10th March – 4th September 2016
My great European cycling adventure
11 14 countries, 179 days, ~12’500km (7800 miles).
On what turned out to be a horrible, miserable, rainy Thursday morning, I left my seaside hometown and didn’t come back for half a year. For 6 months it was me and my bike, accompanied by the occasional friend or family member, always pedalling towards somewhere or someone new and exciting.
Averaging about 70km (44 miles) a day, it comes as little surprise that the main itinerary of my cycling tour was riding a bike. To me, cycling isn’t just a way of getting around, it has a long list of its own advantages and pleasures. I indulged in some absolutely amazing cycling experiences over the trip, with routes through a host of pilgrimage sites for the sport, from the Yorkshire dales to the French Cote-d’Azur. I experienced cycling in 12 capitals including Amsterdam, arguably the most cycle-friendly city in the world, and the infamous chaos of Rome and Paris. Finally, there was the rather large obstacle of the Alps to cover at some point, which was never going to be easy, as well as a mandatory detour to Land’s End. To finish, I rode the notoriously fun ‘Cat and Fiddle’, though the wind kind of ruined it. In short, I did a lot more than just cycle to places. After all, happiness is a journey, not a destination. Or something like that.
Though I might try and deny it sometimes, I am a complete tourist and there is no doubt that I’ll succumb to the temptation to head straight for Big Ben, the Leaning Tower, Charles Bridge etc. when I make it to a big city. How else am I supposed to prove that I’ve been there? Most places are notable for some reason, and the thought of getting there under my own steam was one of the biggest motivations for doing this in the first place.
The Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Venice (and Amsterdam), the French and Italian Rivieras, lake castles in Slovenia, museums on beer, weed, torture, the iron curtain, windmills and optical illusions (a great combination in my opinion), the world’s biggest miniature exhibition, indulging in the drama of Verona, the food of the rest of Italy, the views from atop alpine mountains, the liveliness of Marseille or Berlin, the beauty of Vienna, Bruges, Dresden and of-course Hull.
Also, for the thriving history geek in me: there were castles, castles, more castles, the aforementioned castle in a lake, dungeons, castles, cathedrals, preserved medieval towns, some more castles, old battlefields, war memorials, castles, fountains, castles with fountains and a few Soviet/Nazi/Napoleonic/Papal/Roman/Imperial sights to dip my toes in. And an iconic battlefield.
In-between the big-name sights and famous photo-locations lies the bigger picture of a place’s culture, landscape and character. Not knowing exactly where you’re going can be incredibly liberating and exhilarating, and a completely different and at-least equally satisfying and rewarding travelling experience comes to those who stray (intentionally or not) off the beaten path. By focusing on where you are rather than where you’re going, realising the merits of every single place you happen upon and every person you come across, you can draw a much more potent, personal memory of somewhere.
Basically, I knew I was going to get lost on countless occasions, and rather than worrying about it, it became a much better idea to enjoy the ambiguity and run the odds of discovering somewhere truly unspoiled and different that I realised for myself was important or interesting, rather than being told so before I even get there. I’d experienced this in a small way on a number of shorter cycling adventures and when I’ve been let off the leash on family holidays when younger, and now the continent is littered with little spots where I found myself taking stock, enjoying a moment, and putting a completely inconsequential, unnotable place on my own personal map of the world.
Something happens when you hit the road (which sounds really painful and uncalled for). I spent a lot of time in public, in view of and in conversation with it. Be that the public of a small town in Germany, or the enigmatic Londoner. Culture seeps through and from them, you learn about a place in its people, they add something organic to towns and cities and even countryside.
Then there are fellow travellers. If you consider that you’ll probably be in an incredible mood whilst travelling, imagine a group of people all doing it, who all happen upon each other at the right place and time, to become a part of each other’s journey and story. You find yourself drawing a line in a giant web of criss-crossing paths that cross the globe. The world shrinks, and you find yourself, for all the time spent alone, part of a huge, worldwide community. You learn a friend is never far away. From Nice to Pisa to Dresden to Paris, and on a great course up the Loire in central France, I made some incredible friends who I will never forget.
And then there’s friends and family, who would occasionally pop in on the journey and fill it with familiarity, like a dozen holidays over one summer, sharing good times, remembering home, or forging entirely new relationships in the process. Leaving home behind doesn’t mean you have to leave the people who live there behind too.
Food. Lots of it. Very nice food.
Being a cider drinker, almost exclusively so – to the extent that the taste of some beers has made me nauseous – posed a problem in some parts of Europe. The sub-10% ABV message (i.e. not wine or spirits) is clear: ‘lager is king, lager is great, it you love lager you’re sorted, look at all these different lagers you can try’. In most of the countries I passed through, cider was not as popular as in the UK, and apart from the big mass-produced brands and a very tart bottle of Apfelwein, I hadn’t tried any European stuff before leaving. I did, however, manage to hunt down a few European attempts at my favourite bev, from a whole host of places, small start-ups, huge brands, and even some home-made efforts.
In a way though, you could say I failed in my quest, because I definitely drank much more beer and wine than cider, and I came to like them both a whole lot more.
I also made a feature film of my adventures, being a film-maker and heading rapidly for a film course at university in 2016, I couldn’t really slack off the entire notion of film for half a year, so I took it with me. Now, in 2017, it’s my most ambitious project, still in production, and headed for my YouTube channel in 13 episodes by the end of the year.