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….

Denmark is Awesome

 

It began raining just before the border and continued steadily for the next two hours or so that it took us to reach Carsten’s (a friend from London) family home in the village of Bolderslev. Wet and dirty we were welcomed with open arms by Carsten’s mum Christa and his sister Lea. It was a familiar feeling of deep gratitude from almost complete strangers and we appreciated the hospitality so much. Not only could we shower, escape the rain, wash our clothes, but Christa had even cooked us a vegan meal. Amazing. I will never stop being so utterly thankful and humbled by the kindness we receive.

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Hmmmm this was just over the border!

We woke to sun and after a lazy breakfast (sampling many Danish treats) Christa and Lea left for work with goodbyes and instructions of how to lock up. Astrid had to run to the post office where her new bankcard had miraculously arrived in 4 days from London and both our chains needed a cleaning. After some bike maintenance and random chores we had neglected so far, it was time to head off.

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So kind to be hosted by Carsten’s family

To cycle from the south of Denmark to the ferry port of Hirtshals we had decided (on the advice of Carsten) to take the Haervejen which was an ancient trading route which in the past was actually a series of small roads linking the south to the north. Now it is a biking and hiking path traversing through the picturesque Danish countryside. I like taking trails like this as they are often off road and it’s lovely to just follow signs rather than having to use maps on our phones and remember routes (something I am not super good at!). We set off and were soon winding our way through rural Denmark on small roads and tracks through the forest, passed farms and into villages and towns. While the pressure was still on to make it to Hirtshals we felt more relaxed. Germany was behind us and all that remained were a few 100km.

The first day in a new country is always a little bit the same and a little bit exciting. Being Europe, the differences aren’t huge but important none the less. Firstly, how much is our money worth? We used to work from Australian dollars but now use pounds (which makes us feel falsely richer). Next, is there a Lidl and what do they sell, especially do they sell hummus and what vegan products do they have? Is the bread good? And beer? How friendly are car drivers and what is the bicycle infrastructure like? And lastly, how easy is it to wild camp?

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We really love these buildings, found all over the countryside

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Denmark is more expensive than Germany (not hard), there is indeed Lidl (less vegan products but it does have hummus), there are loads of bike paths, drivers are mostly good,  but best of all, wild camping is amazing in Denmark. This is due to something called shelters. Basically a system of shelters built all over Denmark where you are allowed to free camp. These shelters can include literally a wooden shelter in which to put your sleeping bag, a fire pit, wood, access to water, toilets and sometimes even a shower (we’ve heard). They are amazing and an app lets you view them on a map and see what is available at each shelter (it’s in Danish but pretty easy to figure out). We are used to hiding ourselves away in forests or parks so this was utter luxury.

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First lunch time

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The amazing shelter

Our first night camping in Denmark found us stumbling across a shelter (we had been planning to go to another one) in a clearing in some woods, with a fire already going and some friendly Dutch cycle tourists who also happened to be ICU nurses. They offered us dinner and some kind of spirits. A night of merriment ensued.

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Relaxing with fellow cyclists 

Travelling by bike in many ways is a microcosm of life; one minute everything is going along smoothly, the next you are wondering what the hell went wrong. You feel the highs and lows acutely because there is no hiding, just you and your bike out in the world. While cycling in Europe these highs and lows are certainly less extreme,  but they do still exist. From our perfect camp in the woods by a fire, we went to sheltering outside a supermarket in torrential rain, dirty, cold and wet. To top it off I got a flat tyre.

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The not so glamorous side to bike travel..

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Sheltering in a supermarket

But from a relative low we pushed back out into the summer storm, pedalling through beautiful woods and sheltering under trees when the rain got particularly heavy. It’s often about shifting or adjusting your thinking, too. While being wet can be uncomfortable, it wasn’t really cold and the strength of the thunderstorm was an acute reminder of the power of nature and always makes me feel awed and inspired.

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The beautiful rainy forest 

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Sheltering from the worst of it

By evening the rain had ceased and we reached another shelter in the forest and met Alex. Alex is a Ukrainian asylum seeker and a reminder of the (potential) grace and strength of humanity and the cruelty of systems. After fleeing war and seeking asylum, Alex who is an engineer by trade has been forced to live on the road (he rides a big Danish bicycle, staying at shelters and occasionally with families). The road to us embodies freedom, because we choose it, and can equally leave at any time. Alex does not have that privilege and is instead relying on the cruelly slow bureaucratic nightmare that is seeking asylum in todays Europe (not that Denmark is even close to being the worst).   Until his asylum claims are dealt with (several years so far), he cannot leave the EU, nor really work, or see his children. His life is effectively on hold. It was a sobering reminder of our own privilege. We spent a wonderful evening sharing a fire, food and conversation with this most excellent human.

