Changing times

Hello from Luxembourg!  Country number 15 of the trip, and mostly new to both of us (although I did step cross the border on a school trip GOODNESS KNOWS how long ago, and we did spend a day riding along the Luxembourgish(??) side of the river Moselle with Jenny B on another wonderful cycle tour somewhat more recently).  We’ve spent our rest day exploring beautiful Luxembourg City, and feeling very confused about what language anyone speaks, as at least two seem to be in use at any one time (eg in the bakery where half the products were labelled in French and half in German).  I’m opting for French as it’s a whoooole lot better than my German, and it seems more polite that defaulting to English (although they all seem to speak that perfectly as well, bien sur).

The rest of the day has been spent in a mammoth planning session. We’re usually content to have a rough idea where we’re going, and a better idea of the next day or two but, now that home is so very nearly on the horizon, I am just not quite content with the ‘pretty much winging it’ approach any more!  So google has been put to very good use, finding campsites and distances between here and Dunkirk, where we expect to be in (roughly approximately possibly) around TWO WEEKS from now!

More about that later.  We have sooooo much to catch up on!

When I last wrote, we’d just crossed the Alps via the Gotthard Pass and had started our ride through Switzerland.  I hadn’t quite twigged when I wrote the post, but the pass really did present us with a turning point.  Since then, things have been different….and by this, I mean it all feels a lot more like the good old UK!!  Gone is the sweltering heat of Italy, which we’d endured enjoyed since touching down in mid-July.  While the skies have remained sunny (and long may this last) things have been a touch cooler, with the nights getting downright chilly, prompting purchase of – I kid you not – a small duvet.  Problem solved, although every morning we awake to heavy dew and dense condensation on the inside of the tent’s fly sheet, which is all a bit of a pain and certainly not helping our current mould problem.  Aside from the change in geography, we felt a step-change in the seasons too.  Goodbye summer, hello autumn, Ed’s favourite season!  If it wasn’t all darn pretty enough, the autumn colours are an absolute treat.

 

After my last post, we continued heading north through Switzerland which was less dramatic than the Alpine region but actually offered better cycling.  I guess the mountains tend to squash roads, railways and cycle paths into the narrow valleys, which can make things far from tranquil!  Once we emerged into the more gently rolling terrain (which looked a lot like Devon!) we were treated to quiet backroads and very few cars, which was quite the relief.

 

Switzerland is famed for its expense, but somehow we managed not to break the bank, with a combination of off-season campsite fees and budget supermarkets (AKA a lot of pasta!) saving the day.  That said, we entered affordable France with a sigh of relief!  You’re lucky if you manage to spend 15 euros on a campsite, with the cheapest tipping the scales are more like 10, by far the cheapest accommodation we’ve seen for quite a while!  Food prices are so reasonable that we were no longer hanging out for Lidl, and still had change to spare to treat ourselves to the odd bottle of wine.  Oh and plenty of delicious fresh bread.  And butter.  A silver lining of the cooler weather is certainly the ability to store dairy products for more than about half an hour!

We cycled through Alsace – a region that we only knew for its wine.  Obviously we drank plenty of that 😉 but also absolutely loved the pretty villages and bucolic scenery.  Highly recommended!

 

We may have cooked Raclette on the camping stove as a fitting farewell on our last night in France…..then it was across the border to Germany….for about 24 hours!  Fortunately we’ve spent plenty of time in this lovely country on other occasions, so didn’t feel too cheated.

 

Confusingly (for us as well as you, dear readers!) we then spent another night in France before crossing into Luxembourg.  We’re feeling very European, if slightly unsure precisely which country we’re in a lot of the time…..

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Soooo……where next?!?  We’ve been following the ‘Eurovelo 5’ route since we entered Switzerland, but that now cuts through Belgium via Brussels……  We’ve spent plenty of time in Brussels and are very keen to ‘pop’ into the cycling Mecca of Holland….  So it’s time to go our own way once again!  We’ll head North through Luxembourg for a couple of days, then Belgium, Holland, Belgium, Holland again, Belgium AGAIN, and then FRANCE for one last time…..  Are you keeping up?!

We’re pretty excited because both Belgium and Holland offer LEGAL wild camping opportunities.  I’m too square to feel comfortable breaking the rules (wild camping is usually illegal, although pretty easy to get away with) but do enjoy a more rustic camping experience as much as my husband….well maybe not THAT much but it should be good!!  We’re also still thoroughly enjoying our slow journey across the blurred borders between European countries – BUT HANG ON A MINUTE – I have a whole other blog post planned on that topic so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait 🙂

Some of my dearest friends and relatives (you know who you are!) have been asking me for an ETA for our arrival in Devon for about the last six months….well, thanks for the aforementioned planning session, I am finally in a position to give one!  Caveat – no allowance has been made for inclement weather / illness / other disasters / changes of plan, all being well we might just roll into Sidmouth around the 31st October….but please don’t hold me to that…..

