMA (which is amazing). Our good luck also continued, or should I say Carsten continued to be amazing. We had no plan of where to stay in Copenhagen. Warmshowers, while excellent has it’s limitations. A popular city in the heart of the European summer; frankly many hosts are themselves out on cycling holidays. After sending several requests with nothing, we had left Aarhus with nowhere to stay but deep down I knew something would work out. And it did. Carsten’s cousin had a small summer cottage 15km from the centre and she just happened to be going away that weekend and was happy to lend us the cottage. Perfect. It felt wonderful to have our own place in which to relax after three awesome days of cycling.

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Our little cottage outside of Copenhagen

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Long lazy breakfast

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Did we kill Bec?!

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Excited with wine!

After exploring Copenhagen and gorging ourselves on an all you can eat Chinese vegan buffet it was time to say goodbye to Bec. It was sad to see her go but there are already plans in the working to meet again in November.

We explored Copenhagen a bit more after Bec’s train departed and then retreated to our cottage just before the thunderstorm hit and it rained all night. Now it was time to make a decision. We had been talking for days about where we would head next. Our original plan had been Sweden and then the Baltic States, followed by Poland and then south. We looked at maps and counted kilometres and considered the eventual arrival of autumn. By chance Astrid had found a Danish Island called Bornholm from which one could catch a ferry to Poland. We also talked about riding through northern Germany to Poland (to save on ferry fees). Or perhaps sticking to the original plan. Eventually we decided that in all reality we probably didn’t have enough time to really explore the Baltic States and Sweden properly as we wanted to be in southern Europe to celebrate Astrid’s 40th in November and Egypt probably by early to mid December. Bornholm seemed like an interesting and direct way we could get to Poland and from there continue south.

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Exploring

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All the tourists crowding the little mermaid statue!

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Copenhagen is a cyclists dream

After a prolonged morning packing we headed off towards Koge from where we would catch the overnight ferry to Bornholm. It was a fairly uninspiring ride, although we managed to successfully dumpster dive a ridiculous amount of food (including still cold and in date salmon) which we cooked up at the ferry terminal. We got a lot of comments about how good our food smelt. If only they knew our entire meal bar the garlic and oil had come from the dumpster, destined to rot and go to waste.

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Perfectly edible dumpster dived food

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At the ferry terminal cooking

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Our almost 100% dumpster dived meal

Being seasoned travellers, or maybe because we don’t care Astrid and I both slept well on the ferry. Unlike our fellow passengers who uncomfortably (it seemed) curled up on seats, we had brought our mats and sleeping bags and made ourselves quite at home, sleeping more or less soundly as the ferry headed eastwards.

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On the ferry to Bornholm

Bornholm proved to be as wonderful as every Danish person we met had told us it would be. On our first morning we cooked breakfast on a pier and then swam in the sea, followed by a lovely pedal through the forest. The landscape was beautiful with sea cliffs, forests and gorgeous villages. We explored a fort, marvelled at the old smoke houses and spent a delightful afternoon relaxing in a free camping spot in a clearing.

After only a short time on Bornholm it was time to finally bid Denmark farewell and head to Poland. Neither of us had ever been and we were super excited to be moving on to this large eastern European country of which we knew very little.

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The Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands

 

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A Faroese Village

We decided to go to the Faroe’s almost on a whim. The ferry stops there and you can get off for 72 hours for the same price as going directly back to Denmark. So we thought why not?

I must admit by the time we were leaving Iceland the Faroe’s just seemed like another cold, wet place preventing me from getting back to summer and our enthusiasm was not at its highest.

However things have a way of working out and in the campground we met Torhallur, a native Faroese guy in his 70’s who’d been cycle touring on Iceland. After a few conversations he invited us to camp in his yard, which was soon upgraded to his living room.

