So we are back. If the build up to the trip was long, full of planning and, of course, growing anticipation, the re-entry was quick, low key and, frankly, depressing. We spent the first few days at home in a bit of a haze as we picked up some of the pieces that are an inevitable result of being away for so long. A car that won’t start, a (large) pile of mail, a big shop, untangling tax issues, getting Sky Sports back on the TV, putting the bins out etc.
After a few short hours back on the rock we were asking ourselves ‘have we really been away?’.
Despite the fact that we have been very lucky to arrive back at our home with all intact and well looked after by Katie and Josh (and Tom, Carly and Emily before them) we feel lost. Despite the fact that we have seen our parents and caught up with a few of our friends, with more to come, we feel subdued. Despite the fact that I have had a few sessions on the road bike with my mates, we feel disconnected from our previous life. Despite the fact that I have a really excellent job to look forward to at the end of the month, it is just so hard to drop into our previous existence.
One more trip
So, after a week or so of being home we do the inevitable and book a couple of nights in France and take the bike over for a final jaunt. We got the afternoon boat and stayed in St Malo overnight at the ‘Hotel de La Cite’ with the plan of cycling to Dinan the following day and returning the day after.
For the first leg, we got the little ‘Corsaire’ boat across the bay to Dinard from St Malo and set off along the ‘Voie Verte’ towards Dinan. We have taken this boat many times as it is probably the best way of getting out of St Malo if you are heading across the Rance.
We left the cycle path at Pleslin and cycled on the quiet (though undulating!) roads to a town called ‘Vilde Guingelan’, which we have been to many times. Nothing special about the town, but the bar does a great all in lunch for 12 euros. We just about manage the final 7k ride into Dinan.
This is, again, a place we have been many times and we are staying in the small but very reasonable ‘Café du Theatre’ for the third time. Claud gets safely put away in the garage and the evening is spend wandering around the historic town.
The following day we take the c 35k road route back into St Malo, with a coffee stop in the town of Chateauneuf. We elect to grab some lunch in St Servan, near the ferry terminal and while away the last hour or so reading our books in the sunshine.
The weather was perfect for riding and this allowed us to ride at our own pace, take our time and enjoy the scenery.
As the main tour ended rather abruptly, we both regarded this as the ending we had perhaps anticipated when we set off. This little excursion I think really helped us to make the transition from tandem tourists back to normal society (whatever that is!).
Neither of us are sure how a 5 month tour in which we have visited 12 countries and 5 capital cities can be summed up in a few paragraphs, but we can attempt to set out a few reflections.
First, many people have asked us what our favourite place was. Whilst it is impossible to identify one specific place, we both agree that cycling the Danube was our favourite period. This was when we really got into the swing of cycle touring and over a period of 20 or so days cycled from Germany across Austria to Budapest. This really was how we had imagined it; nice cycling, picnics by the river and a decent bed at the end. The route was characterised by excellent cycle paths, beautiful scenery and many interesting places to visit, including cities such as Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest and historical sites such as the Mauthausen concentration camp.
This part of the tour was also by far the most social, as there were many other cyclists on the same route, including those on organised tours. Rather than being a nuisance, it was fun to regularly bump into people on the riverside or the hotel at the end of the day and swap war stories about the day’s activities.
The fact that the tour had a number of distinct phases, each with different characteristics was something which we feel really kept the interest levels up as we progressed; the early phase in Normandy, the enforced city breaks in Ghent, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, cycling the Rhine (when not underwater), staying in Frankfurt and visiting Berlin, cycling the Main, on to the Danube, the Coast of Croatia, Venice, the penultimate phase in Spain and the ultimately aborted phase along the South coast of England. Remarkably the places we visited came very close to those we had plotted out at the very inception of the tour; we only completely missed out Southern Spain and two of the Balearic Islands.
If I was asked about the worst part of the tour, it would have to be the fateful final stretch along the South coast of England. Though we were ultimately beaten by the undulating nature of the terrain and the weather, there were other factors. Awful cycle paths, dangerous road surfaces and passing through some pretty run-down places was not really what we expected. Neither was the cost of this short phase. Sure the route through the Romney marshes was a pleasant day, punctuated by traditional old English pubs, but the rest of it was not what we anticipated. Abandoning the tour in Brighton was the right move.