Our ferry departure was getting closer so on our last two days we decided to ditch the Haervejen and take a more direct route north. We were still on small roads and often bike paths. Denmark is certainly up there with cycling infrastructure. I would put it third behind Netherlands and Germany for it’s overall network of paths and roads (obviously Copenhagen is special and right up there with bike awesomeness).

It was about this time that Astrid became a ‘eco warrior cyclo bum’ (her phrase). What this meant was that she would collect cans and bottles on the side of the road, carry them in a plastic bag on her bike and then recycle them at supermarkets. Most cans and bottles have ‘pant’ which means that you get money (in the form of a refund docket) back and can then spend it at the supermarket. Not only does this clean up the environment, it also gives us some krona. She became quite obsessed and I would have to be careful when cycling behind her as she was likely to slam on the brakes and go diving into the woods to retrieve a potential ‘pant’. Sadly, some of the cans don’t carry pant but we pick them up anyway as it seems the right thing to do.

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Trying to convince the slug to leave the can..

On our final evening before leaving for Iceland we met up with fellow bicycle travellers, Lucy, Colin and their dog Tilly. We had met Lucy and Colin at the cycle touring festival in the UK and stayed loosely in contact via social media. They are on an extended honeymoon/bicycle adventure through Europe and were headed towards Norway, which perfectly coincided with our route towards Iceland. So we decided a catch up was in order on our collective last night in Denmark. We met at a shelter which was in the middle of a village park and even had a fire pit (but randomly no toilet). There was lots to talk about and we all banded together to cook up a vegan feast complete with hot chocolate and a delicious dessert. It’s always such a pleasure to spend time with like minded people and we talked late into the night.

Lucy, Colin and Tilly left early the next day to catch their ferry to Norway. We pottered about before rolling the 4kms down the hill to Hirtshals where we stocked up on last minute things in the supermarket (Iceland is rumoured to be insanely expensive) before heading to the port and joining the queue for the 2 day Smyrill Line ferry to Iceland. Exciting!

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In the line for Iceland!

 

 

Cycling Paradise – Welcome to The Netherlands.

Belgium border via the North Sea cycle route to Den Haag (The Hague) -> Breda -> Amsterdam -> Breda -> Hoek van Holland.

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Cycling Paradise.

When most people think of the Netherlands, visions of tulips, wooden clogs and windmills spring to mind.  For me, first and foremost it’s bicycles.  After decades of cycle friendly laws and infrastructure spending, Holland can claim its well earned title as the cycling capital of the world.  There are more bikes per capita than cars, more people cycle than drive and the easily navigable maze of bike paths that criss cross the country make this cycling paradise.

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Cycling towards the Belgium/Holland border

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Welcome to the cycling capital of the world – The Netherlands.

Crossing early in the morning from Belgium into Holland, we were excited about hitting the cycle routes, reaching the coast and going for a swim in the North Sea.  Our friends in Belgium had suggested the best and most scenic route to Den Haag would be along the North Sea cycle route – the LF1.  This route would also take us passed Hoek van Holland,the port where we will be catching the ferry to England from, after spending a couple of weeks exploring the Netherlands and visiting friends.

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Cool art on a disused lighthouse, due to engineering the sea is now miles away.

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Our first view of the sea for many months.

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Waiting for the ferry in Breskens.

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There is ample bicycle parking on all ferries in the Netherlands.

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Sea views.

We followed clearly marked signs and cycle paths through small villages until we reached the coast and our first ferry crossing from Breskens to Vlissingen.  After being land locked for so long we relished the sensations of the salty air filling our nostrils and the blue of the water enticing our vision.  Most of Holland is below sea level and the Dutch have built hundreds of sea walls and constructed dozens of sea dams to steal land that the sea had once claimed as her own.  Kilometre long bridges and tunnels join the many land legs that jut out into the water, saving kilometres of backtracking to reach the same destination.

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Cycling the North Sea coast route, wind at our backs.

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Taking a little water break and admiring the view.