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The ever present (or so it seems) sea mist

fullsizeoutput_a37The ferry docked around 3am and while Astrid had been sleeping I had decided to ‘have a few beers’ with a German cycle tourist. This had turned into an all night whiskey drinking session. It seems you can take me away from London, but I haven’t quite shed my London ways. None the less, thanks to Astrid (who had packed up everything) we rolled off the ferry in a timely fashion and followed Torhallur into the damp and heavy sea mist. It’s always mildly discombobulating arriving at a place in the semi dark (darkness for the first time in months!) and this was accentuated by the cragged out lines of rocks and a swirling white fog. It seemed fittingly atmospheric in a place as remote and mysterious as the Faroe Islands.

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Just off the ferry

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Almost there

It was a 12km ride through sea mist and up hills to Torhallur’s place who lived in a traditional Faroese house. Inside his beautiful home the place perfectly reflected his eccentricities; all wood, books, antique furniture and high speed wireless Internet. We sat down to a mish mash of what was left in our panniers and strong coffee while Torhallur smoked a pipe. You can’t make this stuff up.

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Torhallur’s house

After a nap we caught the bus into the main town and capital of the Faroe’s, Torshavn. And then we marched in Faroese Pride. As you do. Seems we had arrived on the biggest weekend of the year. Not only was it Faroe pride, but it was also their national holiday Olavsoka.

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Pride!

Olavsoka is a sporting and cultural festival and the opening of the Faroese parliament. Torhallur warned us it was actually a huge national drinking session. After marching in pride and listening to speeches none of which we could understand, we ate a falafel, drank a beer and caught the bus home. Torhallur chided us for being home so early but we wanted to save our energy for the following day when Olavsoka actually kicked off.

A calm morning preceded the chaos that followed. In the afternoon we pedalled our bikes into Torshavn so we would have a way of getting home (or so we thought). We were armed with a water bottle full of whiskey and a lot of enthusiasm. People were everywhere, walking around in their national costumes and the atmosphere was one of celebration and fun. We watched the boat races, walked around and just enjoyed the atmosphere. At one point we stumbled into an art gallery/printing press run by some friendly Danish people. After showing us around they invited us to share some food and drinks. A quick stop turned into a couple of hours of chatting and drinking as people dropped by the gallery. Some were locals, some expats, some Faroese who lived abroad. There was an interesting conversation about eating whales. A local man explained that they eat whales because they come directly from the immediate environment and only the ones that are not endangered. From an environmental perspective this does make sense. It’s like eating yaks in Tibet, a place where little else grows or can survive. While the Faroese aren’t as remote as Tibet, they are pretty far away with a seemingly rough climate and they must import a lot of their food. In many ways in makes sense to eat what is local (providing it is not endangered). Many people would feel more uncomfortable about eating a whale than say a cow, but frankly that seems quite speciest. Why is a cow’s life worth less than a whales? They are both sentient beings. I certainly don’t have all the answers and am still working this all out. Generally though I am uncomfortable eating any animal products. But it was interesting to hear and learn about this rather controversial subject.

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After 5 weeks of not drinking much, why did we think this was a good idea?

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Looking cool on the ride in

We moved on to a bar where Torhallur found us and took us visiting. There was a lot of food, too much aquavit, many lovely people and blurry memories. At some point Astrid went home. At another point I found myself walking the 12km home, having lost the key to our bikes and a fair bit of memory.

Luckily, we were able to retrieve the keys the following day (otherwise leaving would have proved difficult). After managing to squeeze in a visit to the national gallery we rode our bikes back to Torhallur’s and prepared to leave the Faroe’s.

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Ready to go. Outside Torhallur’s place

What a lovely man Torhallur was to offer us a place to stay and show us a little of the life here on this remote string of Islands. I don’t think we could have asked for a better experience.

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Torhallur was so kind to host us

Torhavn was already in full swing for it’s second night of festivities by the time we rolled into town to the ferry port. I was a little sad to go, I don’t honestly know if we’ll ever be back. It is a mystical, otherworldly place that certainly deserves more time.

We secured our bikes in the now familiar spot and headed down to our dungeon dorm room and went for a much needed 12 hour sleep as the ferry gently sailed out of the harbour and towards Denmark and the half forgotten summer.

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How dreams compare to reality – a cycle through Iceland during the worst summer in 100 years.

