MANCHESTER TO MUNICH
I left the twinkling lights of the French coast behind me and cycled over the border into Italy.
The border was awash with police and security forces and on the other side, there was a sea of tents and sleeping bags where hundreds of migrants were camped in the hope of crossing one day.
I pushed on along the coast for another couple of km's and saw two French guys whom were hitchhiking around. I pulled over and asked where they were staying and when they said 'in the nature', I invited myself to camp with them.
I told them to wait there whilst I rode on ahead in order to see if there was anywhere suitable further up the road. I saw some trees on exiting a tunnel and some cliffs too, and thinking that that might work, cycled back and told them to follow me.
We had to negotiate our way down an extremely steep path down the side of the cliff and then underneath the railway line through a small tunnel to a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea on the other side. No easy feat with a bicycle and seven bags let me tell you.
Thoroughly exhausted, I made myself some couscous with vegetables and chorizo whilst they ate some soup and a tin of garden peas before we climbed in for the night. We all make our own choices.
I woke up thinking, 'f**k, I'm in Italy!"
It just goes to show that if you aim for a place on the map, perhaps 20km's away, and having cycled there, aim for the next town on the map, It's possible to cycle across countries and thousands of km's.
I think in this day and age where speed is prized more than anything, that's pretty cool.
Having gone for a dip in the sea the next morning, the French guys helped me get my stuff back to the top and I was on my way .
The next three towns or so were so close that they had all kind of morphed into one large urban area. They weren’t quite as plush, pristine or as pretty as the ones on the French side but were very agreeable nonetheless.
With the number of scooters whizzing by, my mirror was a godsend. It's probably the best fifteen euro's I have ever spent.
Throughout the morning, I would have to endure the displeasure of a flat tyre on a number of occasions.
I'd pump it up full and it would stay inflated for a time before going completely flat. I'd then stop, and pump it up just enough to be able to ride, and it would last a whole lot longer. I couldn't figure it out.
One time I stopped and took everything off by the promenade and an elderly Italian chap looked on and asked many questions in Italian which drew continuous blank looks and shrugged shoulders from me.
Tired of the staring I just inflated the same inner tube again and went on my way resigning myself to having to pump it up every 2km's or so.
A little later, I used a pump at a gas station and it stayed inflated for the next 5 days. I shall never understand the physics of air.
I passed through San Remo and Imperia before heading a little inland at Albenga to find somewhere to camp.
The following morning was spent winding my way around the coast through tunnel after tunnel, one of which was closed to traffic. This had the knock on affect of a traffic free road for ten km's. apart from the scooters which were always present.
In Spotorno, I stopped off for a beer and relaxed on the beach. Two ladies, immaculately preened, wearing lots of jewellery and make up and whom had hair that looked not too dissimilar to Bob Ross complemented me on my travels too.
As I approached Savona, the road became four lanes and the traffic intensified. It was the first time I had been on a very busy road in Italy and so I wasn’t too sure what to expect but, for all the negative comments I have heard about Italian drivers, they were quite good to me.
I spent many an hour negotiating stupendously steep gradients around the coast before arriving on the outskirts of Gerona.
The great thing about cycling next to the sea is that I could easily take a dip whenever I fancied, and this is what I did now before tackling Gerona itself.
In Gerona, I thought I might try to find a hotel that would meet my stringent criteria, namely it being cheap.
I really enjoyed Gerona, so much so that I stayed another night. The city has a gritty edge to it which I liked very much.
With some good sleep, a full belly and a haircut too, I set off east in the vague direction of Bologne.
My original plan was to head directly across northern Italy towards Venice and cross into Slovenia from there. Back in Marseille however, I had heard that a friend from New Zealand was in Bologne thus I began to make my way towards the Apennine Mountains. There was just no way around it, I had to cross them and a felt a little uneasy about it.
As it happens, it wasn’t nearly as tough as I had thought it would be. I had covered a lot of ground already the previous evening and by noon, after four hours climbing the endless switchbacks, I had at last made it to the top. To my quiet relief, I was informed at a café that that it was all downhill from here on out.
It just so happens that the road climbs in an extremely steep fashion from the coast and descends quite delicately all the way to the plains of central Italy.