Windmills and wind go hand in hand, and the Netherlands has more than its fair share of both.  Luckily for us it was blowing from the south west, the perfect direction for a tail wind.  All we had to do was sit back, let the wind do its job, enjoy the sunshine and the wonderful scenery that the North Sea route provided.  Oh yeah and go for that swim…

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The North Sea cycle route took us through sand dunes…

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Through forests…

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Along man made sea walls…

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Passed lighthouses….

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Along more sea walls…

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Passed modern wind mills…

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Over sea dams….

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Passed pacific gulls….

We had flown that day and as the sun began to lower herself towards the horizon and rain clouds gathered in the sky, it was time to find shelter for the night.  We had passed many signs for micro campgrounds, so we pulled into one and found the owner who showed us to a lovely patch of grass (and a warm shower) that we could call home for the night.

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Setting up our home at a micro-campground.

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Jude thought it was time for a sign on her bike.

We woke early the next morning to find the wind still in our favour.  After a quick cuppa and a bite to eat we hit up the local church fair where we stocked up on home made jam and cakes.  Hoping to make it to Den Haag that afternoon we needed all the fuel we could get.  The riding continued to be stunning, the villages inviting and the kilometres fast.

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Through fields of wildflowers.

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Eating cake for morning tea.

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And then stopping for a coffee.

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In this cute village.

Jude’s sign turned out to be a hit with everyone.  It was an ice breaker that started conversation and we spent our time cycling with groups of other cycle tourists sharing stories from the road.  This was also helpful as when we turned west along the south bank of the Hoek van Holland Port, the wind ended up in our faces and the lovely people on electric bikes provided the perfect windbreak.

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The route then hit the industrial shipping area.

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Where we caught another ferry with bicycle parking.

The cycling day was slowly drawing to an end.  A quick ice-cream stop perked up the energy levels enough to see us pedalling along a path through some sand dunes which popped us out into Den Haag.  It was here that we would again meet some cycle touring friends from the road – Pimm and ChuHui – whom we had met in the Cameron Highlands and again in Penang back in Malaysia.

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We then cycled our way through Den Haag.

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To visit with the wonderful Pimm and ChuHui

Three wonderful days were spent sharing stories and food, wandering the streets, admiring the works of the Dutch masters at Mauritshuis, eating the best ice-cream in the world and sailing on one of the many lakes nearby.  It was here that I had my first lesson in sailing.  Being a very windy day it was proving to be a struggle, my knuckles were white from nervousness but I was holding it together until our last tack where I managed to almost capsize us.  As water entered the yacht my heart sank as I acknowledged that both cameras were now submerged, never to be used again.  The engine then failed during our return to the dock and as we struggled to get the yacht in (with a mixture of ropes and pulling and pushing), other sailors sat back and watched the spectacle, glass of wine in their hands, not one offering to help.  Back at home in dry clothes with a cuppa in hand, we had a good laugh and agreed that next time things would be better.

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They took us sailing.

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Like father, like daughter.

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Jude looking ubercool.

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The last photo on our SLR before it went swimming never to be used again.

From here we split paths for a few days, dad went to visit an old friend and we cycled on to Breda to meet Franz and Eveline, other cycle touring friends who we first met when we hosted them in Melbourne.  It was a full days ride from Den Haag to Breda, following a myriad of cycle paths.  Somehow this time the cycle route number system left us in a pickle, so good old maps.me was consulted and we continued on our merry way.  This was our last day of long distance cycling in Holland and we relished in the joy of our movement and the freedom cycle touring instills in your heart.

Franz and Eveline had just returned from a cycle tour of their own, starting at the place in Greece where Eveline had been struck by a car a few years ago (an accident that turned into a life saving coincidence), continuing on to Turkey and beyond.  Indefatigable as they are they welcomed us with open arms and open cellar – Franz has been tempting us to their beautiful home with promises of great beer.  Evenings were spent sipping many of Franz’s favourite beers, outdoors overlooking the garden, sharing lively conversation about touring and the state of the world. Days were a relaxing mix of perusing one of the many books in their library (mandatory cuppa in hand) and wandering around the lovely town of Breda soaking up the Dutch architecture and culture.  And a few more beers.  We celebrated Eveline’s birthday with her, an occasion that filled me with hope, happiness and inspiration that I will continue to cycle tour and live an adventurous life like she does.

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Dinner time with great beer and great friends.

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Back at it – relaxing at one of the many outdoor bars in Breda.

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Maybe a few too many brews? – teaching Gieske how to do a bum dance in the street.

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A little more classy – Eveline’s birthday lunch (when the food did arrive it was incredible…)

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Jude loving the dessert.

