We’re home. Not entirely unpacked but in our house at least, and no longer riding our bikes. We’re slowly catching up with friends and family, figuring out ‘what’s next’ (apparently we should know this?) and trying to readjust. To be honest, it feels a bit like we’re in limbo, trapped between two lifestyles. The cats aren’t even home yet! But it has only been three weeks. I am not known for my patience 😉
Regular readers will know that we have spent the last 3 months cycling in Europe. We actually cut our time in Australia short to do this (long story, something to do with feeling a bit sad that we weren’t cycling, wishing we were cycling, talking a lot about how great cycling would be in Europe, and finally putting two and two together). We’d been fascinated by crossing borders in Asia. The process itself was an adventure in each case (think swathes of men in military uniforms extorting (small) sums of money from confused tourists) but we were fully prepped for that side of things, having read all about it on the interweb. We were far more surprised at the dramatic and instantaneous differences we’d notice on leaving one country and arriving in another. ‘How different can it be?’ were Ed’s famous last words on leaving Thailand and entering Laos. Answer: very different! Would the same hold true for Europe?
Italy to Slovenia
Our first European border, as with many, involved a gert big hill. As we climbed, we started seeing village names in both languages, which I found surprising, but the language blur ended there. The signs at the border were satisfyingly instagrammable, and a fitting way to mark our arrival in a new country for us both and number 10 on this trip.
We could no longer read any signs or make best guesses with food labels. Road markings and signs were immediately different, but the scenery was similar although even more unspoilt, and the buildings looked almost the same. Yes folks, we still felt like were in a scene from Heidi…until we hit the road along the Soca valley, where we encountered more cars than we’d seen in ages. On arriving at the (packed) campsite, it was apparent that in just a few tens of kilometres, we’d left a relatively quiet part of Italy and arrived in tourist-central Slovenia. A bit of a shock to the system as we’d never previously heard of Kobarid, but apparently the rest of the world has!
Slovenia to Austria
A big hill once again, and my oh my, this was a tough one. Fortunately, the views were bordering on ridiculous, and a welcome distraction! Another satisfying sign marked our arrival into Austria, and we headed down a steep descent with dreadful road surface.
The change to German was immediate, and things were already more built up. We headed out of the mountains quickly, and into the Austrian equivalent of the lake district…where we lost the foreign tourists (save a few Dutch, but they get everywhere), and now found ourselves surrounded by hoardes of holidaying Austrians. In addition, very little English was spoken, which gave us chance to dust off our German and brush off the ‘holiday-park’ feeling that had been somewhat prevalent in Slovenia.
Austria back to Italy
Technically, we were already in the Dolomites before we crossed the border, and sticking with the (unbelievably busy going in the opposite, downhill, direction) Drau radweg meant things were fairly friendly in terms of gradient. This also meant little change in scenery or buildings (all very alpine) and perhaps more surprisingly, no change in language! This part of Italy is German-speaking, which is all rather confusing for the visitor. It’s not just the immediate border region either. We were still encountering German village names right down the Adige valley and beyond Trento, although things were more biligual by then.
Italy to Switzerland
We spent a total of 7 weeks in Italy on this trip, by which point we’d actually got pretty good at surviving in Italian (provided we only needed to interact with supermarkets, camp sites and coffee shops of course!). Up up up we cycled away from Italy and towards Switzerland, where we knew they spoke at least three languages, but how did that work in practice?? I’m still not sure 😉 but I can tell you that the whole Ticino region is Italian speaking, and still feels pretty Italian. We lost the pretty buildings (who knew the Swiss loved concrete quite so much) but retained the scenery, and everything became a whole lot more expensive.
Switzerland to France
Where we left Switzerland, people were still speaking German (albeit the Swiss variety, which renders a rusty GCSE grasp of the language pretty much useless). Not sure where the French speaking part is given that we crossed into, well, France, but there you go. We did ‘pop’ into Germany for a few hundred metres I suppose. France being France, everyone spoke French of course, which was good for us as mine isn’t bad. But the campsites were full of Germans, meaning more ‘morgen’ than ‘bonjour’ in the mornings, and it transpired that people living in the border region are pretty much bilingual. Makes sense. Add to that some extremely Germanic place names, pretty medieval architecture which reminded us of a previous cycling trip through Germany, and we were somewhat confused! Plenty of baguettes, cheese and wine kept us grounded (even if it was all Riesling and Gewurtztraminer!)