After some hugely difficult climbs up and down for the 40 km's to Chiavari, I began to tentatively make my way inland, through the last of the villages and up into the mountains and valleys that lay beyond.
The further I cycled, the narrower the road became and the steeper the gradient got.
The peculiar thing about this kind of cycling is that, what looks like 10km's on your map turns out to be a 25km ride due to the twisting nature of the road.
I spent the rest of the evening in the lowest possible gear, edging my way further up the narrow roads. The air became damp and the atmosphere claustrophobic. As the light began to vanish behind the trees, I found a nice place to camp opposite a house and had a blissful nights sleep.
Knowing that I had actually been given permission to camp the previous night, I was in no hurry to leave in the morning. The mountains on my map extended for another 50km's north thus I knew it would be a tough day.
And so I spent the rest of the day, and I mean the rest of the day descending all the way down through the mountains, hills, valleys and rivers until finally at around six, I arrived in a small town twenty km’s south of Parma. It was magical.
Having provisioned myself from a supermarket, I set off in a zig zag fashion not quite south east in the direction of Bologna. Camping opportunities were looking decidedly thin on the ground, and I instead cycled up a path leading to a farm and asked a man in his tractor if I could camp somewhere there. He replied no because it wasn’t his farm but that I could camp at the church which wasn’t too far away.
I found the church and monastery down the road, and asked the group outside if it was okay to camp there. They of course replied that it was no problem and I was even given a voluptuous bowl of pasta. It was delicious.
On the road to Bologna, everything was going great; the sun was shining, the wind was pushing me forward and the scenery was stunning.
My positive vibes ended abruptly when I rode over a massive pot-hole and my rear tyre blew out from underneath me. I couldn't believe it!
I knew that I didn't have any inner tubes that didn't have holes in, no spare patches in which to repair this one, and in any case, had no glue in which to stick the patches that I did not have.
I pushed my bike to the side of the road and tried to fix the puncture with some fabric glue and a piece of old inner-tube but it didn't work.
I then tried to stop the racing cyclists zooming pass to ask for a spare patch. Either their skin tight lycra was restricting the blood flow to their brains or they were just too focused on their speedometers. Either way none stopped.
Having walked the 2km's to the next village, a Nigerian man called Prince told me that there was a bus in half an hour to the next town. I thus decided to take the bus, with the man I had met helping me with my stuff.
He then told me I did not need to pay. As we sat down and continued our journey, It became apparent that indeed no one was paying when they got on or off the bus. It was as if it was a free public service or something and so it quickly dawned on me that that no one pays for much in Italy. It’s a kind of innocent till proven guilty philosophy i.e you don’t pay until you have been asked to.
Arriving in Reggio Emilia, I found a bike shop but it didn't open until 14:30. It was now 13:00. I left my bike at the café I was at and went off to check the shop anyway and found an old man whom presumably owned it, putting the bikes out in front of the shop.
I tried to indicate to the best of my ability what I needed; trying all sorts of different words, phrases and hand gestures in the process but it was all of no use.
I then walked into the shop and pointed at the tubes behind the counter and yet he still said that he didn’t understand. I thought that he must understand me as there was nothing else behind the counter apart from rows upon rows of inner tubes.
I really didn’t want to wait another hour and a half especially since the thing I needed most was so tantalisingly close to my finger tips. Another metre and it would be in my grasp! He was having none of it though.
As he was growing a little irate about me being in his shop when he was clearly closed, I walked outside and watched silently as he put out the rest of the bikes. When that was done, he closed the door and I was left looking through the glass at my prize.
I arrived in Bologna at 20:00 that evening and was relieved to see my friend after such a torrid day.
I spent a nice couple of days in Bologna eating some good food and drinking some good wine. It was great to see Mario again.
From Bologna, I took a train to Cesena before cycling onto Perugia over the following two and a half days.
I arrived in Perugia already thoroughly exhausted, and when I realised the actual town stood atop another huge hill, I was devastated. I even got another puncture just as I was about to start the climb.
I had already made the decision in my head to use better quality tyres when I left on my next trip and this moment cemented that thought.
I ended up staying in Perugia three days such were the great vibes. I then ended up booking a train to Ancona on the coast where I would depart by boat to Split, Croatia.
