bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

Europe

9th September 2010

FIRST LEG: COLLINDALE, NORTH LONDON, TO MAZAMET, SOUTHERN FRANCE

-16 days
-1128km
-Longest distance in one day: 104km
-Average distance per day: 70km
-Fastest speed: 59.5km/hr
-Bike maintenance issues: one puncture, two slow leaks, gear cable adjustments (successful)

"Excuse me sir, do you know where I can find a supermarket around here?"
Bemused: "Ah non Mademoiselle, you won't find anything open now."
"But what day is it today?"
"Sunday. Nothing is open on a Sunday..."
I should have known, being the one who'd lived in France for most of my childhood and adolescence. Seven years of British living have alienated me from the French rhythm. Frustrating, when there are three (Reza's, my brother Calum's, and mine) hungry mouths to feed for much-required calories. We made do that night with an improvised meal of brushettas and eggs (boiled AND fried, for variety) with our last three ingredients and hoped that Monday would restore our stocks, even though we were told not to keep our hopes up: in France, merchants often swap their Saturdays off for a Monday.
Similarly, we learned also not to push our cycling selves past noon to stop at the bakers if we need bread for lunch - past 1pm, you can count at least two more hungry hours before they reopen.
It does little for the mood of long-distance cyclists, but it is, in a way, reassuring, pleasant even. It says: "we are human, proud - and at least one day per week, the joy of living is more important than making money".

We have learnt a lot in these first two weeks. Surprisingly few things went wrong, considering we didn't test out all of our equipment prior to departure (we're just not that organised!). Much of this leg, though, was finding our rhythm, pushing and testing ourselves, and balancing our expenses (physical and financial).
We rushed through South East England in two days in the rain and panic to get to our ferry on time in Portsmouth; it wasn't nice, and is probably still the hardest bit we've done so far. Hitting France made things more pleasant, the strict deadline of booked organised transport behing us. We met up with my little brother Calum in Le Havre who accompanied us for as much of the French route as he could before school started again. The weather got distinctly better, roads were straighter and flatter in the North West, and we eased in to our camping routine.

Camping was mostly wild, though we found that asking farmers' permission and using their fields was much nicer and occasionally provided us with unexpected bonuses: one particularly generous young family brought us, in turn, freshly lain eggs, still warm, just-picked cherry tomatoes, a hose with running water for an outside shower (luxury, in our new-defined terms)... Rule of thumb when asking people to camp on their land: the tidier the garden, the less likely your success! Open-minded people seem to be the ones with a messier look...

Calum, who brought to our little group the positive energy of a seriously fit thirteen year-old and the entertainment of a quirky, sometimes bizarre one, left us after a respectful 500 km but before we hit the hills of the central part of France. The worst days were those of 40 km gradual but relentless uphills or again those with 10km steep ones, interspersed with too-few downs, usually wind against us. The further South we got though, the prettier the countryside - particularly the Lot and Aveyron, where we also found people to be the kindest. Travelling on a bike certainly taught us to respect and appreciate the geography of the land as well as the elements. We haven't actually weighed our bikes fully loaded yet, but being near impossible to lift, they must be of a reasonable weight! It has definitely been physically challenging so far, perhaps more so because we didn't take any rest days until we reached Mazamet.

Reza has been honing his outdoor-chef skills throughout the journey, much to everyone's appreciation. One cooking set - two deep pans and one frying pan - suffice to make some pretty good meals! Staple ingredients include: (a lot of) garlic and onion, a variety of veggies, the odd steak, much pasta - our diet has been pretty impressively varied, considering. All we are missing is a good selection of herbs and spices, soon to be remedied... We'll have nothing to envy of our indoor counterparts!

Overall, this is what we discovered: strip life down to its basic needs - food, water, shelter and a purpose... then a beer tastes damn fine and little can't be sorted with a hearty three course meal with complimentary wine.

  * * *

We reached Mazamet 3 days ago and have been basking in the luxury of hot showers, saunas, sit-down meals, and good company. Our arrival in town was met with the enthusiastic faces and fresh bodies of my Mom and her cycling posse, who insisted we do the extra 13km up into the hills with them to our country home!

