I am very behind on blog posts, time has gone quicker than I thought and now that I have made it to Russia I’ve been busy cheering England on. The World Cup is over now so I am trying to catch up with blog posts.
France: 15th – 21st April
Lauren and I arrived off the Ferry to meet our first Warmshowers host; Al Honolulu. He was waiting for us with his bike and after a few introductions he took us straight to a boulangerie to pick up some breakfast. It was maybe a 5 minute cycle away but Lauren was still getting used to clipping in to her bike and fell over right outside the bakery, an unfortunate trade off for extra efficiency.
Al took us to see the ‘End of the World’. There was a moment or two of confusion on what that actually meant but it turned out to be a walk along the beach to a cliff in Le Harve. Even though the path had big holes in it from a storm, it was hard to fear the End of the World, we were very excited to have made it to a different country and to meet Al. It felt like the trip was really just beginning now we were out of the UK.
Al then drove us to Honfleur and Deauville which are 2 local tourist hotspots. Honfleur is a beautiful little town famous for its authentic Norman architecture. We checked out the Saint Catherine’s Church, ate some of Al’s favourite pastries, roamed around an antiques market and stopped for an ice cream. We continued on to Deauville which is where the rich and famous of Paris hang out in Summer apparently. The buildings all looked like castles with their turrets and their half timbered walls. Lots of walking after 3 days of moving exclusively by bike knackered us out and both we fell asleep for the whole car ride back to Le Havre.
The next morning we were ready to set off again. Al kindly cycled with us until we found the coastal road, it was up a pretty big hill with a bit of traffic around. I was slightly tense as I knew Lauren would be worried about the cars and being on the opposite side of the road. We said our goodbyes and were now alone in a foreign country with only my amateur French (and all the locals excellent English) to protect us. Our first stop was L’Etretat, France’s picturesque answer to Durdledoor.
The sun was out in full force with the April heatwave well underway in Northern France. We stopped to cool off and read a few chapters of our books which sounds lovely but the downside of this spontaneous break in cycling was setting off after lunch. After a measly distance we found ourselves at the bottom of a huge hill, which sadly became a theme for the next few days. The hills aren’t a real problem for me but Lauren just looking at one can cause Lauren more problems than actually cycling them. Fortunately she is incredibly stubborn so most of the time does make it to the top. Until she gains more confidence I have taken on the act of Knight in Shining Armour. I cycle up the hill, run back down to find how far Lauren made it, I then carry her to the top of the hill and then run back down to collect her bike and run that to the top too.
Slowing in Fecamp we were on the look out for a supermarket. We took a wrong turn and ended up in a sort of housing estate when Lauren fell again, this time she managed to graze her knee and much to her amusement a nice French lady came to ask if she should call an ambulance. We decided to call it a day once we had made it out of the town, this involved another hill, and about 200 metres from the top Lauren staged a David Millar/L’Angliru style protest. I rode up to see if we could camp right at the top and in this time another friendly French lady had seen our plight and gave me a lift down the hill so I could cycle Lauren’s bike up, she also drove Lauren up to the summit. Surrounded by open fields our only hope was to follow a small track with a ‘Gites’ sign. At the end we found a holiday villa and an old French couple tidying up ready to finish their day of work. I explained our situation in my best French. I’m not sure if it was my powers of persuasion or Lauren’s look of desperation but either way they let us sleep in a small room to the side of the main villa, as long as we cleared off by 8am. It all worked out very well for us, our new French hosts were very kind and once they left for the day we had the whole place to ourselves, sharing only with ducks, chickens and rabbits. We had been planning to wild camp and use WarmShowers with the occasional hotel room so this was a very welcome surprise.
The following 2 days we did wild camp, the first spot was on a verge just outside Haulot Sur Mer, where we also utilised the bucket shower for the first time.
We woke to a policewoman preparing to knock on our tent. We apologised and said we had got lost and couldn’t find a campsite. She initially didn’t buy this and she started angrily pointing to the map to show where we currently were and where the campsite was. However, she started to hesitate looking at this map and she got less and less confident pointing out the area we were in until finally she decided to just leave us alone to save her embarrassment. If she can’t find it on the map there’s no chance me or Lauren will. Our next spot, just outside Le Treport was much more secluded to avoid a repeat incident.
The following day Lauren’s parents offered to pay for a hotel for us in Abbeville, possibly fearing for either our safety or our stench. This gave us a nice taste of luxury. Lauren went off to the launderette while I went to a bike shop to get new tyres for Lauren and a new stem for me. We then treated ourselves to a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant.
