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I’d been pedalling across Europe for some weeks now, travelled about fifteen hundred miles through nine countries and in that time seen what I considered to be my fair share of hills, from that puffy little rise on the way to Parenty my first day on the road, to those tortuous grinds in the Ardennes to that endless upward crawl to Zuflucht in the rain that day in the Black Forest to the previous day’s long hot thirsty climbs through the scrub along the Greek-Albanian border, but it turned out that all these challenges had been merely the opening acts, the warm-up if you will, for the journey’s main event, the hors category monster that lay in wait on the road out of Ioannina.
I’d no idea, of course. Everything I knew about Greek geography you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, and my cheap and cheerful road map of Epirus hadn’t enlightened me much. A squiggly line of road was all it showed and I assumed that to mean another day of moderately strenuous ups and downs, pretty much a reprise of the ride from Igoumenitsa and so I set off from Ioannina full of jaunty high spirits, blissfully ignorant of the Pindus mountains up ahead, sometimes known as the ‘spine of Greece’.
It was another fine day, hot and sunny and not a cloud in the sky. I topped up my water supply at a grocery shop on the edge of town, bought and ate a fresh hot flat-loaf of olive bread from the baker’s for breakfast, and thus fortified began the climb up the long slow grade out of Ioannina, admiring the view over the lake as I went. The first inkling I had that this was not going to be a day like yesterday came a few miles down the track, when I’d already been up and over one tougher-than-expected climb and was beginning the day’s second hard upward slog.
Another of these hospitable Greek motorists had slowed beside me to offer me a bottle of water, and while he was about it asked, in concerned tones, if I realised that the road ahead continued to climb like this for the next thirteen kilometres. I hadn’t known that, but I shrugged and smiled as though it were all in a day’s work and thanked him for the gift of the water. I tucked the bottle in my jersey pocket and waved him on, hoping that I’d misheard that bit about the thirteen kilometres; this gradient was damned steep.
In point of fact, I had misheard him. He hadn’t said thirteen at all: he’d said thirty. And at that, he was low-balling it. It turned out to be nearer thirty-five kilometres of solid upward slog from where he spoke to me to the top of Katara Pass, the notch in the as-yet-unsighted mountain range into which I was heading.
On and on it went, that steep, narrow precipice road winding around one shoulder of the mountain after another, angling ever higher. Every now and then I’d look up from my toils, hoping to see some sign that this grade was coming to an end, only to see instead the twinkle of a distant car moving upward across a seemingly inaccessible cliff face far away and far above and realise with sinking heart that there was at least that much further to go. And when at long last you reached the point where that sparkle of car had disappeared from view, and rounded the next, you’d see another long serpentine rise up the mountain, and perhaps again the distant twinkle of a car much, much higher yet.
I’d lapsed into reverie and was musing over the ancient Greek legend of Sisyphus, how he had been condemned Zeus to keep pushing a huge rock up a hill for the rest of eternity, and wondering if this was the road that had inspired the story, when I noticed a sign up ahead for a turn off to a village called Metsovo. The side road dipped invitingly. I could see Metsovo’s red tile roofs down amongst the trees and imagined the cool shade in its village square. Sisyphus mightn’t have been entitled to take a break, but I sure was.
Metsovo turned out to be as cool and shady and invitingly old-fashioned as I’d imagined, with little old Greek ladies in black dresses and scarves tending terraced herb plots beside their houses, and gruff old men in smoking in front of cafes. I bought myself a couple bottles of water, some more peaches, a slab of local cheese and bread, propped myself up against the base of a tree, settled in with a book – and, well, before I knew it the afternoon sort of slipped away.
Looking up, around four or so, with the light sweetening and shadows lengthening around me, and contemplating the uphill slog I faced just to get back to the main road, I decided I’d make this a two-day hill, establish my advance camp here for the night and mount my final assault on the summit in the morning.
I woke to the tinkling of bells and the clatter of many little hooves as a shepherd drove his flock up the narrow stone passageway that ran just outside the window at the guest house where I’d put up for the night. I rolled out of bed and peered out the window at the cool damp of a mountain morning. Time for Sisyphus to be up, shoulder his boulder and set off to his hill. I filled up my water bottles, and pedalled back up to the main road.
A dense and clammy mist had enveloped the mountains during the night, reducing visibility to practically nil. There was no traffic at this hour, nothing stirring at all, just me and these cold, grasping fingers of mist and a few visible feet of bitumen which I followed upwards, curve after curve until at last a road sign materialised – Katara Pass, elevation 1690 metres. I glided to a halt beside it, feeling like a conqueror. I broke out a chocolate bar to celebrate, and ate it in the ghostly stillness, the hush broken only by the tinkling of a goat’s bell somewhere out there in the mist.
It was cold up there once you’d stopped pedalling. I shrugged into my fleece to keep from becoming chilled and in preparation for what I expected would be a brisk and breezy descent. They’d told me back in Metsovo that it would be all downhill once I’d cleared the pass. They weren’t kidding. I barely had to touch the pedals for the next thirty miles.
By any reckoning it was a spectacular stretch of road, plunging like a cataract down the mountainside in a series of fast tight S-bends. As the mists lifted, and the road dropped, stomach-fluttering views opened up beside me of rocky gorges hundreds of feet deep and yawning precipices and crumbly curves where guard rails might profitably have been placed, but weren’t.
As I pumped my brakes and averted my eyes, I thought of Federico Bahamontes, winner of the 1959 Tour de France, and a man who, although he was a brilliant out-of-the-saddle climber was such a nervous descender that once, after handily beating the peloton to the top of the Galibier, he astonished spectators by pulling over and spending the next few minutes idling about the summit, licking an ice cream cone, and waiting for the others to catch up so he could descend the mountain in the psychological safety of the pack. I knew just how he felt. But I had neither ice cream nor company, just the swift silent pull of gravity to keep me warm and interested.
Thirty miles spun by in a blur, and as the landscape eased and relaxed around me, so did I – pedalling now and again to maintain my momentum, booming along out of the mountains and on to the broad sunlit Plains of Thessaly, the so called breadbasket of Greece, with nothing but farmland stretching before me now clear to the Aegean Sea.
I made brisk time. The roads down here were busy, but miles flew. I’d clocked my century for the day, and more, by the time I reached the town of Larissa – birthplace of that famous heel, Achilles – but there was still plenty of daylight in the sky so after threading my way through its tangle of streets, I pressed on, my sights on Volos.
I got there just on dusk, with the lights twinkling on the hillsides above the town and the harbour shimmering a luminous violet-blue in the afterglow of the sunset. I found a cheap hotel a couple of streets back from the waterfront and after stowing away the bike, treated myself to a slap-up dinner of fried calamari with all the fixings at a open-air place along the promenade, and waded into it with the gusto of a man who’d clocked a hundred and fifty miles on the day. In the morning I’d trot down here to the harbour, first thing, and check out the ferry possibilities for island-hopping across the Aegean.
Volos, as I’d surmised from seeing it on the map, is a busy seaport and had quite a decent selection of ferry services out to the islands, most them scuttling back and forth to a nearby island group called the Sporades, but one that went all the way out to Mytilene on the far side of the Aegean and just off the Turkish coast. That looked like the one for me. Trouble was, it didn’t leave until two o’clock in the morning, giving me plenty of time to kill here in Volos.
I spent the forenoon browsing around the town and found a bookshop that had a gratifyingly decent stash of English-language paperbacks, quite a few second-hand. My afternoon read-a-thon in the shade at Metsovo had left me low on reading material, and now with another long day of leisure stretching before me and nothing to do with it but idle in some café or other and improve my mind, I bought not just one book but three: a Penguin edition of The Odyssey; an old copy of Murder on The Orient Express, with a garish Seventies cover; and an equally shop-worn copy of my old boyhood favourite: Around the World in Eighty Days.
With these in my bar bag I coasted down to the waterfront, ordered myself a bottle of lemonade at a nicely shaded café, and settled in, choosing The Odyssey for my afternoon fare. Time passed agreeably. The seating was comfortable, the sea breeze soft and warm, and Homer turned out to be quite an entertaining storyteller.
I ordered calamari for lunch, and a succession of lemonades as the afternoon progressed to justify my continued occupation of a table, but the café was never more than about a third full and nobody seemed to care in the least whether I ordered anything or not; it was a pretty relaxed sort of a place. Every now and then I put the book away, took a leisurely turn around the town, then drifted back again to this same old café, and usually to the same old wobbly table.
Afternoon segued into evening, a lamb dish for dinner, more Odysseus, more slowly sipped lemonades. About ten o’clock a migratory urge came upon me and I drifted out to the ferry landing. It was night-time dark by then, but the wharf was well-peopled, and well lit, everybody waiting on the ferry. I found a comfortable bollard to sit and lean against, and sprawled out, watching the constellation of lights twinkle on the harbour and the hazy stars overhead. I wasn’t feeling at all sleepy, nor even bored, and two o’clock in the morning rolled around more quickly than I’d have thought possible – and bringing with it the throb of an engine in the night and the navigation lights of an approaching ferry.
The ferry company’s booking office was in an old dockside terminal that used to belong to the White Star Line back in the day, judging by the block letters still visible through the faded whitewash on the brick facade.
It was crowded inside, a swirl of brassy voices and cigarette smoke and piled-up luggage in a great, lofty, old-fashioned waiting room. I shuffled my way through the crowd and up to one of the ticket windows where I paid for deck passage to Igoumenitsa. Ticket in hand, I drifted over to the yellowed route map on the wall curious to know, now that I was about to go there, just where in Greece this place was supposed to be.