It was when I was sat on the train, looking through the window at the beautiful scenery going by, that I decided to get off in Fabriano.
I just didn't want to miss any of the scenery as it was just so gorgeous. As my luck would have it, Fabriano was already way out of the mountains and thus most of the truly great scenes had already flown by. I rued my decision to take the train now.
I walked into a bakery, but upon realising there was no caffeine to be served, walked straight back out.
Outside, I saw two guys looking over my bike, and rather sarcastically, said 'thank you' for looking after it. Upon saying this though, one of them asked where I was staying tonight and quickly told me I could stay at his house. That was quickly followed by something along the lines of 'don't worry, I'm straight'.
After boarding the ferry at Ancona, I joined the throngs of people at the café terrace at the rear of the ship to watch Italy slip away into the night. It was a quite lovely view, but as ever with any kind of port, the town was surrounded by cranes. Even so, it was a commendable view.
There was a real party mood on the boat that evening. It seems that, whereas the boats from England to France hold predominantly trucks, the ferry's here held vacationers, and so the mood definitely reflects that.
I found a room full of sleeping bodies later on and joined them on the floor before waking up bleary eyed the following morning at 6am to the lush islands of Croatia.
I cycled into the historic part of town and into the Palace of Diocletian which I guess is the main draw. As amazing as it was, I had more pressing concerns and that was my coffee fix.
Having stayed in Split for a couple of days at Phillips house, I made my way around the city and followed the coast for the remainder of the day knowing that my turn off for the road into the mountains north lay ahead.
I noticed that there was a UNESCO listed town just ahead however called Trogir, thus this is where I headed next.
Having spent a lovely night in Trogir, I set off the following day, again along the coast before readying myself for the climb into the interior.
Almost immediately, I was presented with some seriously steep switchbacks. They were painful and were made even worse due to the 40 degree heat. It was unrelenting. Every thirty metres or so, a tree would present itself which afforded some respite from the heat though.
Off the highway, most of the land seemed to be untouched by humans. There was barely any interference at all which was always good news to me as it meant I could camp wherever I wanted to.
The landscape at the top was beautiful, and was for the most part, completely blanketed in forest. It was really quite lush.
I don’t understand why people are so hypnotically drawn to the beach when all of this is here too, then again I never quite understand the workings of the minds of a lot of tourists.
A little later, I opted to take a smaller road north down some switchbacks and into a gorgeous valley before climbing back out and camping at the top. This afforded some amazing views over the surrounding area.
I was away by seven the following morning such was my need for water. I seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There were no houses, cars or animals of any kind, and my mouth was now as dry as a desert.
After an hour, and with my mouth being completely devoid of moisture, I happened upon a small village of perhaps five houses and asked a man sat outside if it was possible to fill up my bottles. Of course he said yes and I gulped down a half litre whilst thanking him at the same time thus filling my shirt with saliva. His wife went in and got me another bottle.
I cycled through dry scrub-land and villages made simply from wood and stone. Signs on the edge of the road warned me not to deviate due to the prevalence of land mines in the area. A quite sad thought and one made even sadder by the fact that I had camped in a similar area the night before.
I arrived in Drnis, and immediately found a supermarket to stock up on some items and then elected to use the gas station on the way out of town to pump up my tyres. I felt the effect right away and it was much easier to cycle back out of the valley I had just descended into.
Turning out of Knin and onto the road to the Bosnian border, the temperature had dropped to around 25 degrees whereas before it was around 35. The houses began to thin out and the bush became denser, wetter too.
After a short climb, I came to my first proper manned border crossing of the trip thus far. I had reached Bosnia!
I mentioned to the lady on the Bosnian side that I hadn’t expected to see anyone here whereupon she replied that “we’re not part of EU, NATO blah blah blah, we’re not part of anything”. She asked me where. I was staying and I replied with the name of the first town I had seen on my map some 20km's away. I was mightily glad to have remembered it!
I was stopped by a German guy riding a motorbike a little later whom told me that, five km’s ahead where the top of the pass lay, there was a really quite beautiful area where you could camp, but there were in fact sign’s everywhere warning you of unexploded mines. I thought it was really nice of him to pull over and say so as, just like he said, when I finally arrived there, it was already dark thus I couldn't see the signs at all.
