Nine countries to Norway (weeks 2-4)
City hopping through northern Europe on the way to the Fjords
"...I do it for the freedom"
Summarising three weeks on the road in one hit is cheating a little - but such was my surprising and swift progress through northern Europe I do not feel the need to break it down. The past three weeks have been fast and furious cycling and passing through nine countries. I have encountered kind and generous hosts, beautiful cycleways and only two idiots.
My biggest takeaways from the past few weeks are:
The cycling infrastructure in Europe is far superior to the UK, especially in the Netherlands.
There are far more cyclists of all ages commuting between home and work, the shops, the local bars and restaurants and NOT dressed in Lycra. (I wonder if this culture has developed in part due to the previously mentioned cycling infrastructure, as well as the flatter roads!).
Electric bikes are everywhere! They keep overtaking me and its infuriating.
I wrote about leaving the UK, in which I passed briefly through Wales and the south of England, in my previous post here. So we can skip these.
It took me three hours from waking up outside a barn in Calais to cycle 60km to the border with Belgium, so not much to report. We can skip France too.
My time in Belgium was also shortlived. However, it did afford me the opportunity to visit Bruges, which I had previously passed through with friends two years ago. I was able to wheel into the matchbox-sized city just after lunch and enjoy a stroll around its bustling streets.This is a city in which you need to watch your wallet, not for thieves, but for the fact that everything in sight will make your mouth drool and cause you to part with your dear cash and cards in order to stuff your face. For a hungry cyclist this is not ideal, so I settled for a celebratory beer and a home cooked meal with my first 'CouchSurfing' hosts Stan & Sara.Leaving Bruges I overtook a thirty-something-year-old woman cycling while pulling a trailer with her dog in. I decided that when I get round to having a canine companion they'd better be prepared to come cycling with me too.
I cycled from Bruges to the Hague the following day. The Netherlands can only be described as a haven for touring cyclists. I entered the country on a cycle path and left the country on a cycle path. In fact, I rode 400km of blissfully smooth, well-signposted cycle paths across an entire country.
After departing Belgium I picked up the 'LF1' route which is like your mother's favourite red silk dress draped across the whole of Zeeland (the coastal region spitting out from the north coast). It is a meandering path along the coast, across bridges and beaches and beautiful stretches of open country.
Crossing Zeeland I met a security guard for a music festival who rode with me for a mile, just for a chat. He left me with his sun cream as at this point I was looking pretty weathered and he was just a very kind person. That kindness of strangers again...I scheduled a day off in Amsterdam to explore a city I had thus far not been drawn to and to catch up on some 'TLC' for the bike which was showing worrying signs of being an utter liability when going up hills. (Its gears had become more slippery than a wet seal covered in vaseline). Cue my first piece of successful maintenance which was literally turning a screw only a quarter of a turn, re-aligning my gears so well I think I am now a bicycle mechanic.
It was in Amsterdam while settling down for a peaceful sandwich in a quiet cafe that I encountered my first idiot, Idiot #1. The only other Englishman in the vicinity started shouting down at several young waitresses over a vegetarian quiche. I gathered they had accidentally produced a meatier version than he had anticipated and immediately corrected the mistake. The angry man acted like a toddler rather than accepting a number of very sincere apologies.
I used sign language for the rest of my meal, not wanting to admit I understood what this collection of hot air was ranting about or that I even came from the same country. My sandwich was delicious, so I tipped double and hoped that the angry man accidentally ate some bacon later on.Common courtesy is a valuable tool when faced with a language barrier.
In truth, passing through Germany was a bit of a blur of wind turbines and therefore strong winds! I did not find the roads as pleasant as the Netherlands, although the beautiful sweeping wheat and corn fields were a fair sight to cycle through.I was however hit by a car in Hamburg by Idiot #2. By this point, I was becoming pretty adept at avoiding the admittedly rare careless driver. But when someone drives across a cycle path without looking there is not a lot you can do. The car struck the rear of my bike, sheering off a pannier and snapping the clips. I styled it out and dropped the bike beneath me, transitioning into a jog away from danger.