I found it after a bit of looking: just opposite the island of Corfu, and near the Albanian border. Interesting; I’d never been quite sure where Corfu was either, although of course I’d heard the name. At any rate, from Igoumenitsa it appeared to be a fairly straightforward matter of riding across northern Greece down to Volos, a port city on the Aegean Sea, and from there island hopping to Turkey. All that was for later; at the moment I had a twenty-hour sea passage ahead of me and not much in the way of supplies laid in to tide me over.
Judging by the look of my fellow deck passengers, extended Greek and Albanian families mainly, and the bulging sacks of foodstuffs and bottled water piled around them, the done thing was to stock up well and err on the side of plenty. I had hours yet before the ship sailed, so I hopped back on my bike and took a turn around Trieste to see what I could find that was open this early on a Sunday morning. Not much; the city was dead quiet. All the holiday bustle was down the coast, seeking sea and sun, not cluttering up the streets of faded old Trieste.
At that, it was kind of nice pedalling up one grand old boulevard and down another, getting a feel for the place, without a lot of distracting traffic. Back in the day Trieste was one of the grandest seaports in Europe, a name on luggage labels that conjured the romance and intrigue of steamship travel to the East. A lot of tides had ebbed and flowed out of its harbour since then, but it was still a pretty and evocative place, in an antique sort of way.
I roamed the city far and wide, stopping off for gelati here and an espresso there, and in the course of my wanderings found enough open delicatessens to gather up an goodly array of supplies. I finished up at the Caffe Tommaseo, Trieste’s oldest and most opulent café and in its brass and mahogany surrounds and played at being a boulevardier and imagined Sir Richard Burton sitting over cigars and coffee here when he was the British consul in Trieste, until finally the wall clock told me it was time to head back to the wharf.
Other than the lot filling up with more cars and truck, not much had happened there since I’d pedalled away that morning. The ship still wasn’t in, although it should have been. Engine troubles was the story being passed around. I parked my bike amongst a group of motorcycles and sprawled in the sun to read and wait. And wait. And wait.
Dusk was gathering by the time we finally put to sea, an anticlimactic five hours behind schedule. I leaned against the railing that curved around the stern, and watched Trieste recede with a growing sense of relief: whatever else happened now, I was going to have made it at least as far as Greece, something I’d begun to doubt a couple nights earlier, back in Pula.
My bicycle was stowed below with the cars and trucks, lashed to a railing along one of the bulkheads. My saddlebags, bedroll and bags of groceries were at my feet and, taking my cue from the scramble unfolding around me, in the first great rush to come aboard, I’d pegged out a few square feet of deck space to call my own, and to sleep on later on in the evening. A twenty-hour passage lay ahead of me. Sometime tomorrow afternoon we’d dock at Igoumenitsa and then I’d have to start worrying about Greek drivers and Greek topography, but for now at least I could loiter by this railing, nibbling from a bag of dried fruit, and watch Trieste slip astern in the soft evening light.
It was a warm night, and a long one. The deck was crowded and restless and too brightly floodlit for sleeping. A couple of times, in the small hours, I gave up even trying, and stood by the rails looking at the lights of cities and town twinkling on shore, listening to the throb of the engine and watching our silvery wake recede into the darkness. Dawn found us running along a barren coast: Albania, unless I missed my guess. More tedious hours dragged by. The sun climbed higher and beat down on the deck. From memory of that wall map in the ferry terminal back in Trieste, I knew that we had to be seeing Corfu off our starboard side before we could consider ourselves close to Igoumenitsa.
It seemed to take forever, but eventually a rocky, lightly wooded coast appeared off the bow and the ship entered the strait between Corfu and mainland Greece and after steaming nearly the whole length of Corfu made a long slow turn to port and headed into the harbour at Igoumenitsa. It was mid-afternoon by then and breathlessly hot, the town dead quiet in the glare and the mercury hovering well above the century mark on the old Fahrenheit scale.
I was among the last to disembark from the ferry, walking my bicycle down the steel ramp and thinking back to that ferry landing in Boulogne five weeks ago and what felt like ten thousand miles, but in an agreeable sort of way. I like the world to feel big and grand, a little larger than life, and for distance to take on meaning. And now I was in Greece, on a white hot afternoon, in a seaport I’d never heard of until two days ago.
Not much was happening here. Igoumenitsa dozed in the heat. It seemed the only traffic that afternoon had been whatever we brought with us on the ferry. Once its bellyful of cars and trucks had rumbled away off the wharf and dispersed – to where, I don’t know – the town’s sun-drenched streets resumed their slumbers. Nothing stirred. As I pedalled up the wharf and into town, groggy from lack of sleep myself, I decided to follow the locals’ lead, find myself a place to hole up, get some shut-eye in a darkened room, and make a fresh start in the morning.
And really, there wasn’t much else I could do. Other than a vaguely formed idea of riding across northern Greece to a town called Volos, on the Aegean Sea, and that from only a brief study of a large-scale map on a shipping company’s office wall, I hadn’t a clue where to go from here, which roads to take, and which to avoid, and the shops, where I might be able to buy a road map, all seemed to be closed for the heat of the day, everyone off taking a nap.
I found a cheap hotel near the waterfront and took a room. The girl at reception gave me a can of insect spray along with my key. “The mosquitoes are pretty bad here at night,” she explained, “and some of the screens in the windows have holes in them.” And so they did. But if they let in any mosquitoes, I never knew about it. I drew the shades to shut out the glare then sprawled out on the mattress in cool, blessed darkness and knew no more until the next morning.
I’d wanted the hot yellow landscapes and boy did I find them. The countryside through here was open and stony, with a cloudless vault of sky arching overhead and a narrow road winding its way higher into the mountains in a series of long meandering switchbacks. It was set to be another scorcher – forty-one degrees, according to the shopkeeper back in Igoumenitsa who’d sold me a road map of Epirus and a couple of extra bottles of mineral water to supplement what I was already carrying.
I had no doubt it would get there, either. Ten o’clock in the morning and already the sun was packing a wallop. I didn’t mind though. It was dry heat, unlike the thundery sultriness back in Trieste, and such a blessed change from the damp chill in the Ardennes and the Black Forest and along the Danube that all I wanted to do was soak it up. I was a sponge for heat.
All the same it was steep going, hot, hard and thirsty work. Villages were few and far between along the dusty backroads I’d chosen for myself and there was little in the way of traffic. But what people I did encounter up here were friendly – like the shopkeeper who insisted on washing the peaches he sold me in case I didn’t have an opportunity chance to wash them myself before I ate them.
Or the local family who, on driving by and seeing a cyclist pedalling up their desolate mountain road, and on such a hot day too, slowed to a crawl beside me, rolled down their windows and asked in English if I needed anything. When I said I was fine, they insisted that I at least accept a bottle of Coke, which they passed out the window to me with as much pleasure as I had in receiving it, before driving on, all smiles and waves and tooting horns. Such kindness, together with all that hot bright yellow sunshine and the tranquillity of the roads and the growing sense that I might just make it to Istanbul after all, made these miles as upbeat as they were uphill. I finished the day on a long cooling downhill glide and camped in the scrub near Ioannina.
Another hot clear morning dawned on the Istrian Riviera. I broke camp at half past five, grumpy and bleary-eyed after another fitful night in that rowdy campground. A quarter of an hour’s easy pedalling brought me around to Pula’s sleepy railway station. The place was practically deserted at that hour, just an old man in a floppy brown suit sitting beside his suitcase on a bench out front.
I glided up to the curb, dismounted and ushered my bicycle into the vaulted cool of the station, looking furtively around and about, this way and that, curious to know if there was anybody manning the ticket counter at that time of the morning. By golly, there was. And she had titian hair. Our eyes met, mine registering disbelief, her frosty blues touched by irony, implacability and the exquisiteness of the situation. She shook her head, jabbed a finger at me and snapped out those by-now oh-so-familiar words: “Nicht mit fahrad!”
And so to the highway.
It wasn’t so bad, really. Traffic was still light at that hour, relatively sane, and the air fairly fresh, with most of the lead molecules from the previous day’s burden of auto exhaust having precipitated out overnight. I made good use of my early start and by the time the world and his wife were pushing back from their breakfast tables and feeling the urge to drive somewhere, I was rolling up to the picturesque seaport of Rovinj, some twenty-five miles up the coast, my roadwork done for the day. I’d decided to do this thing in stages: Rovinj today, then make another dawn run up to Porec or Piran on the morrow, and reach Trieste the day after that. Slow going to be sure, but infinitely safer than riding through the midday rush on that highway. It was also infinitely pleasanter and prettier. All you see of Istria from the highway is an ugly sprawl of hotels and condominiums and holiday homes.
Rovinj is said to be one of Croatia’s most beautiful towns, and it would seem churlish to argue the point. You’ve seen it. It’s one of those aspirational places that’s forever appearing on glossy travel calendars, coffee table books and the covers of Conde Nast; that familiar cluster of ancient red-tile roofs and weathered facades huddled together at the end of a promontory, with the Adriatic sparking all around it and the bell tower of St Euphemia’s Basilica – a twin to the one at St Mark’s in Venice – standing proud overhead.
To ride into such a scene bright and early on a fine hot August morning was lovely indeed, even if Rovinj’s narrow streets were rather more clogged with double parked Audis and jaywalking pedestrians in designer gear than the pictures in the travel magazines would have you believe. I wasn’t inclined to be hypercritical, not after making such an unexpectedly safe, easy and uneventful run up the coast from Pula.
There was still the potentially fraught matter of securing a place to stay for the night, but it was hard not to feel optimistic this early on a bright and sunny morning. I swung around to one of the dozens of ‘official’ tourist office-travel agencies that were dotted about the place, leaned my bike against the big front window, where I could keep an eye on it, and trotted inside.
