Reflections

23 Oct

7,700 km, 5 months, 10 countries,
Red=bike, green=train, blue=boat

We’ve been home for several weeks, and have made a trip page for this year’s bike trip in Northern Europe.

What was different about this trip than others we’ve done is that we arranged to meet friends and travelled with them for various segments:  Suzanne and TT in the Baltic countries, Ingrid and Kristian for Lofoten in Northern Norway, and Jiggy in Belgium and France for a visit-on-wheels. This meant a little more careful planning and scheduling than usual, but we managed. Other social highlights of the trip included seeing friends/relations in Hamburg, Oslo, and Paris, and getting a glimpse of the world of elite orienteering as we watched our daughter compete at WOC in Finland.

From Lübeck until Tallinn we rode through former Warsaw Pact countries: Former East Germany, Poland, and former Soviet Republics: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. New museums document their grim eras, and ruins of collective farms dotted the countryside. We felt we learned more about Estonia than the other Baltic republics due to the enthusiastic presence of TT, Canadian-born of Estonian refugee parents.  We learned about Sami culture as we rode through reindeer herding territory in Northern Finland, the white sand beaches of Northern Norway were a stunning surprise, and ancient Norse history came to life in Jutland, Denmark.

Our ride north through Finland and in northern Norway opened our eyes to how WW2 played out in Arctic Europe. In Finland, an extended version of the war was fought on the eastern front, and territory lost to the USSR. There is little love lost to Russia in Finland. The Germans also occupied Finland, retreating northward with an efficient  scorched earth policy, so northern towns are relatively newly built. In Kirkenes (northern Norway), however, the Russians are viewed as liberators, for having entered to rout the occupying Germans and then retreated.

Bunkers everywhere.  Missile testing grounds at Peenemünde. So many losses; crosses to the fallen everywhere in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.  Russian crosses; German crosses;  does it matter which is which? Endless row of crosses in Belgium and France. Bronze tiles to mark where Jews were arrested and taken away.

These embedded bronze plaques are called “stolpersteins” or “stumbling blocks.” The monuments are the work of artist Walter Denning, and commemorate individual Jews and individuals from other groups targeted by the Nazis (i.e. Roma), both those who died and survivors. This photo is from Lübeck. We also saw them in Polish and Baltic Cities.

Herewith a few of the mundane trip statistics. Our longest daily distances were nothing too extreme, though I guess we’re doing okay for a pair of sixty-year-olds.  Interestingly, there is the same two-humped distribution we always seem to see; there must be two natural types of touring days.  One is getting to a nearby day’s destination, to a logistical point (boat, train), or doing an errand; the other is a “real travelling day.” Some of our travelling days are getting quite short these days — perhaps we’re just learning to smell the roses.

And here’s a summary of where we slept in each country. (Note: I’ve removed the orienteering week because it was atypical for bike touring.) Proportionately, we camped more in Finland and Norway. This was to extend our  budget in these expensive countries, because accommodation was often widely spaced, and because wild-camping is easy here under Every Man’s Right. It was easy in Denmark, too, where simple lean-tos are provided for hikers and walkers, though sometimes it was a challenge to find them.

Accommodation by country

It is strange how travel makes you look at the news in a different light when you see connections to places you’ve been and things you’ve experienced. Was it coincidental that I commented on Roma issues in Europe in the last post, and then we returned only days later to a sensationalist story about a Roma couple in northern Greece who had come under heavy suspicion of having kidnapped a blonde child? The couple’s story of a desperate woman having left the girl with them was highly doubted by authorities at first, but turned out to be true. The biological mother, also Roma, came forward to confirm the couple’s story. Will her desperation bring more attention to the plight of the Roma in Europe? I haven’t yet seen a journalist spin a sympathetic and broader look at the plight of the Roma from the original story.

It’s always a bit of an adjustment to come home. “Re-entry” is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that people don’t usually include in their travel accounts. We’re busy catching up with many home-owner jobs that need dealing with, and we enjoy being part of a familiar community again, but our minds continue to process this recent journey. They also turn to future travels.