Dream cycle tour destinations:

  1. Iceland
  2. Oman
  3. Africa – west coast

A list scrawled in the back of my diary from our last cycle tour.

After an epic 14-day dash from London to Hirtshals, we were now stood in the line of cars, campervans and motorcycles about to board the Smyril-Line ferry to Seydisfjordur, for a five week romp through Iceland.  I had butterflies in my stomach. The type brought on by the excitement and anxiety of embarking on something one has dreamed of, hoping that reality will compare to the dream. 35 days and a few thousand kilometres of cycling on a shoestring budget through the wilderness of Iceland would give me an answer.

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The Iceland of my dreams.

Getting there.

It’s a 46-hour ferry ride to Iceland. At times like these our morals (no short haul flights due to their environmental impact) and our budget have a boxing match. As usual our morals threw the winning punch and we opted for the cheapest ferry tickets available – about 700 Euros each, return. For double the budget of our entire time in Iceland, we slept on a plastic mattress in a tiny, stuffy, overheated 6-bed dorm room in the bowels of the boat. Even our bikes had a better deck than we did. In addition to our ‘dungeon’, we could also partake in one meal a day at the Dinner – an all you can eat meat fest with overcooked veggies – a vegan’s bad dream. Then there was the full day of seasickness, which saw me curled up in a corner feeling like I wanted to die. Reality sucks sometimes.

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Diary writing on the boat

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When I could still eat.

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The start of the rain.

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The Smyril-line ferry.

First impressions.

On the third morning, I spotted land. Snow capped peaks crowned grey-green mountains rising out of the deep blue waters. The sun glistened in a clear blue sky and a whale crested in the wake of the ferry. I ran from window to window like an excited child as the Eastern fjords reached out like the fingers of a friend welcoming us. We docked at the colourful port of Seydisfjordur and the relaxed, friendly vibe saw us heading to the campground eager to spend time exploring the surrounding mountains and celebrate mid-summer in this vibrant village. That afternoon we hiked up the Vestdulur Valley in the glorious summer sun. Five vibrant green plateaus were tiered together by gushing waterfalls, and above the snow line a frozen lake awaited us. On our return we celebrated the summer solstice with good tunes, vegan sausages and the last of our duty free, full strength beer. Crawling into bed after midnight we were overjoyed by our first day and the beauty that surrounded us.

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Our first sighting of the Eastern fjords made my heart leap 🙂

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The colourful port of Seydisfjordur.

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The tiers of the Vestdulur Valley.

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Jude reaching the next plateau of the Vestdulur Valley.

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It’s summertime at the snow line in Iceland.

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Jude walking on the snow towards the frozen lake.

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On the way back to Seydisfjordur and our vegan summer solstice celebration.

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Gay pride street, Seydisfjordur.

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Celebrating mid-summer with beer 🙂

Early days.

Our plan was simple – to circumnavigate Iceland by bicycle for four weeks and then spend a week hiking in the mountains. But which way should we go? After chatting to the locals we were convinced that heading northwards first would be best, both for the better weather (it was pouring in the south and west) and because this was meant to be the less touristy part of Iceland. Hitting the road was delayed by a little thing called the World Cup, as Iceland was playing Nigeria that afternoon and they were showing the match on the big screen in the community hall. As it never gets dark this time of year, we reasoned that we could stay for the match and still cycle for few hours afterwards. So that afternoon, along with the locals, we lived and breathed every excitement and heartbreak of Iceland’s unfortunate defeat by Nigeria. Pulling on our warmer gear we reasoned that a 650-metre ascent with a 10% gradient most of the way, would be the perfect antidote to the loss, and we were right. Sweating and panting, we realised that we were not as hill fit as we used to be. Luckily this changed over the next few weeks.

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Don’t judge – I’m carb loading before the big game and cycle.

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The climb out of Seydisfjordur.

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Having a peanut butter sandwich at the top.

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Cycling along top of the pass out of Seydisfjordur.