It was already busy, crowded and full of holiday expectancy. I joined the cue, eavesdropping on a conversation in English taking place at the counter to get an inkling of how likely or unlikely I’d be to find accommodation. From what I could gather, it sounded possible, but expensive. As I was mulling over the cost in time, effort, risk and money this ill-advised jaunt down the Istrian coast was putting me to, and hoping that fellow at the counter wasn’t hogging the last room in Rovinj, I glanced up and noticed on a placard that the daily ferry from Pula to Trieste called in here on its way north.
“Say, I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could get aboard today’s ferry to Trieste is there?” I asked the girl behind the counter, when it was my turn to speak.
“Sure.” She reached for her ticket book.
“I…ah…I have a bicycle,” I said, imparting this salient piece of information in the sort of low, confidential murmur you might use to tell someone that you had a particularly loathsome communicable disease.
“Oh, that’s no problem,” she replied, not even looking up as she began the routine of filling out the ticket. “Bicycles go free.”
“They do?” I replied, a waspish note of challenge in my voice. I craned my head back for another look at the logo and the name of the ferry company; it was the same one as in Pula, no doubt about it. “I was given to understand that bicycles were not allowed on your ferries.”
She looked up from her ticket pad and frowned, puzzled. “Who told you that?”
“Your man in Pula.”
She shrugged. “Well, he’s wrong.”
“He’s a prick.”
“Sounds like it. We carry bicycles all the time. He ought to know that. If you want, I‘ll radio the captain and make doubly sure for you.”
“Would you mind?”
“Not at all.” She stepped into a back room and returned a few moments later, with an I-told-you-so smile on her face. “It’s all set. I’ve spoken with the captain and he’ll be expecting you and your bicycle when he docks this afternoon. Was there anything else?”
I celebrated my new lease on life with a slap-up lunch at a restaurant by the old church and afterwards did a spot of sightseeing. Freed from the life and death struggle of the highway, I could appreciate things like antiquities, architecture and Byzantine mosaics. All the same I kept a chary eye on the clock. The last thing I wanted to do was miss that ferry. And so I drifted back to the landing a good half hour early, and bought an ice cream cone and sprawled on a bench in the sunshine, watching all the comings and goings along the harbourside while I waited for the boat.
It arrived dead on time, a smallish, fairly ordinary passenger ferry but looking beautiful to me as it glided out of the violet haze to the south, motored purposefully into the harbour and up to the wharf. A gangplank clattered down and in the next few minutes the usual exchange of people took place – one crowd shuffling off the boat, while another waited in the wings to board. There was no trouble whatever about the bike. A deckhand showed me where to stow it, up near the bow. I lashed it to a railing. By the time I’d finished we were moving.
An Italian customs official was on board, impeccable in a dark and crisply fitted uniform, making the rounds of the new boarders. He examined my passport, thumbing absently through its pages in that way they do, then paused for a moment at the page containing my personal details. He smiled as he handed it back to me: “Happy birthday.”
And so it was. I’d forgotten.
It turned into the laziest of Saturday afternoons. This particular ferry was the slow service, calling in at every town and hamlet along the coast. The scenery was so beautiful it felt more like a cruise: a cavalcade of achingly pretty Italianate seaports, wooded inlets, and golden beaches, all bathed in a fine champagne light. Seeing it from out the water, you’d never imagine the nightmarish sprawl of overdevelopment and traffic-clogged highways that existed just over those hills.
It had been hot and sultry all day, and as the afternoon wore on a heavy waxy violet cast came over the sky. Up ahead, to the north, massive cumulus clouds billowed in the heat, reaching incredible heights. As the long afternoon declined into evening, and the sun dipped into the sea, the tops of these mountainous clouds caught the dying rays and glowed creamy gold and pink, while their lower reaches were a deep smudgy indigo.
There was plenty of weather in those clouds and we were steaming straight for it. By the time the lights of Trieste could be seen twinkling in the distance, the sky behind it was pulsing with lightning. The constant flickering, and the scratchy way it lit the heights behind the city made me think of newsreel footage of old artillery battles.
By now, too, the ferry was nearly empty. Only a couple passengers besides myself were travelling all the way through to Trieste. The rows of vacant seats, the reflections of the harbour lights, and the night sounds carrying across the water, made it feel much later than it was.
I wheeled my bicycle down the ramp, said good night to the steward who was puttering about the deck, tidying up, and then set off along the darkened wharf, towards the lights and purling traffic on the boulevard that ran along the waterfront. It wasn’t raining, but it had done so recently; the night-lit pavement glistened and the air had the fusty aftertaste of rain, and held the promise of more to come. Lightning was flickering almost constantly over the hills now, and from here you could hear the low growl of thunder mingling with the restless murmurs of the city.
I wished I had somewhere to go.
A couple of grandiloquent hotels along the seafront suggested themselves. I marked them in my mind as I strolled past, hoping that I might find something a trifle easier on the budget, but prepared to turn back and sound them out if something didn’t turn up soon. Something did. A couple blocks’ walk brought me to the doors of a tourist bureau. Surprisingly enough, at that desolate hour on a Saturday night, it was still open. There was nobody about, just the girl who worked there, standing in the lighted spill of the doorway, smoking a closing-time cigarette as she watched the lightning flicker overhead.
If she was put out at having a last-minute straggler front up and break the spell, she didn’t show it, but obligingly led me inside and went to work. She put through a couple of calls and found me a room in private house a few blocks away. A bed for the night would be about ten pounds. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Feeling on a roll, I mentioned that I wanted to take a ferry south as soon as possible – Greece or Albania, I didn’t care which, so long as it got me around the holiday hordes in Istria and the Dalmatian Coast.
Once more I came up trumps. A ship for Igoumenitsa would be sailing tomorrow afternoon, she said, plucking a shipping schedule out of a rack of brochures and handing it to me. As I cast my eyes over the fares I saw in amongst the fine print the very words I’d hoped to see: the ones about bicycles being welcome on board, and better still, carried for free.
She couldn’t book the passage for me, she explained; that was something I’d have to do myself in the morning at the shipping agency office just down the road. She handed me a folding tourist map of Trieste, labelled in English, and sent me on my way.
I found the address on the card easily enough. It was one of a long row of ornate old Habsburg piles, about six stories high, that had long ago gone to seed but in a genteel sort of way. I scanned the row of buzzers in the entry way, pushed the one that matched the apartment number on my piece of paper, the waited for my landlady to bustle down several flights of stairs to admit me.
She showed me where I could park my bicycle – underneath the stairwell, beside her Vespa – and then we began the long climb up to where my room was.
As we mounted the steps she explained, apologetically and in fractured English, that something had gone ‘wrong’ with the room she had been going to give me, and that instead she would make up a bed for me in the old kitchen on the uppermost floor; she was sorry but it was the best she could do at such short notice; I could take a look and if it was acceptable, the charge would be only half the rate she’d quoted the girl at the tourist office.
I put on my concerned but understanding face, brow furrowed, lips pursed. The truth was, this late on a Saturday night, I didn’t care where I slept, as long as it was safe, reasonably clean and out of the storm. Which this was: a fold-out cot in the middle of a cramped Fifties-vintage Italian kitchen, with the old classic black-and-white chequered tile floor, Formica table, a pair of rickety chairs and an ancient gas stove.
The open window looked out over a narrow courtyard, six stories deep, that was full of family sounds, laughing, scolding, and the garlic-and-onion smells of dinners frying, and the cyan glow of TV sets flickering through the net curtains of the windows opposite and below.
The woman pointed out where the bathroom was, bade me good night, and retired down the stairs. I took a long, steamy shower and afterwards sprawled on the springy cot and listened to the rainy thundery night, scarcely able to believe how sweetly everything had played out. And all it cost me was five quid. A happy birthday indeed.
Two nights later I was in Opicina, Italy, sprawled beside my bicycle at a scenic lookout on the Carso, the high limestone escarpment above Trieste. The evening sun was low in the sky, the air sultry and scented with warm earth and pine, and the view lifted straight out of an old-style travel poster: picturesque Italian seaport, all antique browns and ochres, spreading below in perfect miniature and in the violet distance beyond it the great shimmering reach of the Adriatic, smooth as glass and burnished to a steely blue by the summer heat so that the cargo ships anchored a few miles offshore appeared to be hovering in the air.
And over there in the shade was the good old bicycle doughty that had brought me here, careened against a pine tree, jaunty, hopeful, its air of carefree abandonment touching a chord, calling to mind long-ago days skipping school and riding over to the lake. Here though was escape on the grand scale.
The descent through Slovenia was a treat, a two hundred-mile cavalcade of old-fashioned Europe: vineyards, forests, castles, mediaeval villages and purplish mountains in the haze, and the whole of it brightened by a delightful evening spent in the village of Loce, about a hundred and forty miles back.
I’d rolled in late in the afternoon, the day after my adventures in the Hungarian woods, weary after eighty, maybe ninety miles in the saddle but nevertheless looking to press on and round out my century. There was a fair bit of thunder in the air, though, and a hard look of rain in the hills up ahead and so I thought I might pull over in Loce for a spell, have a quiet drink and press on again into the evening after the storm passed.
I say a quiet drink, but the place was jumping that evening; they were holding some kind of farmer’s fete along the main street, with carnival rides and music, crowds and laughter and the air was fragrant with the smoke of sausage sizzles. Something about the festooned lights and main street cheer, set against the purplish backdrop of the storm, made me think of an Edward Hopper painting. I was just thinking this, assembling the elements in my mind, the juxtaposition of loneliness and cheer, when a man called out to me in English from one of the tables at an outdoor bistro a few feet away: “So how do you like Slovenia?”