Clear of any injury to me or the bike, I just had to replace a broken pannier bracket before I could head north, towards Denmark and the start of my Scandinavian slingshot.I had two CouchSurfing stays in Bremen and Hamburg to break up the wild camping on lakes and rivers. These gave me valuable shower time and a chance to share an evening with Illa, Kira, Clement and Simon in Hamburg - a wonderful collection of like-minded travellers whose positivity and desire to explore Europe was infectious.
My experience of the Danish population is summed up by two WarmShowers hosts I had the pleasure of staying with.
Klaus, a retiree and keen tourer who has cycled from Cairo to Cape Town was the first. Upon arrival in Vordingborg on my first day in Denmark Klaus took me onto his patio, opened up a BBQ and produced 4 crispy chicken legs, huge bowls of salad and potatoes and a bottle of red wine that we shared a little too easily.After 150km that day I was in dreamland, and with the company of another tourer, David, doing a similar route to myself through northern Europe I had one of the most enjoyable evenings so far.
The morning saw all three of us cycle towards Faxe out of Vordingborg before going our separate ways. I headed 80km north to Copenhagen and a rest day with my second host Anton who had toured New Zealand and the Balkans and was full of incredible advice and tales from his travels.I'm not sure yet whether its the just the Danes or the touring population in general, but I was overwhelmed by how readily these two opened up their homes, and most importantly their fridges, to me.
At the recommendation of Anton, I headed 50km West to an inland fjord - spending an evening walking boardwalks in Frederikssund and sleeping in a wooden shelter on the beach at Store Halvese. Little tips like these seem to provide such incredible and memorable experiences.
Arriving in Helsingborg, Sweden, via a ferry from Helsinger, I picked up the Kattegattleden cycle path. This runs 400km from Helsingborg to Gothenburg. Following sandy coastline, and punctuated with the odd dip in the sea to cool off, I followed the entirety of the route. It felt quite a privilege to take an ocean swim after 100km cycling each day in near 30*C heat.
I camped on forested roads with stunning landscapes falling away below. The cycling became tougher and climbing got higher. But for every uphill, there was an extremely satisfying downhill sweep into a rolling valley of green fields.
An evening in Gothenburg was spent with a WarmShowers host, Deniz. He was prepping to tour Europe, industrious and enthusiastic and very generous. I hope to meet him on the road in Autumn should he decide to head south towards Croatia.
His motivations for touring were simple: "I do it for the freedom". I can't think of a better reason.
I met Belinda - the ex-wife of Brian Kilcline of Newcastle (and several other league football teams), on the Norway/Sweden border. This was a slightly surreal reminder of the UK and the bonkers world of premier league football. We chatted briefly about the World Cup. I have actually been gripped by World Cup fever, chasing down Wifi spots to catch as many games as I can. So far so good for England at the time of writing - we beat Sweden last night in the quarterfinals, so yes - "It's coming home"...A morning 80km blast up to idyllic Skjeberg on the west coast of Norway resulted in an hour lounging in the sea feeling incredibly fortunate and reflecting on how ecstatic just being outside makes me. I met a kind vet, Viktoria, who cooked me some incredible vegan tacos - I honestly thought it was beef.
So into my ninth country in a little over three weeks. I'm sat on a farm near Holmestrand, gazing out at a pristine lake with acres of forest behind me. I tried moose soup and chatted with Lars, my host, about his work on the farm his family have fun for 400 years - felling trees, growing crops, herding cattle and everything else required to maintain a 700-acre site. Two days in Norway and I am already overwhelmed by its beauty, it's humble and generous people and just how tasty moose soup is.
Ahead lie mountains to climb, fjords to swim in and a few hikes to negotiate. The towns and villages become more sparse, the scenery more dramatic and the opportunities to whip out my camera ever more frequent.So show me what you've got Norway, I'm ready!