I spent perhaps the next three hours climbing ever higher and higher up into the mountains. It was by no means as high as it had been in the Apennines but as I had been cycling since seven in the morning, my legs finally began to cry out in weariness and pain.
As the road began to straighten out, instead of snaking its way around the mountains, I began to feel I was close to the top but with every new corner, my spirits were dashed when the road continued on.
Obviously, and I don’t have to say this, but the views were simply spectacular across the surrounding valleys, particularly with the late evening mist creeping in.
I flew down the other side of the valley the following morning and was confronted by wonderful views. It looked peaceful and quaint and not like a place that had been ravaged by war for so many years.
I had felt a little envious of the cars flying past the previous evening but wasn't at all envious now. It was great to be able to breathe in the clean air and take in the scenery at a slower pace.
Two days later, I again followed the river before heading through Bihac where I became quite lost and took a wrong turn. Due to this, I was heading towards the 'wrong' border checkpoint but to me it didn't matter. An hour or so later and I had crossed back into Croatia.
What a seriously beautiful country Bosnia is. The scenery really is breath-taking!
I was invited to have lunch with a family in the town of Bosansko Grahovo, and then continued on towards Dvar where I managed to find a supermarket that would accept my card.
With some groceries bought, I then cycled out that valley in 40 degree heat again. It was punishing. Even the local dogs were not bothering me. They seemed oblivious whilst they lay along the road under the shade of trees.
I took a smaller road at the top that would take me along a ridge towards the river Una.
At the end, I glided down some more roads and found the river at the bottom which I was to follow for the remainder of the day.
Later on, I found myself holding onto the trailer of a car which pulled me along the gravel road, and which eventually led me to a campsite down by the side of the river. It was here I stayed the night.
From the border, I followed the road past Plitvicka National Park. I found a local campsite and managed to fill up my bottles, and as it was so busy, decided to wheel my bicycle to the shower block where I was able to take a refreshing shower. With that done, I headed north towards the town of Slunj.
A couple of days later, I had arrived in Slovenia where I was greeted by the friendliest police I had ever met. They filled up my water, let me sit in their air conditioned office and even gifted me some apples.
I had heard that 90% of the country is covered in forest and this really is the case. I felt like Robin Hood. It's hilly for sure but even the flat land seemed to covered in trees and I knew I would have no problems camping here. I was even woken one morning when a deer galloped past my tent!
The whole country seemed perfect. The houses were sleek and modern, the gardens well-tended and the inhabitants looked prosperous what with their classy clothes and luxury cars.
Over the next three days, I cycled through the verdant countryside of Slovenia constantly getting help along the way by the locals.
I was given places to sleep and warm wishes to send me on my way. I really did enjoy my time here and I wowed to come back again.
Having rested for a couple of days in the capital, I set off north with Austria in my sights.
The road north was simple enough to follow at first but I became quite stuck when every sign I came across said it was strictly forbidden to cycle any further.
I didn't know where to turn at that point as my map didn't show any other roads leading north.
I tried to follow one road, but after 3km's it began to take me right the way round, and back into the town I had come from.
I then crossed over the highway without somehow getting killed and found some bicycle signs but these just led to some suburbs and eventually ended abruptly at a railway line.
Eventually three guys I saw told me just to go back on the highway as the 'no cycling part' only happened for 5 km's or so. After that, you were allowed to cycle again.
I got back on the highway, and sure enough after 2 km's, the signs stopped, and the car beeping ceased too.
I continued north through Slovenia towards the Austrian border, always gaining altitude but forever going up and down at the same time.
The road began to climb more steeply up into the misty Alps now and the weather began to turn a little sour too.
I ploughed on ever deeper into the jagged peaks. I peddled, heaved and pushed my bike up at times for that was often the only way I could do it.
The one unquestionably positive thing about cycling in this kind of taxing terrain is that water is plentiful everywhere you go; waterfalls brush the side of the road with the road itself often following the course of a nice sparkling river and so you’re at least never short of it.
I came to a tiny village at one point, and with the road forking off in two completely different directions, I asked some people which was the correct way to Austria.