He was a young guy, mid twenties for a guess, sturdy, blond, with an open friendly face, sitting at a table crowded with friends and strewn with bottles. Startled out of my reverie, I said I liked Slovenia just fine. It pleased him to hear it. A broad smile flashed across his face. “We’re a brand new country and we’re loving every minute of it. Why don’t you pull up a chair and have a beer with us?”
And so I did. His name was Boris. He was a policeman, originally from Loce, now living and working in the big city, Ljubljana. He and one of his best mates, Isidore, another policeman, also from Loce, had come home for a long weekend to visit friends and family and were having a grand time. They were clearly a popular pair, judging by the number of waves and greetings from passers-by of all ages, many of whom stopped to chat, some pulling up chairs and dragging over extra tables and joining the party, or else filling the seats vacated by those who had migrated to other tables nearby and were now chatting sociably over there, for a kind of homecoming atmosphere seemed to settled over Loce, everybody catching up with everybody else.
Boris paid for the first round, but when I went to return the shout, he wouldn’t hear of it. Neither would Isidore, nor anyone else at the table. “This is Slovenia!” they cried, as another round was ordered. Two or three beers later, feeling a little guilty and also aware of the passage of time, I managed to catch the waitress’s eye with a view to buying at least one round on the sly before taking my leave. But this didn’t work either. She brought the beers readily enough, but refused to take my money. “Sorry, but Boris already told me not to,” she laughed, as she placed a few empties on a tray. “And I do what he says!”
“Irena’s my girlfriend,” Boris explained brightly, clearly pleased that my ruse had failed. “This is on us.”
“Please. I’d like to buy at least one round before I go.”
He blinked astonishment. “You’re not thinking of going?”
“I’m afraid I really ought to …”
“Oh, no, no, no. We can’t have that. As a policemen I can see that you are far too drunk to be allowed on the roads. Don’t you think so, Isidore?”
“Oh, yes. Far too drunk,” he agreed.
“It is all settled. Irena and I have already talked it over and decided that you are staying with us tonight, at her mother’s house. There’s a spare bed. That’s what she and I were talking about a few minutes ago, except of course you don’t understand Slovenian!”
And so began my night in the custody of the Slovenian police. More beers were called for, Lasko as well as Union, to make sure I was fully au fait with the beer rivalry in Slovenia, Lasko being more the rural and working class brew, with Union favoured in the cities. A bottle of local red appeared from somewhere, and a plate of Slovenian sausages – the local patriots not wanting me to miss a thing – and thereafter the evening dissolved in a breezy and slightly surreal camaraderie that flowed on far into the evening before winding up in the homey spare bedroom at Irena’s mother’s place just around the corner, and then resuming the following morning over a ‘Boris special’ omelette and cups of hot rich Turkish coffee – acts of kindness and generosity that sped me on my way and move me still.
As with the Wachau Valley and Austrian reaches of the Danube, the storybook beauty of the Slovenian countryside drew me on and inspired another of those gloriously long cinematic days in the saddle, following the Sava River down through the forest to Ljubljana and then climbing through the hilly karst landscape southwest of there into the Dinaric Alps, along the ancient amber trade route, up and over a famous old pass known as the Postojna Gate.
Nearly a hundred and fifty hard and hilly miles passed beneath my wheels that day. I was knackered by the time I wobbled up to the edge of the escarpment in Opicina, with the afternoon having faded well into evening. But here was the payoff: watching that smouldering ball of sun sinking into the Adriatic and knowing I’d made it. This time tomorrow I’d be somewhere in Croatia, down amongst those vague bluish-violet hills I could see stretching away down the coast.
I pitched my tarp that night at a little Mom & Pop campground a stone’s throw from the view point, and early the next morning joined the eager rush of humanity down the escarpment and into Trieste. It was a helluva ride, more like a roller coaster plunge than a road. At twenty-two percent, it was steeper than the Cresta Run, the notorious bobsled course at St Moritz. Except there, at least, you’d have had the course to yourself. Here you shared it with lots of fast and erratic company: morning commuters, trucks, delivery vans, motor-scooters, all of them hell-bent to get to the bottom first, taking the hairpins high and wide and with suicidal élan, horns tooting, tyres screeching, and with the occasional slam of brake lights to test your reflexes.
I found myself slip-streaming a cherry-red Vespa at about forty-five miles an hour, my fingers gripping the brake levers with the rigid intensity of a strangler as we swerved in unison through the traffic.
It was a day for it, though. The air was warm working on hot, the sun bright and sparkling cheerfully on the Vespas’s chrome work, and I have an idea that the descent itself was pretty. Fleeting, corner-of-the-eye impressions came to me of the hazy blue Adriatic shimmering between the pines, glimpses of Trieste’s sprawl of domes and spires and rooftops, and then, lower down the escarpment, near the bottom, a blurry sense of rushing along narrow Italian streets, past crumbly old renaissance facades and green shutters and ornamental ironwork with shafts of strong sunlight bursting through in places, and violet shadows obscuring the doorways in others.
Then finally the run-out at the bottom, coasting along ever wider and grander boulevards, now and again pausing for traffic lights, until finally I found myself rolling along the harbour itself, at sea level, passing wharves and warehouses, shipping offices, and loads of travel agents with signs in their windows spruiking ferry passages to romantic sounding ports in Greece and Albania.
I reined in at one of those cheerful Italian sidewalk kiosks, the ones that are crammed with all manner of brightly wrapped candies, cigarettes, magazines, postcards, newspapers, notions and whatnot, and after a bit of thoughtful browsing bought a packet of chocolate wafer biscuits and a tourist map of the Istrian Riviera. I found a bench along the waterfront, parked myself in the sunshine there, opened map and biscuits and began to formulate some plans.
There were two ways I could ride south from Trieste: take the main highway to Rovinj and then follow its bold red line down the coast to Split and Dubrovnik and points south; or mosey down the Istrian peninsula, sixty miles along a curvy coastal road to an ancient Roman town called Pula, at the tip. From there you could hop a ferry out to a long skinny island called Losinj, from which more dotted lines sprang, more ferry routes to other islands further south along the coast. It was impossible to tell from just this little tourist map how far down I’d be able to island-hop like that, but every mile I didn’t have to ride along Croatia’s main coastal highway was all to the good according to some of the things I’d heard from Boris’s friends back in Loce.
One of them, who was both Croatian and a keen road cyclist, and who sounded like he knew what he was talking about, warned that it would be a nightmare of holiday traffic this time of year, with everyone heading for the beaches, aside from it’s being the main truck route. I hadn’t considered the summer rush when I’d decided to abandon the Danube in favour of the coast, but it was too late now; I was here and had to make the best of things, and the best of things seemed to be the road down to Pula and island hopping from there.
Sixty miles seemed an easy ask on a fine summery day such as this, and even with all the hills that were implied by that squiggly road along the Istrian coast, and allowing for traffic, I was odds-on to raise Pula by mid-afternoon – perhaps even in time to catch a boat directly out to Losinj that very evening, depending on how often they ran the ferries and when.
At any rate, I’d be sitting pretty for the first one out the next morning. And so with high hopes and great expectations I mounted up and joined the swim of August holiday traffic southbound out of the city, following a crescent of hot, hazy, brightly peopled beach towards the seaside tourist town of Muggia.
I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, one of the great vacation spots for the millions crowding America’s eastern seaboard and so I felt I knew a little something about holiday crowds and traffic; how often had I seen our very own Route 16 chock-a-block with flatlanders swarming up from out of state; Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labour Day, leaf peepers and skiers; I thought I’d seen it all. God, I was naïve.
It was a madhouse down there: one long seething mass of traffic all the way down the coast from Muggia to Pula. And if I used to think Massachusetts drivers were crazy, Connecticut drivers dangerously fast, and New Yorkers rude and impatient, it was only because being a country boy and all, I’d never seen how they do these things in glitzy glamorous Europe.
Civility, along with the highway code, was tossed out the window, together with an endless stream of cigarette butts, beer bottles, soiled nappies and snack wrappers, as tens of thousands of Italians, Austrians, Germans, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, you name it, roared down the highway in a mad, high-octane rush to their fun in the sun, all of them red-hot to beat the crowd and be the first to throw down their towels.
I lost count of the number of times I was forced off the road – and by that I don’t mean merely squeezed or intimidated into the sidelines, but actually clipped by the wing mirrors of speeding cars as they whipped past my elbow. Or, if it wasn’t that, it was the maniacs coming up the other way, overtaking half a dozen cars in a suicide squeeze and heading straight for me, filling the lane, playing chicken at seventy-five miles an hour.
There was nowhere to go but the ditch. The highway lacked anything in the way of shoulders, its broken edges dropping straight down eighteen inches or so into the mud and weeds. And once you were off it was the devil’s own job to get back on again. There was no break in the traffic, just a steady whiz, whiz, whiz, whiz of cars hurtling by on their way to better places. Nobody yielded an inch. Why should they? With a year of lost living to try to cram into a few frantic weeks, who was going to give a damn for some no-mark slow-poke cyclist?
I was a wreck by the time I lurched into Pula late that afternoon, grimy with sweat and a filmy residue of car exhaust, and nursing a skull-splitting headache from not enough water, and too much heat and ozone and carbon monoxide. My neck and shoulders ached from the strain of wrestling traffic. I’d long lost interest in the idea of catching an evening ferry out to Losinj; all I wanted now was to call an end to the day. I spotted a sign for a tourist campground and rode around to a point of land south of town.