Reaching the top of the pass a huge valley opened before us, and mountain range after mountain range filled the horizon. We followed this valley northwards as I was determined to fulfill another desire – that of seeing puffins – even if it meant a 70 kilometre detour over another pass. Borgarfjordur Eystri is the home of a 10,000 strong puffin colony. These iconic, funny looking birds, bring so much joy. Especially when they are either taking off or landing. You’d think evolution could have made them a little more graceful but they look so uncoordinated – like they are going to crash at any minute. We spent a couple of hours watching them walk about, leave/return from fishing and posing for the tourists – including us.

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The valley north.

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Chilling on the side of the road while Jude has a pee.

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Borgarfjordur Eystri

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Watching puffins.

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Puffins!!

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Puffins love to pose for us tourists.

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Puffin love.

We had seen it a little, but here at the puffin colony we were to have our first real exposure to what I called Tourist Photo Syndrome (TPS). And I must admit it was rife for our whole time in Iceland with the disease becoming more prevalent the closer we got to the Golden Triangle area. It’s basic pathology consists of tourists arriving at a place of beauty or animal life, and instead of taking some time to just be in the moment and enjoy whatever it was that drew them there, they would photograph it for a few minutes and then leave. In extreme cases, after photographing they wouldn’t leave, but instead they would sit and look at the photos they just took, or prepare them then and there for uploading on to social media. And don’t even get me started on people who use drones. When I was feeling particularly annoyed at such behaviour, my favourite thing to do was to sit in a prime position and enjoy the view for about 15 minutes with groups of increasingly frustrated TPS sufferers getting annoyed that I was ruining their perfect photograph by sitting in it. Childish I know, but it did bring me glee, as well as time to enjoy the place I had cycled so far to see.

Interactions with Icelanders.

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with 335,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in Reykjavik. During that time, 10% of the population were also in Russia watching the World Cup live. One of our favourite things about travelling is meeting and getting to know the people who live there, but so far our interactions with Icelanders had been very limited. Most tourist businesses are staffed with foreign workers over the summer, and at those that weren’t our interactions were limited to fleeting moments of small talk. So when Elissa and her children (who we met at the campground in Seydisfjordur) invited us to visit them on their farm, we jumped at the chance. We arrived late, after 100 kilometres of rough cycling mostly into a headwind. Luckily life in Hrafnabjorg is organised chaos of the best kind, and within moments of arriving we were sat around a table with our new friends and their friends, eating, drinking and learning about life in Iceland. Summers sound glorious but full of hard work, winters sound long and cold, but also beautiful in a different way. Turns out that knitting is best thing to do in times of bad weather. After 5 weeks of spending lots of time sheltering from bad weather, we agree!

We had planned to leave the following morning but were invited to stay an extra day as a yellow weather warning had been declared. Extreme winds were due to arrive overnight and continue the following day. How bad could they be, we though naively. We woke to the sound of a faint howling through the thick brick walls. Everything outside was standing side-wards and when we stepped outdoors the gusts almost blew us over. Humbled, we agreed to stay and leant a hand with the farm work. This mainly involved hugging baby goats (I LOVE goats!) and trying to herd bulls from one barn to another, which is harder than it sounds. Cycle touring provides you with the most random experiences.

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Outside the house of fun, Hfranabjorg.

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The crazy wind blowing the grass flat.

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Chilling with the horses on the way to the farm.

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Preparing for bull herding.

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Goats!!!

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Baby goat love.

Epic scenery.