M

Route Finding in Europe & Comments on Paris

6 Oct

Margo comments that this is one of Chris’s “practical”  posts, possibly useful to other tourers needing navigation or logistics tips and/or ending a bike journey in Paris:

In the densely populated areas of Europe, travelling on main roads is not advised — unless you like the thrill of regular near death experiences.

We find Google Maps can help plan a sensible route. We just enter our starting and ending points and tell it we are on bikes. Several routes are then normally suggested. I study these in detail and choose one that does not have extended travel on main roads.

We then carry our smart phone that has a GPS function, and use this with the Google Maps route to navigate on the route. In places like Germany we then quickly find we are on well posted bike routes and can turn off the phone. In rural France, however,  it sometimes puts one onto unsigned routes more suitable for mountain bikes than touring bikes. In places like France, we switch on the GPS, commit the next few turns to memory, and then switch it off. This way we can complete a day’s ride without the battery running out. However, when passing through major cities we leave the phone on as the turns are too frequent.

Much has improved for cycling and walking in France since our last visit. We made our way into Paris on 30 km of dedicated bike path!

An end of journey task that can be more or less difficult to organize is boxing our bikes for air travel. To our delight, the first bike shop we went into offered the service of selling bike boxes, then lending tools (and a hand where necessary) so we could box our bikes. While we didn’t need the service, they will also phone the taxi company so a suitably large cab comes to take you to the airport. Given Paris prices, where an espresso can easily set you back 6 Euro, the 10 Euro per bike charge for this service seemed reasonable.

We noted changes since our last visit to the City of Light. For one thing, the Paris authorities have given up on  trying get owners to train their dogs to do their business in the gutter: now they are attempting to train owners to stoop and pick up after their dogs. This approach has been somewhat more effective, and you can now walk around Paris and enjoy the sights rather than have to constantly watch your feet. (Margo notes: This morning we had to warn our mini-van driver “Attention aux crottes!!” as we loaded boxed bikes into the mini-van. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.)  On the down side Paris, like much of Europe, is suffering from increased begging on the streets. Of course this is most prevalent in tourist areas (see note on this issue at bottom of post by Margo).

Below is a set of photos we took to show what it was like to cycle into Paris on a route proposed by Google Maps. During the last 300 m when we were moving through nearly stationary traffic as we approached Place de la Bastille, and we did not take any photos.

C







Margo writes: I think Chris is being a bit too careful and/or politically correct to be as brief as he was on the questions of the current “begging” situation in Paris..

The overwhelming majority of those now begging in the streets of central Paris, and living in shanty towns we saw in the suburbs, or in encampments along canals, are Roma (aka Gypsies) — fairly recently arrived from the new EU countries of Romania and Bulgaria. They are different group than the Gens de Voyage I remember from our years living in rural France (near Geneva, Switzerland) in the early 90s.

Individuals and family groups take up their stations near Place de la Bastille. Children sleep curled on the pavement. Near the Pantheon, we passed a mother cradling her disabled teenager. The same middle-aged man is always a few metres from the entrance to our hostess’ building, strategically positioning himself in front of a bank machine. He parks his wheelie bags, his cardboard, and his tattered blankets right by the solid wooden doorway with its big brass handle.

It’s not just an issue for France; it’s a pan-European concern. We even saw Roma begging in Kirkenes, northernmost Norway that has cruise ship traffic. The problem has no easy answers; I’ve just ploughed through several articles on the issue in Le Nouvel Observateur.

We speculated, among other things, where the desperate souls in question went at night. This morning, as we loaded ourselves into the airport-bound cab, the middle-aged man was asleep on the bank’s doorstep, his belongings still parked by “our” door.