Like everywhere else along the manic coast, this place too was mobbed, a raucous sprawl of tents and campervans, screaming children, barking dogs, loud music, barbecue smells, litter, smoke and beer and sunburnt, unpleasant-to-see midriffs. I scored the very last tent site in Pula, and wouldn’t have had that but for the fact that some poor sod – no doubt caught in traffic – hadn’t turned up in time to claim his pre-booked space. I felt sorry for him, whoever he was, but not so sorry I didn’t grab his spot when it was offered. The town of Pula was packed that night – hotels, resorts, holiday lets, youth hostels, campsites, the lot, all of them full to overflowing.
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” the girl behind the desk told me as she handed me a numbered tag and a mimeographed map of the campground, on which she had put a dot in yellow highlighter to indicate my site. “To come down here like this without a reservation and get a site…” She shook her head at the sheer folly of it all.
“I’m starting to get a picture,” I sighed and since I had her attention, and she spoke good English, I wondered aloud and with a forlorn sort of hopefulness in my voice, if things might perhaps be a little quieter, less crowded, once I got out on to islands, Losinj and points south.
“Are you kidding?” she scoffed. “This is peak season.”
She filled me in. Apparently things were only going to get worse. Sure, I could island hop a short ways down the coast, but after that it would have to be the main highway. ‘Suicidal’ was one of the adjectives she’d used in characterising any plan to cycle it this time of year; ‘stupid’ was another. Based on the evidence so far, I was inclined to agree.
I slunk away to erect my tarp, gulp down an aspirin or three and sprawl in the shade for a quiet think – or at least as quiet a think as a body could manage amidst the competing radios, screaming children, crying babies, barking dogs and load brash beery laughter.
This wasn’t going to work. The thing to do, I decided, as the aspirin took soothing effect, was to write off this whole ghastly day, and indeed the whole idea of pedalling the Dalmatian Coast, and instead go back up to Trieste, call in at one of the steamship offices I’d noticed that morning along the waterfront and book passage on a ferry to Greece; skip this god-awful stretch altogether. I hated to cry uncle, but as Sir Ernest Shackleton said of his decision to turn around ninety-seven miles short of the South Pole and miss out on his chance at being its conqueror: better a live donkey than a dead lion.
That still left me with the sixty miles between Pula and Trieste, and as I thought over how I might make lighter work of that, a sudden inspiration came to me: perhaps I wouldn’t have to ride back up that hellish highway after all. What about those signs I’d seen for local coastal ferries from Trieste down to Muggia, that beachy town I’d passed on my way down here? Perhaps there was a service to Pula too. Certainly there was a ferry terminal here, at least for those ferries that went south to the islands. Why shouldn’t they run north to Trieste as well? On that happy thought I drifted off to sleep.
I am going there for work but this time it’ll be a different sort of work. For once I will not at the beck and call of a magazine editor, or following any pre-ordained script. I will be working on a start-up project with my brother, who owns a small but profitable airline out there, based in Tortola and servicing Dominica, St Maarten and, as of next month, Antigua and Anguilla as well. Over the next year he’ll be adding a few more islands to the network and as part of the expansion our families will be working together to build and launch a new website for the airline, as well as a Caribbean travel website and on-line magazine covering events and happenings on the islands, plus publishing on-line travel guides for Dominica and the BVI (for starters).
We have had some encouraging interest so far and hopefully we can make this a profitable venture, both in terms of promoting the airline and as a publishing project in its own right. At the very least, it ought to be interesting. Between the two of us, Luke and I, we cover a lot of ground – air, in his case. He has been a pilot for about 35 years, has logged something like 18,000 hours in all sorts of aircraft, from vintage flying boats to Boeing 777s.
Neither of us have exactly been company men, climbing corporate ladders and fitting into moulds. While I have spent my career freelancing for various magazines, and seeing much of the world on somebody else’s nickel, he has crowded in a lot of interesting living in the skies – everything from doing flying scenes for Miami Vice to delivering relief supplies into Haiti after the earthquake to delivering Lake Amphibian seaplanes to the Iraqi Air Force back in the mid-80s. He is a lively raconteur and as for coverage of our chosen area, there is virtually nowhere in the Caribbean he hasn’t been. I’ve got a good handle on the writing game, know my way around a camera and Lightroom and have even written a hefty sized guidebook in the past – National Geographic’s travel guide to Australia. Hopefully we can combine our talents to make a worthwhile product. I believe we can.
I have written in an earlier post (here) about our cycling adventures back when we were kids in New Hampshire; riding our Schwinn ten-speeds over to the Bearcamp River to go fishing and chatting along the way about our dreams and plans for someday. He was always going to be a pilot; I was always going to trot the globe writing stories and taking pictures.
There was one afternoon in particular when we laid it all out as we sat beneath a bridge. Over the past few months, as we talked over our plans to launch this publishing/marketing project in the Caribbean, we have often referenced that afternoon under the ‘steel bridge’ as we used to call it – to distinguish it from the wooden bridges that characterised the backroads of Carroll County in those days. So many of the hopes and ambitions we laid out in the cool summer shade of that bridge have come to pass, not always in the way we might perhaps have expected, and not always with the results we might have hoped for, but enough to create a pleasant sense of retrospection and satisfaction.
We like to think that this forthcoming partnership of ours in the Caribbean will be a brotherly drawing together of these childhood dreams made under that bridge all those years ago. Time will tell, but for now it will be an interesting adventure.
Need For The Bike – now there there’s a title that speaks to me these days as I hang around the kitchen of a morning, nose pressed to the window pane, looking out at the rosy dawns that have characterised these past few days. No doubt the hard men of the Belgian spring classics would have been back in the saddle some days ago, spinning over the cobbles at speed and sneering at the discomfort their cracked ribs and twanging shoulder tendons were giving them. But not I.
I have resolutely been staying indoors, a sensitive, injured, middle-aged writer not at all into the glory through suffering thing that wins races, carves legends and earns one cachet amongst the readers of Rouleur. I am not training for anything and therefore no need to suffer.
On the contrary, I like my bike rides to be breezy and fun, the actual riding an almost subliminal act – a fusion of man and bike, spinning along the lanes in an effortless continuum, enjoying that sense of aerial liberation that comes with riding a bicycle purely for pleasure. It is hard to do that with a lot of searing, white-hot distractions.
And so I wait and recuperate, seeking my daily doses of escapism in books and in writing until I am feeling up to riding again – notice I am not saying ‘hitting the road’. I do not care to hit the road ever again.
In the meanwhile have found time to re-read Paul Fournel’s elegantly written Need for the Bike. It is a lovely little book – a genuine piece of literature as opposed to the usual sporty cycling memoir, although it fills that role as well. It is a book that defies easy description, being a sort of montage of thoughts, recollections, anecdotes and dry humour written by an urbane French avant garde writer, poet, publisher, former cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Cairo, now the cultural attaché in London. It is a delight to read, a book you can dip into wherever you like and find a clever thought or story. Highly recommended.
As good as it felt to be on the road again, a kind of out-of-season loneliness began to take hold of me once I put Vienna astern. Call it a sense of anticlimax, of having lingered on after the party was over. For just about everybody travelling the Donau Radveg that summer, Vienna was the end of the line. Without ever meaning to, over the past six hundred miles I had bought into that idea too – Vienna as grand finale.
It wasn’t of course, not for me, nor for the Donau Radveg which, in name at least, stretched on as far as Budapest. Nevertheless there was nobody riding it that morning except me and as the lonely miles unwound beneath cool grey autunal skies, I found myself feeling out of sorts, unable to muster up the old open road enthusiasm.
I made brisk time despite my moodiness, passing through a sombre wood where some deer were gambolling about in the leafy gloom and then through an old castle town called Hainburg. Soon afterwards a line of grey, gloomy looking tenements came into view, a legacy of Communism’s love of concrete, and I realised I must be drawing close to the Slovakian border.
For once there were passport formalities, exits stamps from the Austrians and entry ones from the Slovakians. I pedalled away from the multi-lane customs booth and the mass of trucks awaiting clearance with a sense of having travelled, arrived at someplace new – a sense that was helped along by the spectacle of a giant billboard for McDonalds welcoming me to Slovakia. My inner ironist appreciated it. Here at last, after weeks of pedalling I could begin to feel the romance of distance: where else but in the rump of the old Soviet Bloc could you see such wholesale embrasure of Western consumerism?
From the border crossing the bicycle path left the highway and wound its way back down to the river again through a weedy no-man’s-land, vaguely industrial in feel, dotted with pylons and criss-crossed with high tension with power lines. It was mighty slow going through here, partly because of the strong chilly quartering winds that gusted across the path, but mainly because of the endless series of stiles and speed humps that blighted this stretch of the path. They were brutal little things, made of sharply angled heavy gauge steel – pleats from the iron curtain? – that forced me to dismount every hundred metres or so and ease my bicycle over them. I wondered what all this was in aid of: obstructionism for the sheer glorious hell of it, by the look of things.
Their pointlessness amplified and cast into sharper relief the overall sense of pointlessness that had come over me since I left Vienna that morning. It was an moody and introspective cyclist that found his way into the heart of Bratislava, which was revealed to be a smaller and rather shabbier version of Vienna; baroque gone broke.
I crossed the river on a bridge dedicated to the Soviet Navy’s efforts along the Danube during World War II, rode along a wall covered with spray-painted graffiti of the skinhead variety, then rolled into a cobbled square in the mediaeval part of town, not far from the castle, where a half dozen pavement cafes were doing brisk trade serving up schnitzel and beer to an early lunchtime crowd.