Epic, diverse, majestic and spectacular are all adjectives I continually used to describe the scenery in my diary. I hadn’t felt such space and wilderness for years. The sky seemed endless, lakes and glaciers would fill my whole visual field. From the grandeur of the Eastern fjords, up the fertile river valley flanked by the snow capped Dyrfjoll and Smjorfjoll ranges, we climbed up to the lunar landscape of the highlands. Jude and I love such desert landscapes. The subtle differences in colour, the small details of plants and wildlife you would miss if you were in a car, provided delight as the cycling got tougher as the road deteriorated. Volcanoes would rise like solitary sentinels from the earth. The blue Jokulsa river cut like a gash through the brown parched earth. Waterfalls like Detifoss, Godafoss and Gullfoss, would make the earth tremble beneath you, and sitting next to them would be a full sensory experience. You could believe that the canyon at Asbyrgi, was created by the hoof of Odin’s eight legged flying horse Sleipnir, landing on the earth. We watched for whales in the mirror like seas as we rounded peninsulas in north. Grass and moss were slowly reclaiming the cracked lava fields near lake Myvatn. My favourite day of cycling was crossing Trollaskagi along the Lagheidi road. Most people take the tunnels that run under the peaks while we enjoyed the solitude of the lush green valleys that climbed between snow capped mountains with waterfalls gushing down their sides. It reminded us of mountainous places dear to our hearts – especially Kyrgyzstan and the European Alps. As the weather deteriorated, we gave up on our dream of cycling in the Western fjords. Instead we opted for some F roads and Route 35, which cut a path in the desolate highlands between the incredible glaciers Hofsjokull and Langjokull. Steam and boiling water spouted out of the earth in the otherworldly geothermal areas of Hveravellir and Geysir. Due to the weather and the intense amount of tourists, we opted to spend as little time in the Golden Triangle as possible. Making a dash for the southern coast we spent a week with the Atlantic Sea and fields of black sand and lava to our right and a never-ending mass of ancient sea cliffs, waterfalls and glaciers to our left. This wilderness has left a lasting impression deep in my soul and the reality of such natural beauty was far beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of.

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The road into Borgarfjordur Eystri.

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Hiking into Strorud.

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Through the lunar landscape.

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Loving the rocky landscape.

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Sunrise with a volcano.

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The Jokulsa River.

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The earth-shaking Detifoss.

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Asbyrgi

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Taking a moment to enjoy the scenery.

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Early mornings along the northern coast.

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My favourite day of cycling – the Lagheidi Road.

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Loving the Trollaskagi peninsula.

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View from our afternoon rest spot.

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Through the middle.

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Heading up to the high roads.

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Geysir geo-thermal area.

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Hveravellir geo-thermal area.

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Steam!!

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Red flowers, black sand and green cliffs: such a beautiful contrast.

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The ancient sea cliffs of the south coast.

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Icebergs like giant diamonds on the beach.

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Glacier!!!

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More glaciers!!!

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Viking village of the south east.

The weather.

Everyone knows that Iceland’s weather can be unpredictable. Jude’s and my biggest disagreements prior to going would revolve around the type of weather we would experience while there. I dreamed of mild sunny days and cold nights, like we had experienced in Scotland the previous month. Jude would warn me that we were in for five weeks of cold, wet and windy weather. Even looking at the awful forecast before leaving could not dissuade me to give up on my Icelandic ideal. And the first week or so was glorious. We wore t-shirts and shorts cycling. I got sunburnt. Picnic lunches were followed by naps in the warm afternoon sun. There was the occasional cloud or short-lived rain shower, but to me it was perfect. Even Jude admitted that it far exceeded her expectations.

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Glorious, warm, sunny days.

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Even when cloudy it is warm enough for shorts and t-shirt.

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We loved the blue sky days.

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Even Jude agreed that the weather was better than she expected.

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Views are always nicer in the sunshine.

And then it all changed. The cold, clouds and rain became like annoying, unwanted guests to our cycle touring party. While England and Europe were experiencing the hottest and driest summer in centuries, Iceland was having the worst summer in over 100 years of recorded history. While our friends drank cold beers in parks and rooftop bars, we sheltered for hours, sometimes days, in our tent or anywhere dry that we could find. We would read, knit, write in our diaries and drink copious cups of tea to pass the time. Thankfully almost all supermarkets have a self-serve café style seated section in them where you can sit and eat, charge your devices and wait for the front to pass.

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And then it all changed…

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But we made the most of it – days of biscuits and tea in the tent.

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Hiding from the rain behind buildings to cook breakfast.

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… or to drink a light beer in the freezing cold ?!?

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Days in the tent meant time for pancake breakfasts.