M

Last Days of the Ride

5 Oct

2013/09/30: 63 km to Soissons
2013/10/01: 91 km to Senlis
2013/10/02: 59 km to Claye-Souilly
2013/10/03: 33 km to Paris
Our final days took us from Reims to Paris across the countryside of Champagne-Ardenne, along the river Aisne, and across  southernmost Picardy to enter Paris from its eastern edge along the Canal de l’Ourcq. We stayed in progressively more basic chain accommodation along the way: Campanile, Budget Ibis, and finally Akena, where the receptionist first checked us into a room that contained someone else’s belongings.

Cycling west from Reims across the Champagne countryside

The nights were fairly basic, but the days and the rides were memorable. There are no long-distance bike paths here, so we worked our way using Google Maps which often suggested rough but pretty farm tracks, and roads too tiny to appear on even the most detailed Michelin map. At one point we met a group of about a dozen sprightly grey-haired hikers who, they told us, got together twice weekly to do a longish “rando” together. They were hiking on the same track we cycled on. I did my best to sell them on the use of two wheels so as to extend their exploration possibilities.

Pierrefonds … part of the inspiration for Walt Disney’s castle

We were planning to ride via the Clairière de l’Armistice near Compiègne, where both WW1 and WW2 armistices were signed, but were informed in Vic sur Aisne that everything there had closed for the season. We changed plans, and rode instead to admire the château at Pierrefonds, and on through forest to Senlis. This meant we could easily reach Chantilly the next day.

Chateau de Chantilly

At Chantilly, we visited the magnificent Great Stables, built between 1719 and 1735 by by Louis Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, who was mad about hunting as was much of the French aristocracy. The extensive renovation of the stables and their conversion into the Musée Vivant du Cheval  was largely funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has also supported refurbishment of much more in Chantilly that we did not have time to see, and not all of it horse-related.

I knew the Aga Khan was keen on horses and especially on flat racing, so I guess his involvement at Chantilly makes sense. There is a

huge oval racetrack with viewing stands in front of the Great Stables, and Chantilly is surrounded by stables that train thoroughbreds for flat racing, though some focus on other disciplines too. The local forest is criss-crossed  with tracks, still maintained and sign-posted at carrefours with their historic names, that are laid out in a hexagonal pattern that allowed good access by hunting parties. The ground is sandy –ideal footing for a good gallop– and we saw a wider trail signposted as reserved for race horses only.

We spent a good part of two days on forest trails like this.

Closer to Paris we did a bit of a hack through industrial areas to our final night at Claye-Souilly. We’d chosen this as well-positioned for entering Paris the next morning on a piste cyclable alongside a canal. We made our way through suburbs, past Roma encampments, graffiti,  and then gentrification as we neared the centre. Finally,  we threaded our way on crowded streets of the city centre to Place de la Bastille.  As in 2009 we were welcomed by Anne, and fed a hearty lunch.

The canal at the beginning of our 30 km ride into Paris

All rides must end, and this was a good one. We’re already discussing the next adventure.

M

P.S. We have put up our Flickr sets for Belgium and France.

“Gossiping While our Feet go Round”

1 Oct

2013/09/26: 55 km to Agimont at French Border
It was absolutely lovely to be greeted by Chris and Margo when I arrived in Namur. Neither had changed a bit since I had last seen them but the new haircuts (obtained while waiting for me to join them) may have had something to do with that! They were much more polite than I deserved about the state of my bike (very old light tourer festooned with Lincolnshire mud and – I suspect – various insects that had failed to jump off on route from home to Namur via Goole, Hull, Zeebrugge, and Bruges) and we were off without delay.

After a brief look at Namur’s fort, its fortified castle (C & M had done a proper tour the day before) and the Strawberry Museum (whose gardens included not just numerous strawberry varieties but kiwis, currants, grapes, hops and more) we settled down to enjoy the Meuse towpath. This was excellent for catching up with 16 years’ worth of news as we could ride two abreast and chat, only occasionally having to make way for other cyclists and walkers. I say “towpath” but of course it was a great deal wider than those associated with British canals and since I suspect navigation of the canalised Meuse must have had its heyday after coal was available as a boat fuel, I am not sure how much “towing” took place. A typical barge seen on that and the following day carried a medium-sized car on the cabin roof (and in one case a small speedboat as well!).