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With the sun on our backs

Time has been getting away from me recently.  I know I always say that.  But it’s been worse than usual!  So much so that after 12 months on the road, we have turned north and are heading home.

I was going to write a blog to tell you about our time in the Dolomites with the jaw-dropping views.  That we weren’t glamorous enough for Cortina d’Ampezzo.  About the fabulous cycle paths (albeit somewhat gravelly in places) and teeny tiny windy roads up little-known mountain passes.  And that climbing three of these passes in three days was definitely too many.  Let’s just say lunch was required at the Rifugio at the top!

I was going to describe our feelings of relief at heading away from the mountains (although we loved them), and the incredible views on the descent into the verdant Adige valley.  About our wild camping adventure, when the campsite we’d earmarked had decidedly weird vibes, prompting a sharp retreat.  And I’m sure I’d have posted pictures of the pastries we had for breakfast after hastily evacuating the camping spot at dawn.

Then parents Lancaster arrived for a week, and all of this went out of the window.  I was going to tell you about that too.  The whirlwind that was their first visit to Italy.  About meeting up with my old school friend Amy for the first time in 8 years, and how nothing had really changed.   I’d have described our day trips to Florence (oh so busy) and Ravenna (oh those mosaics), and made you jealous with tales of lovely lunches and indulgent gelato.  But it never quite happened.

And then….Carol arrived, for her baptism of fire into the rollercoaster that is cycle-touring.  If I’d ever found the time, I’d have lamented the busy-ness of southern Lake Garda, and how much we loved Como.  And that, if you’re ever in the area, you should also consider the lesser-known spots of Lakes Iseo and Garlate.  And definitely pop into Mantova and Brescia.  I’d have told you about the traffic, and the heat, and the unfathomable absence of public toilets.  About the wonderful views, the divine swimming and the delicious food.

And yet all of that is well in the past.  We’re in Switzerland!  Yesterday, we conquered the 1400m of ascent that is the Gotthard Pass (and no tantrums were had about the final 5km of cobbles). Last night we slept in our woolly hats.  And today we arrived at the almost-too-beautiful Lake Lucerne.  Yes it’s expensive, but we’re managing just fine thanks to the proliferation of Lidl and Aldi.  And actually, the campsites are largely cheaper than Italy!  AND there are public toilets.

We’re following Swiss national cycle route 3, which is part of the international Eurovelo 5 route.  We’ll follow this through France (wine) and Germany (more wine) to Luxembourg city, where we might just deviate and head north to Holland.  But we might be ready for home by then, in which case we’ll continue with the route and head straight to Calais through Belgium.

Bottom line:  this is it.  We’re on our way home.  It’s going to take a while to get there, and I’m afraid we can’t give a better estimate than ‘late October’ at this stage.  But watch this space!

Edelweiss, edelweiss*

*Sharing the joy of my Austria-trip-long ear worm. You’re welcome 😀

Austria holds a special place in my heart.  It was the first foreign country I visited.  Ahh, happy memories of hiking in the hills, bonding with schoolfriends and dancing with Stefan the waiter to ‘Careless Whisper’.  Sigh.  If I could count the number of times I’ve been to any country (I can’t), Austria may well top that list too.  Which makes it all the more shameful that mein deutsch is so pitiful!

Austria also holds a special place in Ed’s heart, as a result of countless childhood skiing holidays.  Which, apparently, also involved naked saunas. Let’s not go there!

We’ve agreed that the ‘kaisersemmel’ bread roll is one of our most enduring memories.  If you’ve ever been to Austria, I trust that this picture evokes comforting sandwich happiness (or perhaps the mild unhappiness of the vegetarian picking the ham off the cheese):

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Kaisersemmel used as veggie burger buns, for the win.

Baps and barmcakes aside, we really did have a lovely time in Austria.  It is exceptionally bike friendly, with cycle paths all over the place.  The natives are also friendly, albeit their English tends to be about as good as our German so comms were somewhat limited.  Lidl and Hofer (Austrian Aldi) proliferate, with kaisersemmels for about 15c and actual vegetarian options (see above photo for evidence of our burger joy).  There are a million swimming lakes, which are just the ticket when you’ve had a hot, hot day on the bike.  And there are a million and one campsites, some with cake delivery vans (I am NOT KIDDING).  Basically, it’s a cycle-touring dream (if you avoid the hills, which obviously we didn’t.  But we ‘like’ hills…)

You’d think that was enough.  And it was!  But, lucky us, we had a bigger treat in store, and that was meeting up with Bristol friends Jo, James and family in Weissbriach for a good ol’ catch up and a taste of actual Austrian life.  Well, Austrian holiday life.  Which is probably the best bit!