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When the campsite kitchen is full and you have to cook dinner in the rain.

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So grateful for the supermarket cafe-style areas that were warm and dry.

The glorious views disappeared, obscured like grey curtains falling at a theatre – nothing to see here, the show is over, go home. During these days, the only way I knew that I was in Iceland was by the familiar spring flowers that were still blooming on the roadside, the distinctive Icelandic horses in the fields and the birds that would constantly fly alongside us squawking alarms to others at our approach. Occasionally the cloud would lift a little, showing the base of a cliff or a waterfall, but like a woman only showing her ankles, we knew that the best bits were still above.

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The views disappeared.

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Sometimes even Jude did, but then appeared like a shadow on the horizon.

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Sometimes the views weren’t all obscured.

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Yet the low lying cloud did hide the top of everything.

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Occasionally you would get a fleeting glimpse of something.

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But that grey curtain still hung low.

Some days the weather did not bother us and we rode into the rain and wind singing songs to ourselves, enjoying just being alive. On others, I would be soaked through to my underpants, wearing five layers of clothing just to keep warm while riding uphill, and a mixture of anger and regret would come bubbling to the surface. The fact that my waterproof jacket was no longer waterproof did not help either. Being in the elements makes us feel alive. That is why we love cycle touring so much. But for us there is a limit to how much cold, wet and wind we can tolerate before it sinks in and wears on our souls, and by the end of the forth week we had both reached that point.

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It may be cold, wet and cloudy…

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Yet you can smile and be happy.

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And sometimes you can’t

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And sometimes you just need a cup of tea.

The riding and routine.

It takes a few days to figure out the best routine for each country. The elements, traffic and access to water are our biggest considerations when determining how we would structure our days. Quickly we realised that the wind would pick up around 9-10am making riding more difficult and the tourists would come out about the same time putting our sanity and safety in danger with their TPS and driving. As it was light all the time and as cyclists, we could legally camp anywhere on the roadside as long as there was not a campground nearby, stopping time did not need to rely on nightfall as it does in some other countries. Therefore we chose to wake at 4am, have a skinny dip in the nearest body of water (as discussed in the Scotland blog, this is one of the most exhilarating experiences we know of), watch the sun come above the horizon as we drank tea/coffee and ate breakfast (thus also avoiding the hundreds of flies that were still dormant at this hour), and start pedalling just after 5am. We would then have close to four glorious hours of traffic-free cycling and tourist-free exploring. We stopped every two hours for a rest and snack, and by 5pm we were searching for a place to pitch our tent for the night. Each was as spectacular as the next, but the most memorable was by a glacial lake with icebergs floating by, with three glaciers visible from my tent door. Once the tent was set up it was time to drink copious amounts of tea, write our diaries, meditate, sketch, practice headstands, knit/crochet, write to friends, route plan and our favourite activity – eat!

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The day would start while the moon was still up.

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We would have a daily wash.

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Wherever we could find it.

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And then be ready to hit the road.

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We would have the road to ourselves.

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For a few precious hours.

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Then we would stop to eat the fruit that we had dumpster dived.

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Or make a full second breakfast.

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Later we would stop for tea.

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And then some lunch.

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We would dry our tent and clothes when the sun came out.

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And before finding a place to camp, get ourselves some food.

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Then there would be time to meditate.

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Or have a cup of tea and biscuit.

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Practice headstands.

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Set up camp.

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Make dinner.

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Eat dinner.

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Write our diaries.

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And sometimes even sit by a fire.

We tried as much as possible to avoid riding on the Ring Road, Route 1, as this was the one most tourists, buses, trucks and pretty much everyone in a car would use. This found us consulting our free cycling map and chatting to locals for the best alternative routes and we found some brilliant back roads. Some were paved, some gravel, some newly graded, others in a state of washboard disrepair. The roads climbed steadily, with the occasional white-knuckle descent, which added to the pleasure of cycling after a fortnight of flat riding. Being used to European styles of driving, we abhorred the total disregard for cyclist’s safety by the drivers in Iceland. Basically the driving was shit. Too fast, too close and way too aggressive, especially when we had to ride on Route 1 as there was no other alternative. Our sanity saver was our music blasted through a portable speaker that one of us would attach to our bikes for the afternoon. You can’t get that upset bopping along, singing full voiced to Cindy Lauper, Crowded House or Belle & Sebastian.