Probably because of my gossiping to Margo, Chris was in sole charge of navigation that afternoon, which meant info from Google maps was not supplemented by that from Michelin. As a result, we did not stick entirely to the Meuse, but took a “shortcut” across one of its substantial bends. Since Google does not account for ups, downs or road surfaces, this was a bit more “sportif” than expected but was a good way of appreciating that the Belgian Ardennes is not all prosperous, detached houses along the river. We rode past some lovely woods, real farming (chiefly dairy) and some villages that looked as if they had struggled to recover prosperity post WWII. There was also a chance to prove that C & M are a great deal braver than I when it comes to going downhill at speed!!

Back down beside the river, south of Dinant, a fishing cabin available for rent by the night was ideal for the 3 of us (in that I got the sheets while C&M had to make do with their sleeping bags!). It went by the name of “La cabin au….” – notices inside invited you to complete the name! We were in Belgium still but c.100 metres from the border. Very helpful owner not only provided lots of local info but also, on hearing that it was C’s birthday, provided a bottle of fizz and a bottle of beer. The cake, procured earlier and intact despite the bumpy ride, followed fish and pasta. I had earlier lowered the tone by introducing C&M to “Belgian fondue” aka chips dipped in mayonnaise. (It could have been worse –the local takeaway menu included baguette-and-chip sandwiches the size of rugby balls).

2013/09/27: 63 km to Monthermé
Foggy and chilly start, but sun eventually broke through. C&M preferred technique of using Google maps and Michelin prevailed, such that we followed the river towpath and then a “forest drive” for much of the day, right through to Monthermé, with just a few diversions (e.g. avoiding the nuclear power station near to Chooz.). It was smooth going, very few cars (most of them employees of the French agency that regulates the many and substantial locks on the river) and with sufficient towns and villages to ensure we did not go hungry or thirsty (once we had worked out that shops etc in this region are typically on the top of the hill overlooking the river, not along the water’s edge).

“Defensive” sums it up; the Ardennes has been much fought over, (not just in the 20th century) and every town and village seems positioned to overlook and defend its bit of the Meuse. War memorials are in prominent positions in each town, and well-maintained. The one in Monthermé  pays tribute not just to French but to Madagascan soldiers who were killed there in WWII. But it was far from gloomy – “ville fleurie” was a status shared by many of the towns and villages we went through, the major bridges were decorated with flags of every description and gardens and window boxes were all flourishing.

Pre- warned by the proprietor of a river-side café (no running water and a very upmarket compost loo) that Charleville-Mezieres was very busy due to the annual puppet festival, we stopped short of there at a hotel called Les Boucles de Meuse. This provided two very comfy rooms (one with large balcony providing space for slow-puncture repair) plus a restaurant which persuaded us to try the local speciality “carcasse á cul-nu”. This confirmed my theory that “artisanal” food (designed to sustain hard-working farm-workers in the pre-machinery days) is also suitable for cyclists! Another item was “Terrine de Rimbaud”, in honour of the poet whose name appeared on many other roads and cafés.

2013/09/28: 80 km to Rethel
Fifteen kilometres more of the towpath beside the Meuse got us to the outskirts of Charleville-Mezieres where we left the Meuse and did a bit more work to cross into the next valley (of the Vence, if the names of the villages were anything to go by.). Again expert navigating by C&M got us across Charleville-Mezieres without any hitch; quite a feat given that this actually comprises two C16th “planned” towns on either side of the river with a C16th road layout, a railway and several bridges to get over. (Sadly no puppets in sight!).