On our last day in France we had done our usual of stopping in a supermarket car park, found some shade and set up our camp chairs. Lauren had to take a piece of glass out of my foot, turns out walking around a carpark bare foot isnt a great idea. Then a guy cycled up and introdced himself as Christian, he is another bike tourer who is about to embark on a long trip through Europe. It was a great chance meeting where we got to exchange some details about ourselves, our trips and our blogs. His blog; www.lescycloverts.com if you want to practise some French.
In general, our route across the rolling farmland of Northern France was a choice between quiet and hilly coastal roads or busier direct roads, we alternated as we went and in general the roads were safe, quiet and flat. On busier roads I would ride behind and slightly outside Lauren to try and stop cars passing too close, especially with big trucks creating a wave of wind that can blow you off course. Our days in this first week fell into a pattern mainly dictated by the weather. We would start off slow – getting going around 11am, then riding for a few hours until we hit around 20 miles when we would stop off for lunch in a shady spot so we could read our books through the hottest part of the day, then continue on in the late afternoon for a few hours until we found a camp spot.
In a week we cycled from Le Havre to the Belgian border and crossed by Camphin-en-Pevele. Just as we crossed the boarder there was a pub so taking it as a sign from above we stopped for a drink to celebrate, I also got to watch the FA cup semi-final as Man United beat Tottenham. All in all a great first week to the trip.
Belgium: 21st April – 26th April
On our first night in Belgium we went to camp in the small village of Lamain. We were trying to be quiet when arriving to our camp spot as it was fairly late (having just come from the pub). This didn’t work though as a farmer came straight out to check what was going on. After a quick conversation on what we were doing he started to offer us food, water and asked how we shower. We explained we have everything we need on us but thanked him for his offer. This was a great first encounter with a Belgian farmer, we had been told in the pub just after crossing into Belgium that the French farmers were no where near as friendly as the Belgian ones.
The next day we realised that while the Belgian farmers may be friendly, the shopkeepers of Gooik were less so. Quickly nicknamed Belgium’s friendliest town we were onto the third cafe before we were treated as fellow humans. First cafe came across a little hostile and even though there was only myself and Lauren in there, they forgot to make me my sandwich. The next cafe we had decided to sit in their huge beer garden which also was completely empty apart from me and Lauren, we left our bikes near a table by the exit and as we walked in to get a drink the owner sent us straight back outside to move our bikes 5 metres to the side. We didn’t feel much welcome walking back in so decided that cafe number 3 might be the lucky winner. As we walked in we knew this was a better option, this cafe actually had people in and one wall was completely taken up with a picture of Marianne Vos.
In Brussels we stayed with Nicolas where we got to have another ‘proper’ wash and to fix my phone which had broken 2 days earlier.
Nicolas’s flat mate was having a belated birthday party so we stayed up drinking and eating. Andreas, who was another person staying in the flat through couch surfing, knows someone who lives next door to Peter Sagan! I spent most of the evening talking to him about Sagan’s recent win in Paris Roubaix (which I watched in Bath with my cycling club VC Walcot before setting off on this trip) and what modifications I had made to my bike for this trip. Lauren was making friends through music with another flat mate named Robin. She had been asking our different hosts about their favourite music and had been creating a playlist of it all. One artist that seemed to be a hit over most of France and Belgium were Bigflo & Oli, especially with their song ‘Papa’.
The next few days were straight forwards and flat. We were into a more Flandrian section after the hillier Wallonia pre Brussels. Now that we were a few weeks in it was all becoming a lot more natural and comfortable to wake up and set off cycling each day around 11am. We had a good set up in the evening and would relax with a beer or bottle of wine. One evening Lauren decided to try to cook a meal from home. I had been the main chef of the trip and had mostly been cooking couscous, tinned fish and tinned peas and carrots, simple easy and filling. Lauren cooked orzo salmon which is one of our favourites that my mum makes. It was delicious but the lack of control on the cooker and no proper kitchen set up caused a lot of frustration.
On our last day in Belgium we camped in a forest just off a bike path near Dome. The bugs were out in full force so we were trying to eat quick and get into the tent before we got eaten. Just before finishing packing up the cooker a woman on a horse spotted us, the horse got a little jumpy but all was okay. About 30 minutes later we could hear noises outside the tent. Eventually 2 police officers knocked on our tent, we were asked what we were doing and we explained we were camping and had cycled here and pointed to our bikes next to the tent. The female officer asked Lauren if she was scared about sleeping in the woods. She replied that the scariest part was the police officers creeping round our tent looking for us, and the spiders. Realising we were harmless and not planning on staying long they left us to it and wished us luck. The rest of the night we were pretty unsettled and thought we could hear people walking around but it was just the wind and our minds playing tricks on us.
The next morning we left Belgium by boat, after the original route turned out to be a recently opened mine. It was all very simple, we cycled up to the boat, got on and within a couple minutes we were off the other side and in the Netherlands. Didn’t cost us anything.