There wasn’t much to pick between them. They all had the same fin-de-siecle facades, and the same dark, wiry, bow-tied waiters wending between the same tightly packed tables, and the same refreshingly budget prices after the eye-watering ones in Vienna. The only overt difference was the brands of Western cigarettes being advertised on their umbrellas. I spotted a bureau de change down a sidestreet, swapped my leftover Austrian shillings for Slovakian crowns, then came back and picked out a table at the Café Marlboro.
I ordered and while I waited for my schnitzel and beer to arrive I had a quiet ponder about the future direction of my journey. My present course was going to take me on to Budapest. Beautiful and evocative though Budapest might have been, and probably was, it was hard for me to imagine it’s topping the arrival in Vienna and that delightful almost symphonic ride through the Wachau Valley – in the cheerful company of so many fellow travellers – I had made to get there. At best, at the very best, it would be a repetition – another two hundred mile ride along the banks of the river and into another, and probably shabbier, Habsburg capital.
As my thoughts ranged from Bratislava to Budapest and further on down the road to the imagined concrete of Bucharest, in Romania, a sudden restlessness came over me. I’d had enough of dark woods and big old rivers, heavy baroque architecture and moody grey skies that rained on me every five minutes. Where were the hot yellow landscapes? The fig trees and olives groves, the miles of sleepy sun-drenched strade bianche flanked with cypress trees?
They’d been part of the vision, too, when I’d pedalled away from home, bound for The Continent. I wasn’t going to find any of that in musty old Budapest, let alone in the dripping forests of Transylvania or the Carpathian Mountains, however magic their names. A change was what I needed.
Snap. The moment I realised it, the metaphorical clouds under which I’d been riding all morning dispelled – even if the real ones remained and growled with thunder. I decided to declare the Danube complete and open a fresh page, start a new chapter, by heading somewhere else, away from the river, towards those hot yellow landscapes of my imagination. Exercise the glorious freedom of a touring cyclist – the ability to steer your own course, change your mind, and do it on a whim.
From Bratislava, where I sat, I had a choice. I could either turn around and ride back to Vienna, buy myself a new set of maps to cover the grand southerly sweep I was contemplating, or I could press on into Hungary and take a change of bearings there. Retracing my steps to Vienna didn’t appeal, even though it was only about forty miles. I decided to ride on into Hungary, buy some new maps there and head for Trieste.
And so I set out from Bratislava in a much brighter frame of mind than I had ridden into it, following the wild, marshy and lonely Slovakian bank of the Danube. Having made up my mind, settled on a course of action, I was suddenly happy and upbeat, and kind of grateful for this quiet grey afternoon all alone on the riverbank – a last farewell to the big friendly old river that had been my travelling companion for the past six hundred-odd miles.
I met no other cyclists, wentthrough no villages; it was the loneliest stretch of the river I had yet run along. The only traffic I saw was out on the water, way out mid-stream: tugboats pulling long trains of barges, their flags – German, Austrian, Slovak, Hungarian – aflutter in breezes I couldn’t feel in the shelter along the shore.
I slept in the woods that night, in a copse of hardwood near the bank. The dusk hummed with mosquitoes, and a chorus of crickets and frogs. It felt a world away from the night sounds of Vienna I’d grown used to, ninety miles back. The river shone like pewter in the dull afterglow of the sunset, and although the skies had been cloudy all day a few faint stars were now sifting out of the gloom. To complement them, a scattering of lights twinkled to life in villages over on the Hungarian side of the river.
I pitched my tarp against a sapling, made dinner out of the grab-bag of groceries I’d bought on my way out of Bratislava, and sat up watching the river, saying my goodbyes and thinking ahead to how I would find my way down to Trieste, the venerable old Italian seaport at the head of the Adriatic.
From there it would be a matter of heading down the Dalmatian Coast, through Croatia and Montenegro, Albania and all the way to Greece. As visions arose of myself pedalling my tourer along sun-drenched corniches, through one romantic travel poster scene after another of hot blue skies and flowers and crumbly antique towns, and with the azure sea sparkling beside me, I found myself marvelling I hadn’t thought of this sooner. And delighted I’d thought of it now. Tomorrowwas the first day of the rest of my journey.
Eager now as a kid on Christmas Eve, I turned in and woke the next morning to silvery skies and warm hazy sunshine. Half an hour’s pleasurable riding along the river bank brought me to Komarno where an antique iron bridge crossed the river. I pedalled over it, showed my passport and was stamped into Hungary. Then I went off to hunt up some breakfast and buy myself a new map and a fresh start.
I found the very thing for a hundred forints in a musty stationer’s shop and twenty minutes later, over a steamy latte and slice of poppy seed cake in an old dark-wood café, I was plotting my way through the unpronounceable villages in the Hungarian hinterland, south by west towards the hills along the Slovenian border. A glance at a bigger-picture map of Europe, when I was back in the shop, suggested that I was probably no more than five hundred kilometres from Italy and Trieste. Three long days in the saddle should see me there. I set myself a goal of getting as far as Slovenia by nightfall, a hundred and twenty miles perhaps. After my big ride along the Danube the other day, coming across Austria, I fancied my chances. Eager to be away, off to the sunny Adriatic, I finished my coffee, forked up the last crumbs of poppy seed cake, and started shifting the scenery.
It was considerably slower and hillier on these Hungarian backroads than it had been when I was cruising along the Austrian reaches of the Danube, and the scenery was nowhere near as grand, being more like Magyar version of Appalachia, shabby villages with piglets rooting around in front yards, chickens pecking in the dust and even the odd bit of horse-cart traffic. The few cars that sputtered by were mostly decrepit Trabants which left a filmy blue stink of exhaust in their wakes that hung in the air long after the rattling of the engine had died away in the distance.
For a while I found myself riding behind a man in a flat cap who was transporting a bouquet of red roses clipped to the rack of his ancient utility bike. He set a cracking pace on such a rickety old thing, clearly putting in some heartfelt effort into delivering those flowers. I wondered who they were for. As the miles passed, up hill and down, through one gloomy stretch of forest after another, that solid hundred yards or so always remaining between us, I found myself becoming more and more intrigued and wondering what the story was here: The shy courtship? The loving anniversary? The craven apology – he just lost the Trabant in a crap game?
Alas I’ll never know. He swung down a side track, and rattled away out of view, still pedalling vigorously, while I continued along the main road towards a town called Sarvar, the next of my way points to the Slovenian border and on to Trieste.
It sounds a little odd, I suppose, to tell someone that you woke up at four o’clock in the morning, crawled out of bed and trundled downstairs to the sounds of wind and rain outside, look out the windows into the cold and dark and feel a sense of wistfulness and regret that both you and your bicycle are still out of commission and therefore can’t go for a ride. But that’s what it was like this morning. It has been a week now since I went for my little sprawl on the pavement and cabin fever has well and truly set in.
When I came downstairs, opened the side door to the kitchen and stood listening to the sizzling sounds of the rain on the concrete I found myself thinking of the pleasures of a long bike ride in the rain; that wonderful self-contained feeling of being cocooned in your waterproofs and spinning along under your own steam, a host in yourself. I would love to have gone out this morning, but since I couldn’t I did the next best thing – I put the kettle on, brewed up a pot of my favourite Ethiopian coffee, turn on the laptop and settle in to do a bit of writing.
I like to write. I like writing nearly as much as I like riding my bike. Both are contemplative exercises, and both are creative – a nice stretch of the imagination. I suppose I should qualify this love of writing by saying that I like writing what I like to write – not to a brief or to try to match someone else’s expectations, although of course I do this to earn my living, but simply to play with words, and thoughts and narrative structure, tell a story.
In this regard my pleasure writing is not a whole lot different than the pleasure rides I take on my bicycle. Both are nice bits of escapism. In my case this morning, it was a jaunt back in time to the 1920s, and to a steamy and wholly fictitious East African backwater, where the opening scenes to a comic novel I am writing unfold. It is a story that has been growing on me over the past few years, and with which I have amused myself on many a long bike ride, and over drinks on many an even longer international flight. I like my characters. I like their antics. I love being them vicariously, although I don’t think I would dare hang around such people if I knew them in real life. All in all I enjoyed my three-hour excursion this morning, and as I do when I wheel my bicycle back into the shed after a really good ride, felt a twinge of loss that it couldn’t have been longer.
It’s a little over two hundred miles from Passau to Vienna and the only hard words you could say about them was that they pass too quickly. The sheer loveliness of the scenery drew you into it, while the seductive simplicity of the Danube bicycle path made it awfully easy to cover ground. One long pleasurable day in the saddle, stretching my legs as it were after riding in company these past few days, from Vohlburg to Passau, saw me cover nearly the whole of it in a single bound, and without really meaning to. Almost before I knew it I found myself approaching the outskirts of Vienna, the greater part of the Austrian Danube having spooled by in a kind of cinematic blur.
It was my first century ride of the journey, and I made it a big one – a hundred and forty miles, maybe a hundred and fifty; hard to say since I don’t have an odometer. The river was magnificent the whole way, the fertile valleys through which it flowed were rich with vineyards and terraced orchards. Castles sat atop just about every crag that commanded a view. And where there weren’t castles to marvel at there were beautiful old churches and Benedictine monasteries, their copper-domed spires rising above the treetops or reflecting in the water.
The weather started out fine in the morning and mainly stayed that way, segueing into a warm and sultry afternoon, with frescoed skies and occasional growls of thunder in the distance. The thunder grew nearer as the hours passed and late in the afternoon, or perhaps by then you could say early evening, a monumental summer storm caught up with me in the woods not far from Tulln.