Their answer scared the crap out of me. Apparently the road to Austria was about 5km's back the way I had come. I had somehow missed the turn off. I'll be damed. How could it be? How on earth could I have been so stupid?
The complete lack of traffic and the fact that the road was so tiny and in disrepair all made sense now. Why would a road to an international border be so tiny and pot-holed? It all added up.
All that effort, sweat and toil of climbing those switchbacks was for nothing. God damn it!
I satisfied myself with the thought that it was at least all down hill now the way back.
I continued on my way for the next couple of hours, plodding along and listening to music whilst grinding out metre after metre of asphalt up gradients that made my stomach churn.
Eventually, I arrived at a tunnel and a sign welcomed me into Austria.
The gradients on the other side were almost comically steep. They were a joy to ride down but also pretty dangerous in the wet weather. My break pads were certainly working overtime.
The next couple of days were spent following a river from Ferlach east to Spittal an der Drau. It was un utterly miserable couple of days as the rain failed to stop and I just had to get on with cycling in wet clothes. It wasn't much fun.
A peculiar thing happened to me on the way to Spittal. Parked behind a car, and waiting for the lights to turn green, a lady got out of her car ahead of me and asked me where I had come from. Upon replying, she thrust ten euro's into my hand and, just as quickly as she had gotten out her car, got right back in again. It seemed that upon hearing my answer, she felt my trip sufficiently grand enough to deserve it. I left a little dumbstruck and a bit embarrassed too.
With the fact that my train departed from Munich, and although I was already completely knackered, I thought I would take on the highest pass in the Austrian Alps and one of the highest roads in Europe.
This was why I now found myself heading north west from Spittal an de Drau. It soon became clear that this would be no easy feat. I was now ascending ever so slowly through a valley of monumental proportions.
I found myself in Heiligenblut four days later readying myself for the pass. Just before starting the climb, I began to take out every bit of excess weight I was carrying; sugar, porridge, nuts and bolts, olive oil, the list went on. Anything and everything that was not absolutely necessary would have to go.
The ride to Heiligenblut from Spittal was only 80'kms but I had to make a side trip for a couple of days to a dentist in the city of Lienz. That was neither fun nor cheap but it had to be done. I knew that I couldn't cycle up a 3500 metre pass with a golfball in my mouth.
With my bags relieved of the excess weight, I headed on up in the early afternoon and just hoped I could reach the top by the end of the day.
The climb was quite possibly the hardest physical thing I have ever done in my life. I inched my way along the road by way of cycling slowly, very slowly, interspersed with sporadic bursts of heavy pushing followed by several seconds of heavy breathing and many, many profanities that I won’t go into here. It was hard. It was exhausting and don’t wish to experience it again any time soon.
Six pm had come and gone, and it was looking unlikely that I would reach the top before it grew dark.
I thus decided to camp at about 2000 metres, and hoped that it stayed relatively warm and the weather didn't turn too adversely.
Feeling thoroughly refreshed and invigorated the following morning, I set off to climb the final 400 metres or so.
Reaching the top gave me a profound sense of pride and also astonishment that I had actually done it when considered with the fact that I was also carrying seven bags with me.
Having admired the views for some time, I went through a tunnel at the top that brought me to a large plateau of sorts. The road meandered its way through and down somewhat until I was presented with an even bigger pass at 2575 metres! Not again I thought!
Needless to say, it was a staggeringly thrilling ride down the pass, and I arrived in Zell am See where I found a cafe to relax for a bit and prepare for my onward journey to Munich.
From Zell am See, I spent the following two days cycling north west in the direction of Munich. Camping was relatively easy, and with the mountains now behind me, it was an easy enough ride through the Austrian and German countryside.
Of course I became quite lost in Bavaria on the small country roads but continued to receive help from friendly locals.
On the morning of the third day, I began to enter Munich itself, and was guided the last few km's into the city by a German guy cycling alongside me.
I had a customary picture taken in the main square and felt extremely proud of the journey thus far. I had learnt a lot of things along the way and this would help with my trip to Vietnam the following Spring.
For now, it was good enough to know that I had it in me.
Six trains later through Germany, a 140km ride from Bonn to Liege, two more trains through Belgium, a ferry to England and lastly, another two trains from Dover to Brighton, and I was well and truly and finally done.