Crossing to the Netherlands at Berg aan de Maas, we headed to Sittard for lunch. Once we arrived at lunch it had started raining and we were really starting to feel the strain, we had been up against some strong wind and with it now raining our moral was starting to dip. Our last break was in Le Havre so we decided to re-evaluate our plan and thought we deserved a break. A quickly booked Airbnb and a couple miles later we were in Selfkant, just over the German boarder ready to do nothing for 2 nights.
Germany: 26th April – 14th May
Arriving in Germany was a major milestone for us, Lauren had grown up there and hadn’t been back since moving to the UK in 2012. It also marked about 500 miles travelled since leaving Bath, so we were both very proud to have made it that far.
The rest day in Selfkant was just that, we did cycle an 8 mile round trip to the nearest Aldi to pick up supplies but that was with no luggage so hardly counts. We spent the rest of the day reading, writing our diaries and watching the only English speaking show on TV – The Incredible Dr.Pol.
Our first important visit was to JHQ, a former British Army base that has since returned to German control. Sadly no one actually lives there anymore so it is just a ghost town with a few people patrolling it. It used to house around 4,000 people. When Lauren lived there it had a cinema, bowling alley, shops, kennels, library, schools, boarding school, doctors surgery, swimming pool and more. We weren’t allowed on the camp to see anything so instead tried to cycle along the fence but sadly didn’t get to see anything that way either. It wasn’t the best stop for Lauren. I could tell it wasn’t easy for her to see it all ruined. Windows had been smashed and graffiti everywhere and plants overgrown in the streets. Lauren had last lived there when she was roughly 16-17 so it had only been 7ish years and in that time the whole area had been trashed.
The next place of meaning we went to was Krefeld, even though Lauren doesn’t actually remember living there, she thinks she was 4-5 last time she was there. We found a fairground in town so stopped for the first Currywurst mit pommes of the trip, a go on the Ferris wheel and an ice slushy to cool us down.
We were now fully into the Ruhr region, Germany’s industrial heartland and one of the most densely populated parts of Europe. This made cycling hard work with cycle paths playing second fiddle to the road, and resulted in a few days of very stop/start cycling, the most knackering sort especially when starting involves shifting about 30kgs of bike and luggage.
We camped in Essen, which is in the middle of the Ruhr. Once in bed we heard a huge rumble and that was the start of a major thunderstorm which lasted nearly the whole night. We couldn’t sleep because of the noise of rain and thunder and the bright flashes and the feeling of impending doom. The next morning we went straight to a McDonald’s in town to wait for the rain to pass. We decided it was time to find another WarmShowers host. We found Christoph and Fred in Werne. Christoph is a very keen cyclist who has cycled lots of India and other parts of the world. They were great hosts who made us feel very welcome and had lots of stories to tell us.
The next town we stopped in was another major point for Lauren. Even though she had never lived in Bielefeld she had been countless times with her parents. I never realised but there is an ‘in-joke’ about Bielefeld in Germany. People pretend it doesn’t exist. Our hosts in Bielefeld were busy clearing out their home and moving into a van to go travel the world, so they left us a set of keys and told us to have fun. We went to a steakhouse in town for dinner and I got to watch more football. Great evening. We were clear of the Ruhr now so the roads were much nicer for cycling.
From Bielefeld we rode the short distance to Herford. Lauren has lived in Herford a couple times, she was born in Rinteln but was living in Herford at the time, she then returned when she was 7 and then returned again when she was maybe 15. Each time in different houses, she couldn’t remember 2 of them but we went to Goethestrasse to see where Lauren lived when she was 15. This was being lived in by Germans but apparently the place was nothing like it used to be. I have to admit it was also pretty overgrown, Lauren explained that right opposite her house used to be a play park but instead there was parts of the rubber floor missing and big weeds growing all over and all the swings and climbing bars were dismantled on the floor, they looked like they had been there a while too.
Deciding that viewing these houses maybe wasn’t as exciting as we thought, we headed straight to one of the Stoker families favourite places to eat in Germany- The Schalk. Its a local takeaway that apparently hasn’t changed one bit. I had half a chicken and Lauren a snitzchel which went down a treat.
Next and final big stop for us was Bad Salzuflen. This is only a 20 minute bike ride from Herford. Bad Sal is a spa town famous for its salt walls, very odd to look at but supposedly provide healing properties to the air.
