One of our extrodinary guides Sue, along with her husband Owen, spend her 2017 winter cycling from from Glasgow to Athens. When we asked her for a few words to sum up her winter, she struggled with so many highlights every day, so instead she provided us with a noteworthy point on each country they visited. If you have ever cycled in Europe, or planned to cycle in Europe, or just think they were crazy, this is a great read of Europe from a cyclists view point!
Scotland: The ‘Right to Roam’ allows free camping in many public places. One of the most exciting places we slept was slightly above the high tide line at Redkirk Point on the River Esk. The tide change was 3 meters and took only 1 hour to come in (that’s faster than you can run) and 5 hours to go out. That night all the unused gear was kept in dry bags and an exit route planned in case the local fishermen had miscalculated the tide height predications and camping advice!
England: Oxford, a classic historic city with narrow streets, historic university buildings, students in academic gowns and more cyclists than cars.
Wales: Roads with 17% gradients, the steepest climbs in the whole trip. Haven’t the Welsh heard of switchbacks?
France: Rendezvousing with the Tour de France. It was all about the ambiance, and there was plenty around. There was an excited screaming crowd at the finish line. Spectators camped in fields whiling away the hours playing the piano accordion, and then the worlds fittest cyclists whizzing by in 3 seconds. Viva le Tour!!
Switzerland: Picture perfect, with classic Swiss houses donning window boxes full of red geraniums. All nestled in lush agricultural valleys and surrounded by mountains. Just like in the tourist brochures!!
Italy: The Northern Italian Alps and Dolomites called us to climb them. There were stunning days of riding switchbacks until above the tree line, crossing through scree covered passes and flying down descents for kilometre after kilometre.
Austria: We stayed the Tyrol region amongst the Alps where the hot day time temperatures produced afternoon thunderstorms. Some storms were passed by sheltering on the road side under trees or in bus stops, others were passed in the tent whilst the sky unleashed hail so violent it threatened to tear the fly sheet, and the rain caused flash flooding that made the tent floor float. Thirty minutes later it would be warm and sunny again!!
Slovenia: We cycled the Russian Road in the Julian Alps to the head waters of the mighty Socca River (1,611m). The road has 50 hairpin bends, most of which were cobbled on the ascent. It was worked on and greatly improved by Russian Prisoners of war in 1915 but their death toll was high, mostly from avalanche activity. As the road winds up through forest and steep gullies it passes a small Russian Orthodox Chapel built by the POW’s to commemorate their comrades who died.
Croatia: Croatia was in a heat wave but despite this we decided to leave the coastal islands as they were tourist packed. We head inland for quieter roads. The ravages of war were quickly apparent as we peddled past are derelict and bullet ridden houses, half empty rural towns and abandoned farm lands.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Here we cycled to the ancient city of Mostar where East meets West and the impact of Ottoman rule has shaped the countryside. The old and new town are joined by Stari Most, a bridge from which death defying bridge jumpers plunge into the Neretva River below. As the population is predominantly Muslim we went to sleep and woke to the call to prayer hailing from the many local minarets.
Montenegro: This was the land of Turkish coffee, rakia (wild pear spirits) and the mighty Tara River with its 1300m deep gorge. We climbed the most precarious road of our travels on a narrow strip of bitumen clinging hundreds of meters above water on a cliff face where the rock walls still overhung the road, and rough unlined tunnels cut through the hills.
Albania: Here the people were friendly and the traffic was crazy. The City of Shkoder was full of 40 year old VW golf cars, motorbikes, scooters, loaded bicycles, horse drawn carts, trucks and buses, all driving haphazardly along the city roads. Despite this it was cycle tourist heaven as the cars travelled slow enough to avoid every conceivable road hazard including cattle, goats, dogs, humans and cyclists, even on the motorways!
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: The most astounding thing about this country was getting the name right! I dared to mention in the Macedonian part of Greece that we had crossed from the country Macedonia. A terrible mistake! It was met with a 10 minute lecture on the names, passion and raised voice, references to Alexander the Great and much hand waving. Historic connections are important here.
Greece: The land of balmy nights spent camping beside the Aegean Sea. The water temperatures were in the mid 20’s as were the air temperatures, and we passed more than a few rest days lolling in the warm sea, lounging on the pebbly beaches and reading in the shade of ancient olive trees.