We'll be staying for the big party organised by my family tomorrow night then head onward to the next destination...

8th October 2010

SECOND LEG: MAZAMET, FRANCE, TO FLORENCE, ITALY

- 16 days (15 cycling, 1 rest)
- 1260 km
- Longest distance in a day: 107km
- Average distance per cycling day: 84km
- Total distance since London: 2388km
- Bike maintenance issues: broken spoke on rear driving side. Had no chain whip or crank (only tools we didn't bring) so had to seek help from sole bike mechanic around - disturbing him at home on the weekend. He was very graceful about it and we cycled off happily within half an hour of finding him...

  * * *

Tin tin tin tin tin tin tin tin tin tintintintinTINTINTINtin TIN TIN TIN TIN TIN TRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRIN TINTINTINTIN…

Rain falls on the roof of the barn in which we are staying. It has been continuous for the past two days and the offer of shelter under which to put our tent came as a welcome relief. The landowners are a young Italian couple with two small children, both intrigued by the sight of two wet, fairly miserable-looking cyclists who are strangely elated by what seems to them an odd place indeed to sleep. Nonetheless, after arranging the rectangular bails of hay in a platform and pitching our tent on top, it provided a wonderfully dry and warm nest.

That night marked the end of the most difficult part of this leg. (The weather improved
thereafter, too). When we woke up the next morning we were just a day away from Lucca, where Reza's uncle would be providing a touch-down point before we reach our destination of Florence - a prospect of comfort, cleanliness and relief.

  * * *

The Alps first made themselves known to us in France, 100km or so from the Italian border. The flat coast between Beziers and Arles slowly gave way to soft hills, then steeper ones, until, on the Italian side, we were eventually surrounded by peaks.

Our increasing fitness was noticeable on the uphills. The biggest climb (of which figures we noted) led us from sea level to 750 meters elevation in one and a half hour pedalling time (at 3pm on a lunch-less stomach) with respectably minimal strain. We are generally faster than on the first leg of the trip, achieving more mileage in less time, allowing us longer lunch breaks - with siesta - and earlier stops in the evenings.

Camping wild, however, has proven more difficult on this stretch. The Mediterranean coast is so incredibly built up and populated - an impermeable concrete face grossly plastered over what once was (as it too occasionally hints) a beautiful coastline - there have been few chances to find a suitable field or forest and we found ourselves having to resort to campsites. This was a strain on our budget especially on the Italian side, where camping is a popular holiday plan that doesn't come cheap. On the French side we were luckier. We stopped in the Gorges de l'Orb on our first night after leaving Mazamet and camped on the bank of the river, just down from the vineyard that had produced our wine for the evening. On our second night, and a bit more desperate due to the beginning of rainfall, we slyly pitched our tent between two rows of vines, thinking it was fairly safe given they had been cultivated... but were surprised in the morning by the sound of a tractor and packed in a hurry, leaving a suspicious rectangle of dry sand behind us!

Unexpected generosity came on our 4th night, after a difficult two days (a fall on the rocks on the bank of a canal, an injured knee and a broken spoke... a late night setting up camp and low spirits) thanks to Philip and Christine, whom we'd asked for a patch of land but who instead gave us a bed, a shower, food, wine, and great company. We left the next morning fully restored, both physically and with a renewed faith in human nature. That day we cycled 107km... beating our previous record by 2km!

Another fine example of humanity came in the form of Thomas, a 16 year-old schoolboy who stopped to see if we needed help when we were trying to figure out what to do with the broken spoke on Reza's bike. We were in the small town of Aigues Mortes on a Saturday, and the one tool we didn't have was the one we needed. He cycled us across town to the home of the only bike mechanic around, who was preparing to leave for a family weekend away but stayed behind to help out. We likely would have had to stay put for two days, until the Monday, had it not been for them.

We made it to Florence six days ago and have been savouring our second rest week, with Reza's family this time - a joyful, chaotic, bustling coming together of Iranian parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother quietly overseeing the scene. This beautiful city where we've been treated with incredible generosity has brought satisfaction to our cravings of culture and a nice background on which to celebrate Reza's 31st birthday yesterday. I dare say we feel ready to return to our more animalistic routine tomorrow...