All too quickly it was time for us to head on to Amsterdam to meet other friends.  Bill had flow over from Australia to spend some days exploring the delights of the capital with us, and a Dushanbe reunion was brewing for the last day.  Arriving at Amsterdam Centraal we followed the bike lanes east to the campground we had booked for the week to come.  Seems like we weren’t the only ones in town on a budget, the place was pumping.

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Saving time and catching the train to Amsterdam.

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It still amazes me how easily you can take bikes on public transport here.

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I love the dedicated bike lanes – heading east from the main train station.

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Camping with a view.

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Not the only ones on a budget…

Our days were spent exploring Amsterdam by bike, boat and foot.

We sampled most of the local specialities… and partook in some cultural activities… missing the one in a thousand year storm that hit Amsterdam (uprooting trees and decimating the campground) while we looked at the Dutch Masters in the Rijksmuseum.

Leaving Amsterdam on the train back to Breda, the glow that comes from spending time with friends and loved ones still enveloped me.  Life on the road does distance you from your community back home, as well as providing you with a new group of like minded friends.  Connecting physically with both here in Holland showed me that I am perhaps ready to settle for a while, create a home and open my doors to all those that I love and those I have not yet met.

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Hot drink break on our walk through the forest.

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Jude as a frog…

After a day of packing, walking and sharing more time (and beer) with Franz and Eveline, it was time to say goodbye to them and the Netherlands.  Ready for the next leg, it was lovely to cycle the streets of Breda together, a farewell escort to the train that would take us to Hoek van Holland and our ferry to England.  Gale force winds hit us as we stepped off the train and continued to bombard us as we waited in line to board the ferry.  Weather matching emotions is common on the road and the gusty, forceful wind was fitting.  It was time to leave the continent, to head to our last country on this journey, the place we would call home for the next few years.  Memories of the past mixed with hopes for the future.  Ready to take that step we watched as the land disappeared into the horizon.  And then we befriended the other cycle tourists on board, shared duty free beers and kept on living the life we know and love.

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Our farewell escort to the station.

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Through the streets of Breda.

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On the train from Breda to the ferry port.

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Waiting in the wind to board at the Hoek of Holland.

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England, here we come!

Slovenija

Rupa (Croatian border) -> Ljubljana -> Bovec -> Ljubljana -> Lake Bohinj -> Ljubelj (Austrian border)

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The border for Slovenija snuck up on us as we were too busy enjoying the riding to notice how quickly the kilometres were passing.  A small back road led to the large border patrol area that divides the Schengen zone of Europe from the rest of Europe.  Turns out there are a myriad of zones in Europe, each with different functions and reasons, and we were just getting our heads around it.  There is the European continent with all her countries, there is the European Union which includes a majority of European nations but not all, there is the Euro zone which is based totally on currency, there is the Schengen zone based upon border protection, and the borders for all of these zones are different.  We had recently learned that we could only stay for a total of 3 months in the Schengen countries during a 6 month period.  That’s 3 months to travel through 20 countries and then you must be out.  The border official eyed our Australian passports with scrutiny and after checking with his boss that we were on the list of ‘okay’ nations we were waved through.  Our three month countdown started now.

Welcome to Slovenija!

Welcome to Slovenija!

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Our route.

We had chosen to try and push the whole way to Ljubljana that day, as we were excited about catching up with our lovely friend Spela.  The distance was similar to what we had covered the previous days, but the wiggly lines on the map left us unsure of how quickly we would actually get there.  It was time to find out.  The road narrowed down and quickly dove into a lush green forest.  We soon realised that Slovenian drivers are far superior to their Croatian neighbours.  Within an hour I felt relaxed and began to ride less defensively.  Each little village we cycled through was more adorable than the previous.  The forests that divided them were full of spring blooms and birdsong.  Such enjoyable riding built up my hunger and for some reason I started to dream about omelettes.  We pulled over in the next town and hit up the Lidl for supplies and cooked up an egg-straviganza.

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More deer signs, unfortunately despite being a country with bears we saw no bear signs.

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One also needs to look out for falling motorcyclists.

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First tea/coffee break of the day.

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Hoorah for bike lanes!

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The much needed omelette break.