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The riding.

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Sometimes we would route plan together.

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At other times alone with a cup of tea.

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We would try and find routes where this was the only traffic.

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Or where we could enjoy our cycling.

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Gravel roads over passes were our favourites.

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Though sometimes the gravel was so loose you had to push.

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Occasionally you had to lift your bike over a face to get to them.

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And then there would be no-one around for miles.

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Better a corrugated road than one with drivers.

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Sometimes there were tunnels.

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At others there was the high road.

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But a smooth quiet road is the best.

The hot springs.

As much as I complained about the bad weather, our first hot spring experience was brought about by it. We were cycling out of Husavik and due to the cold, spotted steam rising from a lake just behind some bushes next to the road. We pulled over, put our frozen hands in, and within seconds we were stripping off to get the rest of our bodies warm. Happy at having located our first free thermal pool, we pedaled on in the rain oblivious until later that we had just swam in the outlet of the town’s heating. The rest of our experiences were in actual geothermal springs. The hot tub and infinity pool overlooking the sea in Hofsos, the natural pool next to a waterfall near Varmahlid, the superhot pool at Hveravellir and the random tub on the side of the road that the universe guided me to when I was almost in tears from cold and frustration one particularly bleak afternoon. Most towns also have swimming pools and hot tubs that can be accessed for a small fee. It’s amazing how on the road hot water can change a shit day to a great one. And before you ask, no we didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon. You now us: too commercial, too expensive and just not our style.

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Our first, err, hot spring…

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Infinity pool in Hofsos.

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We got this one all to ourselves for an hour.

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The day saver hot tub.

The emotional stuff.

Cycle touring is life amplified. Being constantly exposed to so much stimuli, the highs feel higher and the lows, lower. I found this even more so in Iceland, which is a country of such extremes. Extremes of beauty, and unfortunately for us, the extremes of weather. In most countries the saving grace is the kindness of people and the interactions that you have. Iceland was the first country we have cycled to where I felt mostly uncared for and isolated. Almost everyone we met was a tourist, there for short trip, only interested in ticking off the next thing on their list of things to see/do. Iceland is expensive, so people seemed more loath to share in what they had. We would get looks of confusion when we offered to share our tea and biscuits with others, and such small things like this that are abundant elsewhere in the world were not forthcoming here. That is not to say that there weren’t moments and people whose kindness was a saving grace. Elissa and her family, Bee who pulled over and offered to cook us dinner and stocked us up on food and coffee the next time we ran into her, the kind lady at the café in the highlands, the couple who offered us shelter when our tent ripped and broke in a storm, the Icelandic man who chatted for an hour with me in the hot tub in Vik, the other cycle tourists that we met and shared experiences and a laugh with. You will all be etched in my heart forever – thank you. But in the end the bad weather, the terrible driving, the millions of tourists, the cost of things, the grey curtain hiding the scenery, it all slowly wore us down. Despite moments of joy and beauty in the last week, we felt trapped there. We longed to get to Europe and the sunshine.

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Sometimes a look can say it all.

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No matter who does it.

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Dreaming of the European summer.

Writing about Iceland has been difficult. I couldn’t do it straight after we left, as the experience and my emotions were so immense. As you read, by the end we just wanted to get out of there and to write in such a mindset would not be fair to the reality of our cycle through Iceland. It took a few weeks for the brilliance of this trip to shine through again.   I now sit here fondly recalling our time, the people, the landscape, the camping, the early mornings, the freedom and the immense impact that Iceland had on my soul.

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Enjoying a light beer on the top of the pass on our way back to Seydisfjordur.

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Our final dinner in Iceland.

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Very happy to be getting on the ferry and out of the rain.

The End.

 

More scenery if you so wish….