After that it was a series of quiet and quieter routes into an area that now called itself “les Crêtes Préardennaises” ; this was a gentler landscape with more mixed farming and slightly more affluent-looking villages (e.g. Launois, Novion Porcien, Sery and Sorbon (the latter the birthplace of the founder of the Sorbonne)) although beautiful-but-collapsing timber-framed barns were as numerous as inhabited houses! A friendly and (justifiably) proud gardener allowed us to venture into the gardens of a private château (only open in high summer) where we admired his hard work and the mushrooms that he was taking home for his evening meal.

Coffee stop in Sery prompted a small diversion. “Monique” (after seemingly endless debate with her companions at the bar, which Margo listened to very patiently) persuaded us that a place to stay in Château Porcien would be hard to find but that Hotel Le Moderne in Rethel run by someone she knew was just the place. So off we went! No matter that when we got there, nobody knew Monique and the hotel was only partly refurbished. The food was as upmarket as the corridors were shabby… a bizarre mix, but a good recommendation nevertheless.

2013/09/29: 47 km to Reims
I had expected Sunday morning traffic to be heavy in this largely Catholic country. How wrong I was. The only heavy bit between Rethel and Reims was the stream of lorries on one section of road carrying newly harvested sugar beet to the processing factory near Reims (not wearing a helmet, I was especially nervous about large and escaping vegetables!) . Otherwise it was very quiet and many of the churches looked as closed, if not more so, as their English counterparts. Closer to Reims, by which time the landscape was very open with arable largely replacing stock, and uncut sugar beet fields being walked-over with guns (looking for wild boar??), we were passed (inevitably) by ultra-skinny Frenchmen on ultra-skinny bikes. So at least that particular preconception about the French on Sundays has been confirmed.

Reims Cathedral had been visible for much of the morning’s ride but once in the city, it was harder to find! We bumped our way on cobbled roads past the city hall (?), (complete with shot marks on the pillars) to the cathedral gardens. Signs said our “deportment” in the gardens had to be “proper”; it was our unanimous opinion that eating baguette with tomatoes and terrine pâté passed the test (we refrained from making a cup of tea)! The cathedral really merited a longer visit, more suitable shoes and more secure parking for bikes, but we admired gothic splendour from the outside and within, (and from a nearby coffee bar) while trying not to get in the way of other visitors’ photos. The adjoining Bishop’s palace is being done up and will be open to the public too in due course.

By 3-ish, I had discovered that Bonjour France’s version of the Sunday afternoon train schedule from Reims to Calais was a bit optimistic (there was only one TGV service, not four, and that was full-up) so resigned myself to a long journey on the regional service, with three changes. C&M meanwhile had opted for “washing and blogging” at the Reims hostel, so it was a quiet Sunday evening for everybody.

….

Of course, three and a half days was absolutely nothing compared with C&M’s several months on the road. But for me it was a lot. Time to catch up, to get a glimpse of what they have been up to and to enjoy a bit of pedalling in the French-Belgian countryside. An English friend who heard what I was doing said ”that is not a cycle trip, that is just a gossip while your feet go round”. Too right, but it was still lots of fun!

Many thanks to Chris and Margo for a lovely trip!

J

Wallonia

29 Sep

Neither of us had been to Belgium before, and had little knowledge of what to expect. Some of this mainly French-speaking portion in southern part of Belgium was as we had assumed it would be, but there were also a few surprises. We’d known key parts of many European wars had been played out here, and reminders of this were everywhere. The citadelles and elegant châteaux were the stuff of tourist brochures, but the gritty tiredness of Liège was a surprise to us, as was the overwhelmingly industrial  character of the Meuse river between Liège and Namur.

21/09/2013: 98 km Across the High Fens to Liège
We tucked into our last German breakfast and set out past reservoirs on a climb toward the border.  Still following routes shown on our German cycling map, and crossed the High Fens in Belgium on rough tracks.  Here in the fens, the importance of wetlands is recognized.There is a long term project to eradicate an introduced tree species that became invasive, and which if left unchecked would alter the water table and transform fen into forest.