France to Germany
24 whole hours in Germany….in which we spoke only to the lady at the campsite (who was dressed in lederhosen – really) and the cashier at Lidl. Not sure riding along that particular section of the Saar is representative either – a derelict industrial wasteland best avoided or at least ridden through at pace!
Germany to Luxembourg
It’s fair to say that we knew absolutely nothing about Luxembourg before we arrived there. Turns out that it’s very pretty (albeit also very hilly), grows a lot of wine, and has a charming capital and lots of other bits which look worth exploring. It still felt a bit French, thanks to prevalence of bread vending machines. But the buildings were a lot more modern and stylish, kind of what we’d expected from Switzerland. We shopped in a Belgian supermarket which sold lots of British products. Signs on the bus seemed to be in Luxembourgish, and we went in a bakery where half of the products were labelled in French and the other half in German. Everyone seems to say ‘merci’ for thank you, even if they were conducting the rest of their conversation in German. How does anyone know what language anyone else speaks, or do they all just speak everything? Is it a faux pas to address a German-speaker in French? I know the Belgians can be sensitive about language. Maybe it’s safer to stick to English, or does that label you an arrogant tourist? Answers on a postcard, in three languages, if you please.
Luxembourg to Belgium
We’d long passed the point of countries blurring together when we arrived in Belgium. It really didn’t help that we entered the country in ‘Luxembourg’ province either! However, there was a marked difference in architecture, with older buildings prevailing, albeit with some very stylish updates and extensions. Language-wise, we were back to French….for now.
Belgium to Holland to Belgium to Holland to Belgium
We popped into Holland for a few days, and were delighted with the immediate increase in numbers of bicycles. And the early sighting of a windmill. No more cliches I promise, after all it wasn’t even flat! As we hopped in and out of the two countries (both Dutch speaking in this area), it was hard to spot when things had changed. Both have wonderful networks of cycle paths and marked cycle routes, and EVERYONE travels by bike. Well why wouldn’t you?? We didn’t really spend long enough in Holland to draw many separate conclusions, but we did experience more interest and friendliness from the Belgian people than we had elsewhere. Perhaps helped by them all speaking English as well as we do. Perhaps because we were on bikes, and they all love bikes. Perhaps because it was now late October, and cycle-tourists seemed like a bit of a novelty. We’ll never know, but it certainly added to an already very positive experience!
Belgium to France
For one night only, and to catch our ferry….. It goes without saying that the language switched immediately back to French. We lost the epic cycling infrastructure, although I must say that the French offering isn’t bad either.
France to the UK
Well. Where do I start. I’ve always maintained that cycling in the UK ‘isn’t that bad’, and that if you plan carefully and make use of what cycling infrastructure we do have, it can actually be pretty good. And yet, within the first half hour of being back in the country, Ed had been shouted and gesticulated at by a lady driving an SUV, OUTRAGED that he’d indicated to turn, and indeed turned, in front of her. How dare he follow the rules of the road!! How dare he delay her journey by a precious five seconds! Add to that some really rubbish bike lanes and patchy signage, an exponential increase in potholes, and a litter-strewn route which took us through all the fly-tipped wasteland and grottiest deprived areas that Kent has to offer, and we weren’t really feeling the love…..I actually cried at one point, what with Brexit and all. What must our bike-loving European friends think when they arrive in our country??
Things did look up, of course. Lovely friends in Croydon and Guildford certainly helped, but so did the helpful London cycle network, and a lovely (if somewhat rustic) Sustrans route through the Surrey Hills. Our spirits rose further as we cycled through exquisite Hampshire and Dorset. And before we knew it, we were back in lovely Devon.
And now we are home! I think it’s fair to say that our decision to come back to Europe and explore closer to home was one of the best decisions we made. We’re still fascinated by crossing borders and the differences (or not) between countries, and this will certainly influence our thinking regarding future trips. The bottom line, however, is that Europe is wonderfully rich and varied, and warrants further exploration for sure!