We still had a way to go and the lady at the tourist info centre let us know that a train that takes bikes regularly goes to Ljubljana.  Did you read that – a train that takes bikes…  It was tempting but we chose to continue on.  After a little more undulating the first squiggle on the map began and it was straight down into the valley below.  We covered the kilometres in no time, free wheeling and laughing the whole way.  In the valley we meandered along the backroads, the fields full of irridescent pink, yellow and purple flowers, the green of the grass glowing in the sunlight.  For every hill we climbed we were rewarded with large sweeping downhill sections and by late afternoon Ljubljana was within our sights.  We shoved a few more pastry treats into our mouths and pushed on.  To our delight a dedicated bicycle path had been (mostly) built for the last 20 kilometres into town.  I was quickly falling in love with this country.

Greenery all around.

Greenery all around.

Stunning views - no not me.

Stunning views – no not me.

Cute villages.

Cute villages.

Fields abloom with spring flowers.

Fields abloom with spring flowers.

Such stunning riding.

Such stunning riding.

Apiaries - Slovenian style.

Apiaries – Slovenian style.

Needing a rest from too much downhill.

Needing a rest from too much downhill.

The magical bike path into Ljubljana.

The magical bike path into Ljubljana.

Arriving at Spela and Anita’s apartment that evening was magical.  The hard riding of the last few days was forgotten as we shared a celebratory beer and then washed away the thick layer of sweat and dirt in a hot shower.  Later we shared food, wine and stories of what has happened in our lives since we last saw each other over a year ago.  As you can imagine there was a lot to talk about.  The next day we were given a royal tour of Ljubljana – we wandered her streets, gardens, canals and markets, we drank her delicious beers, tasted her delectable food and ended the night with a wander up to the castle battlements to see how the lights of the city twinkled below.

Excited to have made it.

Excited to have made it.

Looking and feeling tired, but not enough to skip drinking a celebratory beer.

Looking and feeling tired, but not enough to skip a celebratory beer.

The following day we caught a bus to Spela’s hometown of Bovec. What no one tells you about cycle touring is that one of the side effects can be the development of motion sickness as your body has learnt to travel across this world so much slower. Needless to say we both suffered as the bus sped through to the town of Idrija where Mercury was first discovered and mined, before it wound its way through the Soca River valley. The scenery was jaw dropping and I think we both secretly wished that we were riding along that road instead of being stuck sick in a bus. The silver lining at the end of the cloud was Bovec and the haven that was Spela’s parent’s home. We were treated like family from the word go and were spoilt with kindness and Spela’s mum’s incredible cooking.

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Spela and Jude on an evening walk.

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Wild strawberry anyone?

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Looking for tasty forest food.

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Wild strawberries and elderflowers.

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Sharing knowledge about the healing properties of everything around us.

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Relaxing at the water’s edge.

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So much natural beauty here.

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Yep, it’s a close up of a waterfall.

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Excited to be at Spela’s parent’s home.

There are a myriad of beautiful walks that start at their doorstep and we took full advantage of such glorious sunny days as we had. As we walked we picked wild strawberries, savouring the burst of intense flavor that came with every mouthful. Spela pointed out and picked whatever plant she recognized for either its edible or medicinal qualities. Waterfalls captivated us as their waters crashed into the azure blue pools below. We meandered along the edge of the Soca River following her well-worn path through the mountains. Back at home we dipped the elderflowers that we had picked into a batter and fried them sweet tempura style.  My love for Slovenija was growing deeper by the day.

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If only every day could be this perfect.

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The Soca River.

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The gorgeous Soca.

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Swing bridge fun.

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Surrounded by green.

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A nice stroll through the forest.

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We even found the bunkers from the first world war.

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Excited about Slovenija, or doing some yoga.

We caught a ride back to Ljubljana with a guy who worked for the bomb squad and was a DJ to boot.  If that wasn’t cool enough, the quickest way back was to actually drive for 30 minutes through Italy on the way home.  The scenery was draw dropping and I was planning our cycle tour through the area within minutes.  Back at home while Spela and Anita were packing for their hiking trip to Portugal, Jude and I were deliberating our future plans.  Big changes and a difficult decision was afoot.  Our destination of Glasgow, for this leg of the trip, no longer seemed relevant now that we were going to be working in London as paramedics.  Could we change it now?  What would changing it mean?  Did it really matter if we changed it?  In our goal driven society such a change would be almost seen as a failure, but our journey has taught us that better options can present themselves, change is a constant in life, and to let go of things that are no longer useful or relevant is healthy.  It took a few days of soul searching but with peace in our hearts, we finally decided that our new home was going to be London, so it made sense to ride there.  Sorry Glasgow but you will have to wait for another day.