I was looking forward to easier communication in the local language that I assumed would be French. Arriving in Eupen, I felt relief as I asked a woman for directions to a bookshop and conversation flowed easily. Obtaining information would be simple here. She was a francophone, but to my surprise the lasses in the bookshop were German speakers who preferred to switch into English than into French. We’d arrived in an area which had been part of Germany before WW1, and where the language still thrives several generations later. I guess it was no surprise that the bakery was a delicious microcosm of the local Belgian cultural mix; take your pick of éclairs, strudel, or speculoos. All are delicious.

We found our way into Liège on a rail trail the Belgians call a “Ravel”, and made our way to the hostel. It was late, we were tired, and it was full. We stayed nearby in an overpriced establishment in a rough area of town. To be fair, quite a bit of  Liège felt edgy, or perhaps it was simply culture shock after Germany with its tidy window boxes. We made sure we had a reservation for the hostel for the next day.

22-23/09: In Liège
After moving our kit into storage at the hostel, we walked to the citadelle. As we strolled,  we saw an orienteering meet in progress, and stopped to chat.  Our own Greater Vancouver Orienteering Club currently has two active Belgian members, and despite the fact that there are about 2,000 active orienteers in Wallonia, we connected with someone who knew our Vancouver Belgians and who went as far as to invite us to stay if our route were to take us near her house.

24/09/2013: 87 km Along the Meuse and Chateau de Jehay to Namur
Map of Belgian cycling routes in hand, we set out toward Namur along the Meuse. This was not the idyllic German riverside cycling path. Rather, it involved periodic dodging of heavy equipment as we passed work sites where mechanical shovels moved processed scrap metal from containers to barges. We would stop to see when it was safe to pass these operations, and always got cheerful thumbs up from operators.  There were also quite a few other touring cyclists using this route alongside what is more of a canal than a river.

We left the river to visit the Château de Jehay, a private estate for several centuries now in the hands of the province of Liège. On first arrival, the garden was closed, but we chatted to three Flemish road cyclists. When they heard we were from British Columbia, conversation turned to the famous Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, because apparently his son Axel Merckx now lives in Kelowna. We were told the back story of Eddy Merckx from the Belgian viewpoint: not only has his halo lost its sheen because of doping scandals, but Eddy’s parents were rumoured to be Nazi collaborators.

The château buildings were undergoing renovation, but with walked in the fabulous gardens, with a highlight being a lovingly restored garden of edibles, neatly laid out in a formal Italian style. Imagine rows of ruby chard and brussel sprouts as graphic art.  Beautiful!

Further along the Meuse, we stopped in Huy for ice cream and coffee. We sat beside six-year old who, when hearing we had flown to Europe because there was water between it and Canada which would make cycling difficult, advised us very logically that we should have ridden BESIDE the water. Surely there is always a cycling path beside the water? We felt his logic was solid, considering where he lived.

At the hostel in Namur we met a 67 year old retired PE teacher, a keen cyclist and who gave us tips for our onward route. Lads from a rather noisy school group at the hostel kept calling out “Bonjour Madame” as I passed, so I stopped to chat  and made the mistake of calling them “les gamins.” I was firmly corrected and informed they would prefer to be addressed as “jeunes hommes.”  They must have been about twelve or thirteen.

25-26/09/2013; in Namur
Namur sits at the confluence of the Meuse and the Sambre rivers, and the point of rock  that just between the two has been inhabited for a thousand years and fortified for the last five hundred or so.  We spent most of our first day touring this.

The next day Jiggy was to arrive  by train to join us. We checked out of the hostel and the errand of the morning was for us both to get our scraggly hair cut, and for Chris to get his beard trimmed. It was over two months ago that Louise did our hair in Finland with a pair of kitchen scissors borrowed from the Australian orienteering team.

With our newly minted short backs and sides, we went to meet Jiggy at the train station, realizing that it was sixteen years since we’d last seen each other.

Short backs and sides with salon owner in Namur.
His son and daughter cut our hair.

Watch this space for a guest post by Jiggy!

M

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