We have another 300km of Europe to cycle. Venice will be our last stop. As you may have seen from our route, this is a change from the original plan of cycling to Greece (or around the entire Mediterranean if we had time) but we found that the only ferry that would sail from Europe to Egypt was from Venice - and though in cuts the European part of our journey short, we are keen to reach Africa, and, as my father put it, we are indeed Panafricancycle.

17th October 2010

THIRD LEG: FLORENCE, ITALY, TO VENICE, ITALY

- 290 km
- 4 days
- Top altitude: 930m (after 50km uphill)
- Total distance since London: 2678km
- Number of fruit varieties picked off trees along the way: 9

We are patiently waiting for our ferry departure in Venice. It leaves only once a week, and having had to book over a month in advance, we chose the later date to account for potential delays along the way (technical, administrative, health, etc). We are a little frustrated as we've had more than enough rest time up until now and a feeling of stagnation has settled in - we are keen to get back on the road.

Autumn came upon us on the route from Florence. Our first day delivered a 50 km uphill leading to Colla di Casaglia which put us back in our place after our Fiorentine mollycoddling. On the way down the following morning, an unprecendented cold air chilled our rigid, handlebar-gripping bodies as we flew down the into the valley. We stopped in the village at the bottom, which was having a festival of some sort, for roasted chestnuts and coffee to warm up. It was Sunday and families in large groups were out; the way they were walking, wrapped in scarves and jackets, amongst fallen leaves and breathing out a light steam, the smells and the crisp air all evoqued a potent feel of Autumn that came as a mild surprise after the Indian Summer our route had created for us.

After our descent the land smoothed out into steady flatness, which continued for the next three days. I had developed a cold and felt quite sorry for myself as what should have been easy cycling was made harder by a face-on wind and the general malaise of being a bit unwell. The countryside in this North-Eastern part of Italy was bleak and uninspiring and didn't help motivation much. However, we continued to make great encounters that lifted our morale when it was most needed. We were welcomed on our second night by a family who owned acres of trees laden with ripe fruit. They brought us on a tour before telling us to pick as much as we liked - including a watermelon from the front garden. We pitched our tent under two walnut trees, the fruit of which crunched under our feet as we went about our evening activities.

The next day, we stopped to buy bread as a baker's before lunch. Outside, we were packing our purchase (four half-baguettes) away when the baker appeared behind us: "For all the kilometers you have cycled: here, one for you, and one for you". He pointed at us in turn and handed us a bag with two freshly baked, custard-filled croissants. Amazing! We looked at eachother wide-eyed and thanked him. Before we knew it, another man appeared before us, offering us bottled water. We had to refuse as all of our own bottles had been recently filled. Unsatisfied, he disapeared behind a corner and came back with two apples. When he came back a third time, it was to give us two slices of pizza he had bought from the baker's. We couln't believe our luck! We'd have settled for our usual lunch of bread and an onion-tomato-pulses-tuna filling, but instead found ourselves with much more.

Our bikes seem to be excellent friend-makers indeed. They sometimes do all the work for us. When we were waiting outside the train station in Mestre (the town opposite Venice, on the cheaper side of the river) after meeting up with our friend Aedin, we met Marco, a local man who was attracted to us for our panniers (we have Ortlieb ones, durable, waterproof, and in nice shiny colours). Excited to meet two cycle tourers - he has traveled across Germany with his family on bikes but is keen to do more - he promptly invited us to dinner the following evening. We met his wife and two very charming children, had a wonderful dinner, although we felt slightly underdressed as we didn't know what to expect and turned up to find them very glamourous and incredibly graceful.

Aedin is one of my great friends from University, and now a good friend of Reza's too, and I don't know if she'll ever realise how much her visit on this trip was special to us. Our reunion in the streets of Venice was - pause for accurate wording - tastefully debaucherous? The city is truly beautiful, and any beauty is augmented with great friendship, and a bottle of wine or two...

In our rented cabin in camping Fusina, we wait for Wednesday, when we set off for Africa. Our money expired, we find other delights in reading, or knitting, or planning, or just contemplating...

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