As I mentioned, Spela and Anita were heading to Portugal for some hiking.  They offered for us to stay in their flat for as long as we wanted, and the idea of having a home for a few days appealed.  We pottered about doing things everyone at home takes for granted.  We also lay under trees in the parks reading books and meditating, we tasted some of the best Slovenian cuisine and beer at the Open Market run on Fridays in the centre of town, we bought new panniers of clothes at a charity shop that was selling everything for 2 Euros, we cycled through the streets smelling the spring flowers and looking at the graffiti, and doing this we found the first place outside of Melbourne that we could see ourselves living in.

 

Being a domestic goddess.

Being a domestic goddess.

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Fresh milk daily.

Reading, one of may favourite day off activity.

Reading, one of may favourite day off activities.

Open Market day.

Open Market day.

Loving a Slovenian micro-brewed beer.  Pity it has to be brewed in Austria due to government protection of the two big multinational breweries.

Loving a Slovenian micro-brewed beer. Pity it has to be brewed in Austria due to government protection of the two big multinational breweries.

Padlocks on the bridge of lovers.

Padlocks on the bridge of lovers.

Dragons guard the bridge.

Dragons guard the bridge.

It was hard to drag ourselves away from our home for the week.  Having a base for a while was lovely, but the road was calling and we longed to be in the wilderness again.  Cycling along the back roads out of Ljubljana we headed first for Skofja Loka before continuing on towards Lake Bohinj.  We had hoped to make it to the lake side for nightfall but the mountainous roads had a different idea for us.  Luckily the 3km of 16% gradient wasn’t as crazy as it could have been and the golden sunlight made the mountains and valleys glow.  As evening approached we picked wild thyme as a break from the continuous switchbacks, collected water from the ski resort at the top and settled into a grassy gap in the surrounding pine forest.  Visions of the 600 wild bears that roam the country entered my mind, but the only wildlife we saw were deer, and Jude in her fantastic glam-ping wear.

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The bridge over the river at Skofja Loka.

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Happy to be back cycling.

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That’s one long, hard climb to come.

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But the scenery is enough of a distraction.

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Seeing the road we climbed far below.

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Jude is a glam-ping queen.

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Back to our tent home heaven.

Summer lovin’ kicked off the moment we laid eyes on Lake Bohinj.  Set at the end of a valley with spectacular views all around, it was the perfect place for a multi day cycling-hiking-paddling-swimming fest of fun.

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Our first view of Lake Bohinj.

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Exploring by bike.

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On our way to the waterfall.

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Basking like a lizard.

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Swapped the bikes for some kayak fun.

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Loving summer.

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Swimming and beers to follow.

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Our home for the nights.

A morning’s cycle delivered us to the tourist infested Lake Bled, where we enjoyed a spontaneous barbie on the shore.  That’s one of the many beauties of carrying your whole life with you…  We also indulged in a little secret shame we developed during our time in Slovenija – Radlers (otherwise known as a shandy).  Cycling in the heat produces a great thirst that water sometimes can’t quench.  Riding drunk can be fun, but not daily.  So the answer we discovered was the Radler, and in Slovenija the extensive choice of citrus flavours were happily sampled.

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Morning mist and meditation before setting off.

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On the road to Lake Bled.

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Taking a break on the banks of the lake.

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Enjoying a spontaneous barbie and Radler party.

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Radler-liscious.

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The beautiful Lake Bled.

As you’ve probably guessed we’re not that much into large groups of people and tourist towns, so after cycling a quick lap of the lake we headed off along the 658 hoping to hit the road to Austria at some point.  It was another stunning afternoon as we wound our way along the foothills and through the picturesque villages.  We picked more wild strawberries, drank from mountain streams and enjoyed the feeling of our bodies moving.  From Trzic the old road climbs to the Slovenian/Austrian border pass (cyclists are forbidden from riding on the new road) and as the sun sank behind the mountains turning the peaks a pale purple we found the perfect pitch for our last night of camping in Slovenija.

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Getting changed as the temperature kept rising.

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Hay drying along the side of the road in the small villages.

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Enjoying a roadside view and snack break.

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The perfect pitch – our last camp in Slovenija.