We ate delicious food:

We drank beer, got to know Jo’s family and rubbed shoulders with the locals (with a soundtrack of terrible music) at their equivalent of the village fete:

We went cycling with James (peloton!!):

And we did A LOT of chatting.  It really was very lovely to have some other very lovely people to talk to.  About something other than where we’re cycling, where we’re camping, what we’re eating, whether or not we will have ANY days without rain and a wet tent, and who’s better at yahtzee.

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Lunch with Jo and James (and Zoe, who was asleep). More dumplings and Schnitzel, oh yes.

What a wonderful couple of days, the icing on the cake of our already very fun time in this lovely country.

Incidentally, where are all the Brits?  Aside from our friends, we saw just a handful in the entire two weeks we were in the country.  Folks, get over here!  You’re missing out.

Next time, Italy!  Again….

Wine at lunchtime

After 25 consecutive days’ camping, we are pretty over living in close proximity to scores of other people.  Especially the boisterous, on their holidays variety. How dare they enjoy themselves!! 😉 We’d thought about having an extended stay somewhere in the Dolomites, but decided to bring this mini-holiday forward for the sake of our (my) sanity.  As we’ll be having a break with parents Lancaster back in Bologna anyway, this also spreads these little treats out more sensibly, and gives us more time to enjoy beautiful Austria of course.

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Gruss gott, Osterriech. No too shabby.

A budget was set, and Booking.com consulted.  Pretty much the top hit (when sorted ‘lowest price first’, naturally) was a farmstay called Marienhof.  The price was right, a nearby swimming lake was advertised, and pet goats were promised.  It sounded perfect.

Fast forward two whole days, and we were there.  And it was actually pretty much perfect.  Nothing fancy, but our room was exceptionally comfortable (a bed, a bed!!). and had hot plates for cooking which was a real bonus for these cheapskates.  There was a well-stocked Spar just a couple of km in one direction, and the aforementioned swimming lake just a couple of km in the other.  Other than that there was almost nothing to do.

Aside from reading our books, playing yahtzee,  and making lovely lunchtime salads which we may have enjoyed with the odd glass of cheap Austrian wine (which, may I add, is a lot better than cheap Slovenian wine), we did manage to

visit the Goggausee every day for a dip:

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make friends with Hansel and Gretel:

ride along the pretty valley blissfully luggage free:

walk up to the little church and along the the waterfall:

and still had plenty of time for petting the friendly demanding farm cats:

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Three luxurious days of not very much.  When we arrived, we did question whether or not we knew what to do with ourselves in such a situation.  Turns out, we managed pretty well. I thought I’d be itching to get back on the bikes this morning but, not so much……it actually felt like the first day back at school after the holidays!

Hey ho, three days to Weissbriach where we’re meeting up with our friends Jo and James and their recent arrival, Zoe, so that will keep us going!  AND we’ve found the first working wifi in Austria (apart from that in Lidl and Hofer, which isn’t so good for social-media-ing) so I can actually post this blog 🙂

Hvala, Slovenija

 

Today is our last full day in Slovenia.  We are far from desperate to leave this beautiful little country, so we decided to delay things by taking a side trip to the Logar Valley.  Described by many superlatives by the Lonely Planet, I was expecting to be underwhelmed.  Not so….

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As with the rest of Slovenia, it was pretty much drop dead gorgeous.

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The ride was actually a little on the arduous side, with over 600m of climbing, albeit without our gear weighing us down for once!

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11 days ago, we entered the country via the mountains.  Different mountains…..they have lots here (good job we like them!) The ride over from Italy was somewhat on the epic side, delivering 1500m of climbing over 62km.  Phew.  Our first impressions were that it was very pretty but the roads were busy, and there were tourists EVERYWHERE!!!  ‘What have we done??’ I thought to myself, as we grabbed the very last space at the overflowing campsite….

Before I came to Slovenia, I knew precisely three things about it.  I had a bonkers genius of a friend at Uni (2nd time around) who comes from here; the capital is called Ljubljana, and it has a pretty lake called Bled (where they have quite a lot of rowing).  Turns out, the rest of Europe is a little more clued up, and at least half of them are here.  ALL of Holland is here for sure.  And at least 50% of the above were in the tiny town of Kobarid.  ‘But I’ve never heard of it!!’ I wailed.