Whilst we never set out to cycle the whole way, we can both be justifiably proud of how far we travelled and the different modes of transport we have employed. At times Claud travelled in style, whether on trains, ferries, trailers, removal vans or ultimately in a box being posted from Budapest to Girona.
Probably posting Claud was our major achievement in terms of tour logistics; we had arrived in Budapest with no plan for the next stages, just a notion that we wanted to go to Spain. We thought that we may have to ditch Claud, but managed to find a way, with the help of some people on the way, to continue the tour.
As you would expect, we became better cycle tourers as time progressed; the sometimes daily rigmarole of unpacking and packing the bike became easier and our decision-making regarding route planning became better and allowed us to be more flexible. Our acquisition and use of maps improved, as did how we used the Garmin to check progress and get us through urban areas.
Our approach to booking accommodation also improved; we learnt we did not have to book all accommodation 10 days in advance (as we did at first) and we could be more flexible. We also learnt when we could simply rock up and find somewhere to stay and when it was better to book in advance. In particular, we learned that it was better to have a booking secured before you entered a large town or city if you were to avoid a couple of hours scrabbling around to find WiFi, booking somewhere and then find your hotel. Despite the majority of the tour being in the high season, we fortunately never came close to being destitute for the night!
It perhaps feels uncomfortable to mention the more difficult times, when you have given up work and are on the trip of a lifetime, but you cannot ignore them. There were some tough days, none more so than when Louise was badly hurt in our accident in Ghent. We were off the bike for two weeks and Louise was in considerable pain for a while after this. We were lucky we did not have to abandon after less than six weeks.
You simply have to accept that when you are away so long and you are staying in a variety of different environments, you will have bad days. These days come in many different forms; the elastic snapping after a long days cycling, tiredness, feeling homesick and wanting the comforts of home, lacking clean clothes, missing family; you name it. They will bubble up occasionally and you have to deal with them the best way you can. We occasionally took unscheduled rest days and also booked better accommodation when we were at a low ebb, which often did the trick.
When you are tandeming, you have to be aware of how each other is feeling; it is pointless setting off on a ride when one or the other of you is simply not up to it as this is a recipe for complete and utter disaster.
In many ways, these more difficult times help to define the tour. You got over them and moved on and the experience is made all the better for them. You can always laugh about them afterwards, indeed it is probably important that you do; we still laugh about Louise feeling upset because she felt ‘grubby’ at one point. Perhaps that is because we were.
The main thing we will take away are the million memories from 141 days of travelling; things we saw, people we met, places we visited. Too many to list, but things we will talk about and cherish for many years to come.
Finally, I suppose one of the main questions is ‘How has the experience changed us?’. We are undoubtedly changed by it, but perhaps in many small ways, rather than arriving back in Jersey as completely different people. I would say we have become more adventurous, more resilient and more inclined to stand up for ourselves in certain situations. Also our experience across Europe provides us with a broader perspective when issues of local interest arise.
A good example for me is having seen how cycling is embraced by many European countries and comparing this to the third rate treatment cyclists get at home. Unless Jersey (and from what I have seen the UK) includes cycling at the heart of transport planning and encourages mutual respect and sharing of facilities between various road users, cycling will never properly develop. It is no good making empty promises about encouraging cycling; it must be backed up by strong and consistent policy and investment in infrastructure. I won’t be holding my breath.
Our advice for anyone considering something similar would be ‘keep it flexible’. Any tour such as this will naturally move through different phases, from idyllic cycling by the river to long and gritty urban rides. Be prepared to change what you are doing and move on to the next phase when the current one naturally ends or you get fed up with it. I admit we sailed close to the wind a few times, but a rolling approach to our planning certainly worked for us.
So the end of the tour and the end of this Blog. Sincere thanks to those who have followed us, your support and comments have been much appreciated.
Would we do it again? Possibly. If we did, would we do it together? Definitely.