With the kind of sleekness and surety that seemed to characterise everything that day, I’d rolled up to a large sheltered picnic area just before it broke and waited out the storm in the company of at least thirty other cyclists, Germans mainly, but Dutch and Swiss as well, young couples and solo trekkers like me, and families on holiday, the kids on scaled-down tourers, Mum on a city hybrid, Dad towing a trailer laden with camping gear and toys.
It was a jovial gathering, with snacks and dinners broken out, shared laughter among strangers, and boisterous shouts of the drenched latecomers who raced up to the shelter rattling down the trail in the pouring rain.
I shared a picnic table with a German family: father, mother, three kids and a portly old grandfather with a bright blue eyes, red cheeks and bushy white beard who looked like a woodcarver from a storybook or Santa Claus in mufti. After they’d eaten their sausage-and-cheese lunch, and with the operatic storm showing no sign of abating, the old man calmly unrolled an oilskin pouch containing a selection of carved, large-bowled pipes and selected the one he felt most suited the occasion. With relaxed deliberation, a man with all the time in the world, he charged it with tobacco from a dilapidated leather pouch, lit it with an old-fashioned flint lighter and puffed fragrant clouds of smoke toward the roof and the sound of rain.
There was something homey about it all this – the self-contained little world of life along the well-catered-to Donau Radveg – that I was going to miss when I reached Vienna, which I realised with a start was only twenty miles away. I didn’t cover them that evening, but feeling suddenly tuckered out after my long ride, and frankly, not really wanting to arive in Vienna and bring this Donau Radveg chapter of my journey to a close, I took a room at a guesthouse in Klosterneuberg. The next morning I rode into the city.
I’ve read somewhere that a cultured man is one who can listen to Rossini’s William Tell Overture from beginning to end without once thinking of the Lone Ranger. I am not a cultured man. And so I should have guessed that Vienna and I were going to be at sixes and sevens, for this is not a city to let culture pass you by – far from it; here in Vienna it is always at your side, tapping you on the shoulder, clutching at your lapels, wheedling, reminding, beseeching.
I rolled into St Stephansplatz not long after lunchtime, having dawdled away the morning in the Viennese woods, and straight away I was accosted by Mozart, or rather a man pretending to be Mozart, in powdered wig, silk stockings and brocaded coat. He was very insistent that I see that evening’s performance of The Magic Flute at the Stats Opera, and to that end produced a clipboard with a seating plan of the opera house and began to point out the various possibilities that were open to me.
I respectfully declined and edged past him, but before I could push my bicycle more than a few paces through the crowd, another voice chirped up at my elbow – a young girl Mozart this time, her peruke absurdly askew on a mane of strawberry blond curls. Did I wish to take in tonight’s performance of The Magic Flute? Don Giovanni, perhaps? A concert? A symphony? Listen to a man play the spoons?
I begged off, turned away, and ran straight into the welcoming arms of a heavy-set middle-aged Mozart in crimson brocade and that old hale and hearty encyclopaedia salesman smile. Sensing what a lover of the arts I must be he offered me excellent seats at the State Opera that evening, and at a great prices too – if he said so himself, which he did, and often. I explained that, sadly, I’d have to pass on this occasion, that I was utterly Baroque and out of Monet, a feeble attempt at humour that passed him by.
No sooner did I escape his spiel (and he, mine) than I was hearing another, this time from a green liveried Mozart, and after that a Mozart in peacock blue and Buddy Holly horn-rimmed glasses. And on it went. There were thin Mozarts and chubby ones, black Mozarts and Mozarts who looked like they might be Turkish, Mozarts who addressed me in Spanish, Mozarts who spoke English with broad American accents, and French speaking Mozarts wearing Bolle sunglasses and Nike trainers. It was like Graceland on Elvis’ birthday, but with a Habsburgian twist. They all carried clipboards, had racetrack demeanours and were anxious to see me comfortably settled with good seats at the Stats Opera or Concert Hall that evening, or the next, or the one after that, or just about anytime between the next five minutes and the Second Coming.
It was flattering, I suppose, to think that anyone could look at me just then, wet and weatherworn from a thousand miles on the road, most of them in rain, pushing a pack mule of a bicycle through the square, and immediately think to themselves: now there’s a chap who’ll scrub up well and who’ll no doubt be wanting a box at the opera this fine evening; probably has a Henry Poole dinner jacket and black tie rolled up in those oilskins, and a pair of opera glasses in the bar bag.
Alas, they missed the real me: the garlic and onions saddle tramp who wanted nothing more than a cheap hotel and a bath. After picking my way through the gauntlet of Mozarts I found my way to the tourist office on Kartnerstrasse and asked the woman behind the counter there if she had anything suitable. She must have had a shrewder eye than the culture vultures walking the streets for she wasted no time regaling me with the merits of the Hotel Sacher but instead promptly showed me a list of eligible two-star flops in the northwest corner of town, outside the fashionable Ringstrasse but still, as she gamely pointed out – one never knew – happily within cooee of the State Opera. I asked if The Third Man was showing anywhere in town, but she didn’t know; Harry Lime wasn’t a flavour the Viennese tourist board was promoting that month.
While she was sorting my hotel booking, and I was opening my wallet and watching the moths flutter out, a man whom I took to be the office manager, a tall suave ruthless-looking individual in a dark suit, strode out of his cubicle and demanded to know whose bicycle that was leaning against the wall in his foyer. He spoke rapidly, in German, but I recognised the word “fahrad” – bicycle – and raised a timid hand.
He fixed me with a glare that must have stuck a yard out my back and was about to follow it up with something unpleasant when his eyes lit upon the pale blue thousand-shilling notes in my cautiously raised hand, the cash I had been in the process of handing over in exchange for several nights’ accommodation in his town.
I won’t say his eyes melted and became puppyish – it wasn’t that much money – but obviously the sight of large denomination bills had a soothing effect on him, that and the consoling thought that since we had evidently reached the paying stage I would soon be gone anyway. After a few seconds of frosty silence, he drew himself up with a deep, shuddering, anger-managing sigh, whirled sharply, clicked his heels, and returned to his office, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Actually he didn’t really click his heels. It just seemed like he did. He ought to have; it would have suited him. I stared at his closed door feeling as though a cuckoo had just poked its head out of a carved clock and blown a raspberry at me. The girl behind the counter smiled as she handed me my change. “Enjoy your stay.”
Voucher in hand and with my free fold-out city map, I set off to find my hotel, grateful now for those years I’d spend cycling to work in Melbourne and pleased to find that I still possessed the old knack of negotiating slithery tram tracks on a bicycle. There are a lot of those in Vienna, particular along the Ringstrasse, and the trams move much faster than those in Melbourne, but I slipped through them unscathed and found my way to the address on the card.
It turned out to be a great old mausoleum of a place, built of concrete and tucked away in a shabby neighbourhood of migrants and students and low-rent travellers such as myself. It was grey and soulless, as dreary as a wet week and had the general appearance of having been designed by a Warsaw Pact architect who’d defected back in the Sixties and later suffered a fit of homesickness. The lobby was dead quiet. A redolence of cabbage and gravy and bad coffee came from the adjoining cafeteria. I checked in, arranged to store my bike in the basement and then took the slow, creaky, manually operated lift six floors up to my room.
It was bigger than the lift, but not by much, and exuded the same sort of charm. The bed sagged like a hammock, and the sandbag the hotel was pleased to call a pillow smelled strongly of mildew. Still, it was fairly clean and what’s more, it was dry, which was more than anybody was going to be able to say for the streets of Vienna in another few minutes. In a reprise of the previous day’s storm on the outskirts of Tulln, a mass of purplish-black cloud had crept in and was menacing the city. Lightning cracked in the foothills and when I opened the window the air outside had the familiar foretaste of rain. I leaned against the sill, and gazed down on the street six floors below, revelling in my immunity. Backstreet sounds carried eerily in the pre-storm calm – voices, a radio playing somewhere, a dog barked. A man in an old army jacket crawled beneath a broken down van by the corner. Directly below a bratwurst wagon in front of the hotel churned out its smells of grease and fried onions.
The storm broke while I watched. I didn’t bother closing the window. The air wafting in was fresh, and I liked the immediacy of the sizzling rain and crashing thunder, particularly since I didn’t have to be out in it, pedalling along some dripping forest track wondering where I’d bed down for the night.
It was dark by the time the rain slackened enough for me to want to venture out and pick up something to eat. I found a grocery store a few blocks away, bought a few things then started back. Instead of turning in at the hotel though I wandered on, drawn by the pleasant intrigue of walking the streets of a foreign city on a rainy Friday night.
I’ve no idea where all I wandered – down long dark silent streets, and up bright and busy ones, bustling with shoppers and smart restaurants; there were rubbish strewn alleys and neon-lit café streets noisy with live music; neighbourhoods of big old houses and now-shabby office blocks that had been built sometime back in the Twenties and looked as though they might have amounted to something once, with their elaborate window arches and Beaux Arts curlicues.
I walked for about two hours, plastic grocery bags dangling in my hands. It was late when I got back to the hotel, or rather it felt late to me who was used to crashing at nine; it wasn’t late for that neighbourhood, certainly not on a Friday night. The red-and-white bratwurst wagon, parked out front, was all lit up and open and, on impulse I bought a sausage, smothered it with brown mustard and devoured it as I rode the juddering lift back up to my room. Its greasy warmth was delicious. As I stepped out of the lift I even found myself wishing I’d bought two, and toyed with the idea of going back down and buying another one, but the thought of having to work that agonisingly slow lift again made it seem like too much bother. Instead when I got in I opened a packet of ginger snaps, sat down beside the window and listened to the far off serenade of the city; no Mozart at the Stats Opera for me thanks, just a little night music.