Rising with the sun we continued our ascent.  After a while the old road petered out and we were forced on to the new road with all its traffic.  Bend after bend followed and as we have done very little hill riding over the last few months, this climb would be a good introduction for the Austrian Alps ahead of us.  Leaving a roadside rest stop, we noticed a sign leading to a clearing a few feet further.  Mauthausen. Jude realised the dates corresponded to those of the second world war and this piqued our interest.  Nothing was noted on any of our maps, so what was this place?Well, unknowingly we had stumbled upon a concentration camp.  We wandered about the ruins and remembered history as we read the memorials.

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One final push and we were at the mouth of the tunnel that divides Slovenija from Austria.  The border is about 700m along signed with some lights and some signs.  It was time to say goodbye to wonderful Slovenija.  It’s a country that you could ride across in 2-3 days, but that would be doing Slovenija and yourself a great disservice.  The spectacular scenery, the friendly people, the relaxed atmosphere, the vibrant capital and the good cycling all make this a great country.  But there is something a little deeper and special than all of that and having spent time here we discovered it.  Thank you Slovenija, thank you!

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From Albania with love.

Kakavia -> Sarande -> Himare -> Vlore -> Divjake -> Tirana -> Shkoder -> Montenegro border.

Welcome to Albania!!

Welcome to Albania!!

Our route.

Our route.

All that I knew about Albania was that it has the largest number of (?stolen) Mercedes Benz per capita and that Jude had allocated us 5-6 days to cycle through it along the coastal route.  That alone had startled me being Australian – can you really cycle through a whole country in 5-6 days?  So to remedy my ignorance, the night before we entered Albania I lay in the tent and did a quick internet search and it was fascinating.  Independence from the Ottoman Empire since 1912; under an enforced and brutal Communist regime and isolation from the rest of the world from the end of World War II until 1992; home to 700,000 concrete bunkers countrywide due to Hoxha’s paranoia; the world’s first atheist state – it now has the highest degree of religious tolerance and intermarriage in the world; currently struggling against high unemployment, corruption and personal debt; through stage one of the application to become a member of the EU; and now quickly becoming the darling of independent travel.  And cycle touring.

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A is for Albania.

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The valley that leads into Albania from Kakavia.

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Mosques and churches dot the countryside.

Entry was easy and the ladies at immigration were more interested in gossiping with each other than stamping our passports.  The money changers shouted greetings as we cycled passed and I knew we were going to have fun here.  The sun broke through the clouds as we cycled up the valley from Kakavia and the humidity reached a high as we began our 2km climb up the surrounding mountain range.  It was a lovely climb and even the bad drivers could not dampen my spirits as I gazed down the valley and then up at the pass.  While waiting for the other two to arrive I watched the first cows I had seen in months.  As the dark clouds gathered overhead, we had a picnic in the rain before the fun of freewheeling started.  We shot passed stone villages that looked like they hadn’t changed in centuries and spring flowers bloomed on the surrounding fruit trees.  Through the shrubbery we spotted some iridescent blue below.  What could it be?

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Looking down the valley.

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Climbing to the pass.

Cows and dark clouds at the pass.

Cows and dark clouds at the pass.

Stone houses and spring blooms.

Stone houses and spring blooms.

Speeding down we almost missed the turn off for the ‘Blue Eye’.  Bumping our way along a severely potholed track we initially discovered a bright blue lake and further on its source.  A torrent of crystal clear water spewing from a deep cave with the bluest colour I have ever seen.  It’s actually a natural spring that comes from an underwater source of unknown depth, pumping out around 18,000 litres per second at a temperature of 10 degrees Celcius.  Being the water nymphs that we are, we found a place among the huge lilly pads and jumped in for a quick, icy cold dip.  Yes there was squealing. Then the heavens opened and we ran for cover on a pontoon with a leaky thatched roof.  Cups of tea were required as we waited for the skies to clear.

Our first view of the blue lake.

Our first view of the blue lake.

Such beauty.

Such beauty.

Blue Eye

Blue Eye

Posing at the viewing platform.

Posing at the viewing platform.

Being a water nymph.

Being a water nymph.

Hug a tree day.

Hug a tree day.

Waiting out the rain on a pontoon.

Waiting out the rain on a pontoon.

A break in the rain provided the perfect opportunity for escape and we shot along the river valley and then the canal, outrunning the black clouds that chased us.

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Cycling beside the canal.

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The black clouds that were chasing us.

After climbing one last hill, we dropped down into the coastal town of Sarande.  An apartment with a sea view was acquired and we were soon enjoying cold beers to celebrate country sweet sixteen.  Unpacking for our first shower in a week, we discovered that our panniers were full of rainwater, so everything was hung out in the late afternoon sun to dry.