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Fortunately, things calmed down an awful lot once we headed South!  The campsites are still pretty busy though.  Our own fault for coming in August, obvs….

So, where have we been??  Ooh look, we have a map:

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From Kobarid, we headed south to the Vipava valley and wine country.  The mountains became hills (although there were still many in our path!) and forests became vineyards, orchards and cottage gardens.  Slovenia is literally DRIPPING with produce.

We’ve passed through many pretty little villages and even visited a castle (where we were reacquainted with all those tourists….)

We spent a couple of days in the pint sized capital, where we camped next to some friendly Brits who not only chatted to us, but also gave us DIGESTIVE BISCUITS.  Oh, and we really liked the mini-city.  Not only because it has excellent pizza.  We DIDN’T like the pool party at the campsite on our last night (boom boom boom music) but we’ll let that slide, as everything else was ace.

And we have camped an awful lot.  Like, every single night since we arrived in Europe.  I’m kinda over camping (surrounded by noisy people), if I’m honest, but hey ho.  Ed says adventures aren’t supposed to be easy!

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And now, we’re back in the mountains.  It’s hard work but our hearts are happy, although a I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a TEENY bit apprehensive about the ascent into Austria tomorrow!

I’ve actually wanted to come to Slovenia for ages, and it hasn’t disappointed.  I’d highly recommend it for a holiday (there’s tons to do, especially if you like outdoor activities) or a city break (coz Ljubljana is just lovely).  Despite its diminutive size, we’ve still only sampled a small part of it so I really hope we’ll be back!!

 

 

Andiamo*

*Here we go

Buon giorno!  Part 1 of our Italian exploration is now up, so here are the things which have surprised, delighted and (very occasionally) horrified us during our 11 days in this fabulous country.

  • There are people on bikes EVERYWHERE.  From glamorous young ladies who manage to cycle / smoke / text all at the same time, to grannies doing their shopping, to men-who-should-know-better riding in just a pair of shorts (tanning v important around here), to serious roadies on state of the art carbon machines.  The latter often come clad in hi-vis, sleeveless jerseys (see note above re tanning) and certainly not wearing ‘regulation’ socks.
  • Only the ‘serious’ cyclists say ciao.
  • So many cycle tourists, that no one talks to each other.  Ed says I’m starting to look desperate for friends. There may be some truth in this.
  • Despite their terrible reputation (and, having driven in Italy, I dare say deserved), the drivers are very courteous to cyclists.  Even the trucks. Maybe everyone also rides a bike?
  • There are so many bike paths and marked routes.  More so in the flatlands near Bologna, but I don’t think a day has gone by without us riding a good chunk of our route along the FVG3, or the E2, or similar.  No idea where any of them go, however!
  • In addition to all that, we’ve seen a ‘Bike Point’ with all sorts of free facilities for cyclists, every bench beside a bike path has a bike rack (for when you need to stop for a cigarette, obvs), and every Decathlon has a set of bike tools available outside.  Italy LOVES bikes.
  • We knew it would be pretty, but the vine-covered hills of the Grappa and Prosecco regions blew us away.

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  • Everyone grows tomatoes.  And sometimes aubergines, courgettes, etc.
  • So.  Many.  Pears.
  • Coffee is very cheap.
  • Ditto for pizza.
  • Croissants may be the pride and joy of the french, but the Italians go one better by filling and coating them with deliciousness.

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  • Mozarella costs 55 cents in Lidl.  Do not be surrpised if we are somewhat round and squishy when we return.
  • Supermarkets have a wide range of vegetarian and vegan options.  AND cafes often have vegan pastries. (aside:  In an ideal world, I would be vegan.  But, cheese. And butter. I’m highly supportive of the concept though!)
  • It is nigh on impossible to buy porridge oats.
  • The only screwtop wine in Lidl is surprisingly drinkable.  And less than 3 euros.
  • Even the ordinary towns have ridiculously beautiful old buildings, peaceful squares and occasional cobbled streets (although that part is less good for us!) We particularly liked Este and Bassano del Grappa.  Also, Vicenza, although that has a star on the map so p’raps it’s not quite so ordinary.
  • Campsite prices started at a staggering height, but have since calmed down, thank goodness.
  • Pitches tend to be lumpy.  Unfortunate for those of us in tents.
  • There are millions of tents, rendering the above somewhat surprising.
  • In addition to standard campsites, there’s a lot of ‘Agriturismo’ which sometimes extends to ‘Agricampeggio’, offering a more charming, rural experience.
  • Free wifi is not a foreign concept, but it is often rubbish.
  • There are A LOT of tourists.  From all corners of Europe.
  • It’s really hot.  Particularly in the evenings.  Maybe that isn’t THAT surprising, but it has taken its toll on these poor softies after several months in cooler climes!
  • It has also rained nearly every day.
  • Lots of gardens contain small dogs.  Who do not like us very much.
  • There are loads of insects in the trees, and they are REALLY noisy.
  • There are also loads of mosquitos, and they are particularly vicious .
  • There do not seem to be any public toilets anywhere.
  • We did not get around to eating proper gelato!!!!  Good job we’re going back in a few weeks…..