* * * * * *
I idled away the next few days in Vienna, playing tourist and indulging in Sacher Tortes and Turkish coffee in sumptuous Art Nouveau cafés, and generally basking in a sense of arrival, compensating in a way, I suppose, for what might be considered too rushed a journey along the Austrian reaches of the Danube.
The fact is though I’d enjoyed those free-flowing miles, perhaps the most of any of the thousand or so I’d ridden thus far, particularly that stretch coming up through the Wachau Valley, each bend revealing a scene more achingly beautiful than the last, and always with the promise of Vienna waiting just over the horizon. I rode them greedily, and for all the must-dos I’d missed, and the imagined chidings of travel guide authors as I passed them by, I couldn’t bring myself to regret it, not really. I travel for travel’s sake; the great affair is to move, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, and he was travelling by donkey at the time, not astride an elegant black-and-cream tourer as I was, revelling in that aerial sense of liberation you feel when you are whizzing over the ground on two skinny wheels and under your own steam.
And so I did my obeisance to the guidebook gods and after an appropriate interval, and with nicely rested legs, set off once more, picking my way down to the river one cool grey morning five days later, and riding out of town through the Prater, past the old Ferris wheel, towards Bratislava and points east.
I followed the river as far as Vohlburg the next day and the morning after – a Sunday – I set off again in a soft cold rain making my way back down to the river on Vohlburg’s rain-slickened cobbles, past the little knot of church-goers who had assembled beneath their umbrellas in the soggy old churchyard, the bells tolling overhead.
The river had grown noticeably swifter and darker overnight, swollen by so much steady rain. I followed it out of town on a lonely forest track that ran along the top of an old overgrown earthworks levy set a hundred yards or so back from the riverbank. It was cool and dim in the forest, with quite a few deer nosing about.
Spooked by my approach, they splashed away into the greenery, for the forest floor was flooded and looked to be about knee-deep in water. After a couple miles the levy petered out. The path eased itself down and became a quagmire of mud and ooze and elongated puddles. It felt lonely and disused here and almost spookily silent, although it wasn’t really silent – not with the rain pattering on the leaves, a lonely sound in the middle of a wood. I could see a few watery and faded bicycle tyre tracks from where cyclists had ridden through here a couple of days earlier, but nothing fresh.
Soon there was nothing at all, just one long oozy puddle where the path should have been, its borders marked by low scrub on both sides. This opened onto a expanse of floodwater covering what probably was a meadow or marsh but might have had a creek running though it as well; there was no telling what lay beneath that silvery sheen. About two hundred yards away I could see the forest resume, and a break in the trees that might – or might not – have been my path.
It was impossible to say. The only directional clues I had for where the path led on from here were the tips of marsh grasses poking above the water in sinuous parallel lines for the first fifty yards or so, like navigational beacons defining a channel. But beyond that, where the water was evidently deeper, there was nothing but a poker-faced mill pond that could have been anywhere from ten inches deep to ten feet.
I had paused and was straddling my bike, ankle deep in watery mud, a steady rain falling around me, and not liking this at all, when I heard a voice speak up behind me in accented English: “It is not deep, I think.”
I turned to see a big amiable-looking German cyclist in his mid-thirties who had evidently ridden up behind me.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“Look at those ducks out there,” he deadpanned. “The water only comes up to their chests.”
“Good point,” I laughed, grateful for a bit of levity and company in this spooky flooded wood. “What do you say? Shall we give it a try?”
“I will if you will, but we better move right along. That water is coming up fast.”
I led in, following the channel marked by the marsh grasses. They were evidently taller than I had thought making the channel, therefore, commensurately deeper. Within a few pedal strokes my feet were splashing unpleasantly in the cold murky floodwaters of the Donau. A few more turns of the cranks and then the bottom bracket was entirely submersed, not a nice thing to do to the bearings.
Soon it became too tricky to balance on the bike, what with the current and the wheels wobbling and lurching in the sandy muck. We both dismounted and pushed our bikes a few yards further out. An over-the-shoulder glance revealed that the grass tips that had guided us into this flooded marsh had already disappeared; the waters were rising that swiftly. Bits of twig swirled in eddies around my legs. A peal of thunder added an unneeded note of menace.
“I don’t like this,” I said.
“Me neither,” said my new companion. “Let’s get out of here.”
We turned and splashed our way back to the water’s edge – a rather longer splash than it had been coming in because of the fast rising floodwaters. By then a couple of elderly Hungarian cyclists had appeared and were waiting under the trees, watching us, curious to know if we had just made it across or if we’d tried to cross and given it up as a bad job. We conceded our defeat. They weren’t inclined to give it a go either and so the four of us set off back down the trail, the way we came, through the marsh and along the levy. It was raining harder by then. The Hungarians decided to pedal all the way back to Vohlburg and find a place to hole up for the day, drink coffee and hope for better on the morrow.
Harald – for that was the German cyclist’s name – and I took an alternate path that climbed away from the river, through a muddy field of hops and onto a patchily paved farm road, from whose heights we could see our old friend the Donau, all silvery and swollen, flowing into the rain-veiled distance. I was to ride with Harald for the next couple of days and enjoyed his company very much, even though, like William Hazlitt in his essay On Going A Journey, I usually prefer to travel alone.
Harald was a companionable presence, a big, bluff sandy-haired in his late thirties, who cycled in corduroy trousers and wool shirt and a much-worn Barbour flat cap he’d picked up a few years earlier on a cycle tour around England. He worked for one of the big German banks arranging loans for farmers and was on his annual holiday, riding down from his home in northern Germany to an archery tournament in the Austrian Tyrol, having already shipped his bow on ahead. He was a good man to travel with. His job took him all over the country, from farm to farm, and what he didn’t know about the little villages and towns, the the landscape along the Danube wasn’t worth knowing.
Thundery showers came and went for the rest of the morning, but by the time we reached the monastery at Weltenberg, early that afternoon, the sun was starting to poke through the clouds, the skies were lifting and there were even a few blue patches visible here and there. The cloister was a spectacular place, established by the Benedictines in the 7th century along what must then have been one of the wildest possible reaches of the Danube, right at the head of a fearsome cliff-lined gorge. As with the castle at Bouillon, the backdrop of unbroken forest around it and the cloister’s dramatic setting, on a spit of land on a sharp bend in the river, created a sense of Dark Age authenticity as you rode up to it, even though you could see that the cobbled courtyard around it was crowded with cars and tourists drinking abbey-made beer on café tables beneath the awnings of the abbey’s beer garden.
We took a couple of seats ourselves, after a quick peek at the overblown Faberge like opulence of the cloister’s chapel, and ordered ourselves up a couple pints of Asam Bock, the beer Kloster Weltenberg’s well-looked-after monks have been brewing here for the past thousand years or so.
From Weltenberg, an east-bound traveller along the Danube has two choices: either take the road and follow its circuitous route around the gorge and on to Keilheim, or ride the ferry that runs five miles through the gorge itself. Having been in the river’s murky floodwaters already that morning, we decided to keep with the Danubian theme and shoot the gorge. After we finished our beers we coasted down to the landing and bought tickets for the Ludwig der Keilheimer.
At first it was like floating through some old romantic postcard. Looking astern, as we floated downstream from the monastery, shafts of sunlight breaking through the clouds illuminated the white walls of the abbey and cast its elegant spires in spectacular relief against a purplish backdrop of rain clouds and the dark greens of the surrounding forest. Limestone cliffs rose up on both sides of the river and on top of one of the ridges was a classical Greek rotunda, built of coloured marble by the architecture-mad Ludwig I of Bavaria to commemorate the victory over Napoleon’s armies at Leipzig.
Once in the gorge itself, the cliffs huddled closer and the mighty Danube, heavily swollen by days of constant rain, found itself funnelled through a gap less than eighty yards across. The current was fast and forbidding, not quite white water but considerably bouncier than you’d expect a scenic ferry to tackle. It was a rollicking ride, so much so that the pilot remarked as we drew up to the landing at Keilheim that this was the last trip for the day, and maybe even for the next few days, until the river dropped and the rapids calmed down a bit.
While the ferry crew tied up the boat, and put out word that there would be no further trips through the gorge, we made our way through Keilheim’s cobbled streets to a landmark brauhaus Harald knew and whose praises he’d been singing all day. It certainly looked the part, half-timbered, built in 1607, its low dim interior all vaulted ceilings and walls frescoed with vines, pastoral scenes and Germanic crests.
Harald ordered, and he ordered well: griebenschmalz and black bread, for starters, and a couple mugs of the wheat-based beer the house had been brewing for the past four hundred years. Next came legs of pork with mounds of potato dumplings and crisp tangy coleslaw. And then strudel. And then more beer. We did it justice. When we rolled out of there an hour and a half later, into the soft afternoon sunshine we found, as many another cyclist before us has found, that laden touring bikes do not run as well after lunch as they do before it. We wobbled our amiable way eastwards another twenty miles or so before calling a halt at a campground on the outskirts of Regensburg.
The next couple of days passed in a pleasant summery continuum, the river and the bicycle path beside it passing through some of the most picturesque countryside I’d yet seen on the trip. The river here was broad and stately, the villages storybook pretty with their onion domed churches, and with the soft outlines of the Bohemian mountains in the distance to give the scenery depth and texture. Even the weather obliged, giving us a long afternoon of hazy July sunshine. Mid morning on the third day we rolled into Passau, a beautiful old mediaval town on the Austrian border and at the confluence of the Ilz, the Inn and the Danube Rivers. Here our paths forked – Harald to follow the Inn upstream, into the mountains of the Tyrol and his archery tournament, while I stayed with my old friend the Danube. We had a farewell hot chocolate at a café near the cathedral, and then we mounted up and each went out our separate ways.