This is the most recent place Lauren lived in Germany, only leaving after first year of University. The route we cycled from Herford to Bad Sal was one Lauren had done many times before, the nightclub her and her friends used to go to is in Herford (Go Parc) and they used to cycle there and home. After a certain distance down this road Lauren recognised where she was and took off. The whole time we are cycling shes shouting ‘oh my god’ and telling me about how shes seen a fight outside the supermarket Marktkauf and all these other random facts that I can hardly hear. She was excited to be back. Once we got to her street she was telling me about who used to live where and pointed out her own house. The former British forces suburb is now being used to house asylum seekers, which is a much better use than JHQ which was just left to crumble. Lauren’s old house seems to be the hub of the street and is now a sort of community centre rather than a house.
We then cycled into Bad Sal town centre and into the Kurpark which is a huge wood with a bird sanctuary and a deer enclosure and the Vitasol (spa resort).
Lauren had been raving about the Vitasol before we set off so we parked our bikes up outside, attempted to tie all our panniers down and went in to the local spa. The water in the Vitasol is of various salt content and then there is one very cold fresh water pool. One pool is so salty you fully float and if you put your head under water there is music playing. A great way to relax after a few weeks of cycling. We spent a few hours there, before we went to grab a pizza in the pub while I watched Liverpool in the Champions League Semi Final. The next morning we were feeling a little hungover and not too keen to move on. So over a breakfast of bread rolls and fruit tea we decided we should stay another day. Lauren’s parents offered a hotel and a meal, so we found the cheapest place in Bad Sal, left all our stuff and headed straight back to the Vitasol. In the evening we ate in an amazing Greek restaurant called Hellas. The owner got chatting to us outside to ask why we were in Bad Sal, we explained we had cycled there for the UK and what our plans were and she decided we deserved an extra shot of ouzo for our hardwork. Lauren doesn’t drink ouzo so I ended up having all her shots too.
Now that we had seen all the major Stoker landmarks in Germany we were on Lauren’s final stretch to Berlin. A few days out of Bad Sal we had our first encounter with a wild boar. We were camping just outside Badenstedt, we first heard rustling while we were washing in the bucket like we did every night. We thought it was a person and after a few seconds of silence we forgot about it. As it was getting dark we were sat outside the tent with a glass of wine each, watching TV on an iPad when there was this almighty grunting/screaming noise. Cue panic and Lauren was up and in the tent in a heart beat. I was outside dismantling our chairs and hiding our rubbish. Once I was safely in the tent Lauren had been googling what to do and what a wild boar actually sounds like because we were only guessing. Boars avoid humans, and will normally only attack if their young are threatened. Google advised that they don’t like noise so we fell asleep with an audio book playing out loud.
We decided to get ourselves another cheap hotel in Magdeburg, It was 49.82 miles away so to reach our first 50 mile day we did a few laps of the block before rolling into the hotel car park. The celebration quickly turned into frustration, the hotel owner came storming over to us to say that our room had been given away. Lauren was straight in there asking how that was possible. The owner decided that because we had booked online but never rang to confirm the booking we hadn’t technically booked. He got out this sheet of other guests and said how everyone else had said what time they want to check in, and Lauren is pointing at the bikes saying its a little hard to tell when you are cycling. It was such a mess, the sort of problem that really grinds when you are tired, hot and hungry. When Lauren got her email out of the booking it said we could book in from 3pm-10pm and it was only 7pm. Eventually he decided we could stay after all, he was just trying to make a point but we were not in the mood. We weren’t best pleased about staying there now but it was getting late and we had no other plans.
We had another run in with the owner when we wanted to check out the next morning after he decided that we had booked for 2 nights. He finally accepted we were leaving and that was the end of Magdeburg.
On the 11th May we arrived in Berlin, the end point of the trip for Lauren, with me heading on East to Russia and the World Cup alone.
We decided to make our final day together special so Lauren bought us tickets to watch RB Leipzig vs Hertha Berlin. Great match which ended 6-2 to Leipzig, with Ademola Lookman an outside contender for the World Cup squad starring in Liepzig’s win. Later I had bought tickets to see Little Simz, one of Lauren’s favourite musicians. We went to a currywurst museum and went to see the usual tourist areas like Checkpoint Charlie.
The day before Lauren went home I collected the world’s biggest bike box and dragged it for 2 kilometres back to our accommodation. I had told Lauren I had collected and carried bike boxes on my own before so she didn’t need to come along. It was for an XXL Electric mountain bike and was the only box the shop had going spare, it was massive. At the airport I took the box to oversize baggage but it was too oversized, so after setting up an arts and crafts centre outside the airport we chopped the top off the box and pushed it down as far as it would go and we hoped for the best. We obviously didn’t hope enough because the bike box was still too big to fit through the oversize baggage scanners. However, a woman came and swabbed the bike box then said it’s all fine and off it went. No one checked what was in it, it just got put on the plane.
After an emotional goodbye Lauren was off back to the UK and I was now on my own in Germany heading to Russia to watch the World Cup.
Days camped: 15/31