Yesterday, we conquered the mountain range that lies between Italy and Slovenia.  It nearly broke us! But that’s another story.  Let’s just say that serious recovery substances were required 🙂

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Just in case we have any new readers, I feel I should share the link to our more sensible and informative cycle-touring journal.  Here you go: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/unprofessionaladventure2017 

You can also follows us on the F and the I, @unprofessionaladventurers.

Ciao for now.

 

Down Under, done.

And just like that, our Australian chapter comes to a close.  This enormous country has exceeded our expectations for sure! Here are our highlights from the last 5.5 weeks.

Wildlife

Before my previous trip over here in 1999, I was obsessed with the idea of seeing a kangaroo.  I was similarly obsessed that Ed should see one on this trip, but there really was no need. We’ve seen approximately a million!  Still love them though.

We were pretty darn excited to see LOTS of whales on our day trip to Augusta last week.  All from the coast, some as close as 50m. We saw both Humpbacks and Southern Right whales, doubly cool.

Continuing with the mammalian theme, we’ve also seen dolphins, a wombat, possums and an echidna. No sign of the elusive duck billed platypus, but you can’t (quite) have it all!  We didn’t go anywhere that had native koalas, although we did see some in a very natural looking pen. Crazy cute even when captive.

We’ve loved the colourful and/or noisy and/or MASSIVE Aussie birds too, particularly the Kookaburras, even if they did reliably wake us up at dawn while camping.  The Ningaloo reef’s fish are also worthy of a mention – some real big’uns there too.

Wine

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this one before 😉  To avoid boring you all to death on the topic (again), can I just say that we LOVED Margaret River.  Fabulous wine aside (and there was plenty of that), it might just be the prettiest wine region we’ve visited to date.  


Camping

If I’ve counted correctly, we camped for 25 of our 38 nights in Australia.  While we’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of it (freezing temperatures in NSW notwithstanding!) we’d both pick the basic, ‘bush’ camping as our favourite.  We’d even go so far as to say that Australia ticked our camping box in ways that NZ was a little bit of a let down. In terms of specifics, Dunn’s Swamp over in NSW, plus Chapman’s pool down in South WA probably top the list.  Incredible surroundings, obliging wildlife (see above), millions of stars, and successful campfires made those extra-special.

We also had a wonderful time camping at Bullara cattle station further North.  There was just something about that place, and I’m not only talking about the adorable baby kangaroos!

More ramblings about camping can be found in our previous blog.

National Parks

Blue Mountains.  Just wow. Having been on my previous trip, I was a bit ‘blah blah blah’ about this one, but it actually knocked my socks off.  And Ed’s. Incredible views and great hiking, which we really did not do justice.

We also absolutely loved Kalbarri national park in WA.  Great coastline and amazing river gorges with ‘typical Aussie’ red rocks.  Bonza.

Have to say that we weren’t as blown away as expected by the Ningaloo reef…..we had a lovely time snorkelling but the coral wasn’t a patch on our recent trip to Ko Kradan in Thailand (AKA we’re ruined for life!!). I guess it’s completely amazing if you aren’t as broke as us and can go swimming with the whale sharks / manta rays / et al.

Cities

I was definitely excited about seeing the Opera House and Harbour Bridge again, but wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to like Sydney.  Beautiful old buildings sit alongside the spanking new, all framed by green spaces and that glittering harbour. And don’t even get us started on the coffee!  

Perth is pretty darn cool too, despite its isolation.  And it’s just up the road from Margaret River….what’s not to love!!  

Trees

You probably think we’re a bit weird here, but we really love Aussie trees.  They’re just different from European trees. And lots of them smell really good!

Waves

Australia does beaches very well, but as mentioned above, it’s not that long since we were in the paradise islands of Thailand.  They don’t have waves there though. The waves here are BIG. We’ve spent a good chunk of time in various places just watching the waves – and the surfers!  We could have done with slightly calmer conditions for our snorkelling escapes on the Ningaloo Reef, however.

And that, folks, is that.  Next stop Italy*!

*Spoiler, we’re actually already here, although our body clocks aren’t yet convinced…..