The coastal town of Sarande.

The coastal town of Sarande.

Beers to celebrate country sweet sixteen.

Beers to celebrate country sweet sixteen.

Slow walks along the promenade, shopping at the second hand stores, a little sightseeing, tasty ice creams and drinking wine while looking over the sea were the perfect activities for a rest day.

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Rest day fun.

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Hug a tree day – again.

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Some sightseeing.

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Drinking cold wine on a hot day – refreshing.

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Jude practising her ninja skills.

Then it was time to hit the coast road.  I had mistakenly assumed that the ‘coast road’ would be relatively flat, with consistent views of the water and lots of places to swim.  Well you know what they say about assumptions.  We climbed and dropped, and climbed and dropped.  The road never reached the shoreline and to go for a swim we needed to detour off the road for a couple of kilometres.  The sweat poured out of us.  We drank water like it was going out of fashion, snacked on bakery treats, and then repeated the whole process again.

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There was a lot of climbing with fantastic views of the sea, but little opportunity to actually get to the waters edge.

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We made a 4km round detour to have lunch and a swim at this beach.

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Jude enjoying the cool waters.

In the background you can see the road rising and falling along the coastal cliffs.

In the background you can see the road rising and falling along the coastal cliffs.

In the late afternoon the climbing settled and whizzing along we spotted some ruins on an island off just off the coast.  Turns out Ali Pasha had built a castle here too and with torches we explored the beautiful ancient ruins.  Walking out we noticed a cycle tourist cycling up to the ruins – it was Nate.

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Spotting the ruins on the island.

Entry to the castle.

Entry to the castle.

Exploring inside.

Exploring inside.

Views from the roof.

Views from the roof.

Posers.

Posers.

More inside exploration.

More inside exploration.

That night we camped together on a field covered in concrete bunkers and olive trees.  Goats bleated nearby and a hundred fireflies danced all around us.

Camping under the olive trees in Himare.

Camping under the olive trees in Himare.

Jude with a concrete bunker.

Jude with a concrete bunker.

We must have collected some bad water the previous night as Jude was struck down with a stomach bug the following morning.  Not good timing as the climbing was to skyrocket.  We undulated for a few hours before the switchbacks up the mountain came into sight.  Seven major switchbacks climbing to the peak above.  It was going to be a long day.

Good morning sheep with a she mullet.

This sheep with the 80s hairstyle had me in fits of laughter on the roadside.

Climbing out of town.

Looking down from another pass.

One of the many villages we cycled through.

One of the many villages we cycled through.

Our first view of the switchbacks on the far mountain.

Our first view of the switchbacks on the far mountain.

The ladies with the road ahead up the mountainside.

The ladies with the road ahead up the mountainside.

It took us around 3 hours to reach the top.  With a few rest breaks on the way :).

Rest break one.

Rest break one.

The road behind and ahead.

The road behind and ahead.

Looking down on where we had climbed.

Looking down on where we had climbed.

Another rest break.

Another rest break.

View from the top.

View from the top.

Going down was the next challenge.  A steep, potholed, winding road dropped us back to sea level on the other side.

View down the other side.

View down the other side.

We arrived in Vlore near nightfall and decided that we needed an ice cream.  And a place to camp.  After declining the waiters offer for drugs, we did take note of the forest that he mentioned would be a great place to camp.  We stocked up on few 2 litre bottles of beer (it was Saturday) and headed into the pine forest just out of town.  As darkness set in the fireflies started their nightly ritual.  I have seen some stunning sights, but this vision of hundreds of thousands of fireflies flashing in formation – like currents of electricity running through a brain – was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

Our campsite in the pine forest where the fireflies put on their magical show.

Our campsite in the pine forest where the fireflies put on their magical show.

We decided to brave the motorway to cover some distance the next morning and we sped along in our peloton covering almost 30 kilometres in an hour.  There was no traffic, a big shoulder and no one cared that we were illegally there – winning.  Where the motorway ended, we stopped for a fruit break and it was the first and only time in Albania that we were ripped off for being foreign.  I can’t wait for such behaviour to cease when we enter Europe proper.  After a fast food sandwich of chips and sauce in a roll and some internet access, we hit the road again.  Wanting to avoid the insane driving, from Fior we kept to the back roads and it was incredible.  It was while we were cycling that I realised what I really loved about Albania – it was a mix of every region of the world I had visited.  A small microcosmos of the world wrapped into one lovely country.