The week before our departure date showcased glorious weather in the UK, as we both embarked on our (rather shamefully) first practice rides. As I trailed painfully behind my 71 year old father up the Sheffield hills, the first doubts began to set in.
The next week, despite not feeling quite prepared - and still recovering from a friend's wedding the night before - we were waved off by Tim's family and friends from the Little Green Farm in Norfolk, our panniers happily weighed down by his mum Annie's delicious flapjack slices (which didn't last long!) The ride to Harwich was charming, though the cold and rain hit us immediately - a mere flavour of the challenging weather that was lying in wait at the other side of the ferry crossing!
By the time we boarded the overnight ferry we were 93km down and absolutely knackered. We slept like logs in our bunk beds before disembarking with our trusty bikes at the Hook of Holland.
We powered on through rain sleet and snow (!) in order to make Tim's friend Ben's hockey match in Utrecht. A fantastic match and Tim seemed particularly pleased to heckle him during the warm-up.
We stayed that evening with our friends Suz and Mark at their beautiful apartment on the canal. The next day they provided a great tour of the city and fed us Suz' delicious homemade pancakes. Mark even donated some warm gloves to keep our fingers from falling off as we rode. Best hosts ever!
We continued to Arnhem, the cold persisting. I gaffa taped my down-stuffed tent slippers to my feet and wore plastic bags over my hands (a classic look). At one point, as we sat wet and miserable on a park bench with our soggy sandwiches a woman clucked at us sympathetically before informing us that it was half the temperature that they'd had on Christmas day. Fantastisch!
Yet every cloud, as they say, and that night, fearing it too cold to camp we tried the cycle hosting website Warm Showers. We were saved from our shivers and welcomed by hosts Diedrik and Bo, who cooked us dinner and shared stories of their tour of New Zealand over wine. The next day was the national Dutch holiday King's Day (Koningsdag). Throughout the Netherlands people sell their used items at free markets - which was lucky for us a we picked up some much needed waterproof layers for a few euros.
Despite the weather, we loved our brief time in the Netherlands. This is a place where cyclists appear to reign supreme: with amazing routes, roads and cycle signs - not to mention the great people we met along the way.
A proper Norfolk send off
The adventure begins
Cheering on Ben
With Suz and Mark
Market on Koningsdag
The next country we arrived in was Germany, and we were off to a bad start as our bike lock broke whilst attached to the bikes. We also managed to get incredibly lost along the Rhine river route at industrial Druisberg. After Dusseldorf, we hit a headwind and Tim was plagued by flu symptoms. However, as we reached Cologne the temperature lifted enough for us to camp for the first time along the river, which felt like a turning point. The sun arrived the following day and our spirits lifted. The route along the Rhine grew charming, winding past castles and medieval towns.
At the beautiful city of Bonn we stayed with Warm Showers hosts Susanne and Uwe, who invited us to a folk dancing night, an amazing experience despite our desperate attempts at coordination.
The next day there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The route remained beautiful, through popular tourist towns with spectacular clock towers and sloping vineyards.
Leaving the impressive Rhine, our watery guide, we headed East to Wurzberg to begin to follow the Romantischestrasse (Romantic Road). It was absolutely stunning! We encountered our first hills and were promptly overtaken by a group of older German cyclists on electric bikes (cheating).
This route had far more cyclists on it, as well as many more gelato stops. As we sat enjoying a cooling cone at the village of Crelingen a woman introduced us to a local celebrity - her 98 year old companion who only stopped working at her shop next door last month. Her secret to staying youthful? 10 apples per day.
We camped two nights at Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a breathtakingly beautiful walled city perched above the Tauber river. My dad's previous landlady, Gertrude, who he stayed with at the age of 17 whilst studying at the Goethe Institute, met with us. She showed us the town and its cathedral, where she leads guided tours, and took us for dinner with her family for her birthday (followed by a round of Shnapps!) We also heard her daughter sing at the cathedral. Gertrude was an inspiring woman, and great fun. So much so that I have named my beloved bicycle after her.
From Rothenburg we followed the narrow Altmuhl river route, through valleys and forests, seeing no other cyclists - to our surprise. By this time we had fallen completely in love with the German countryside and not even an onset of heavy rain at Straubing could dampen our resolve. From our hastily found camping site we headed to our next river, the Danube. We had just made it to Degendorf when we met our first real thunderstorm. It nearly ripped the umbrellas from the cafes as we sought refuge in the square. That night we slept in a kitchen at a very strange campsite, described by Tim as 'The League of Gentlemen on acid.' I can't even attempt to explain it so will leave it at that.
We deviated from our planned route again following the Wolfach cycle route and then the Apple route (amazing views and exciting woodland cycling - the bikes handled their off road test well). Arriving in the border town of Schärding sooner than expected, we crossed into Austria. The next day we managed to get lost again but stumbled upon a local country fair and the best flammkuchen we ever tasted! Again, every cloud...
As we cycled toward Salzburg we were beckoned in by our first mountain range. As the temperature had plummeted again we treated ourselves to a hotel, takeout and Sound of Music DVD. Heaven.
After a rest in Salzburg pretending to be the Vonn Trapps we were off on our bikes again around the lakes toward Linz. The scenery at Mondsee and Attersee was postcard material breathtaking. The cloudless sky felt like a blue screen with these shimmering lakes super-imposed onto it. We were beginning to feel at home each night in our little tent, loving the quiet and the sounds of local wildlife.
Austria was as stunning as Germany, though at points less accessible. For a time we saw no camping spots, so asked a guest house manager to camp in their garden. Instead he kindly pointed us toward the local football pitch. We were given a bit of a fright by some curious children who started circling our tent that evening!
We rejoined the Danube at Linz, then followed it to Ardagger where we encountered yet more incredible generosity from Warm Showers hosts Anita and Max. We toasted in their new president Van Der Bellen, the left-wing candidate who won by a terrifyingly narrow margin (50.3%). Max had cycled for 18months across the world and on his return to the village, 200 people and a band surprised him! (Hint hint mum and dad). As if things couldn't get any better, their mother made us homemade apple strudel the next morning.
Cycling the river past Krems we passed storks' nests, wineries and beautiful towns stretched along the opposite side of the river. Camping that night we befriended an awesome Australian family on a six-month campervan trip around Europe and our first cycle buddy Robin who joined us in the saddle the next day. The following night we made it to our last stop in Austria - magnificent Vienna. The city was so grand, with resplendent architecture and gourmet restaurants, though in typical style we sniffed out the nearest kebab house to stuff our faces with veggie pizza before staying with my friend Jana and drinking wine 'til the early hours.
Vineyards at Remagen
Meandering along the Romantic Route
Did someone say schnapps?!
Forests on the Apple route
Pictures can't do justice to the Austrian lakes
Hello Vienna (and a tired Jess)
The route out of Vienna was lovely as we followed the Danube's banks and watched scores of local holiday-makers enjoying sunbathing and water-sports (some wearing clothes, others not so much). After lunch (eaten on a bench outside a castle - I could get used to this) we managed our fastest sprint on the bikes yet, a consistent 23km/ hour. For us this was a noteable achievement! Entering Slovakia we had fantastic views over Bratislava and met two local cyclists who could barely conceal the fact that they thought our trip was utterly bonkers.
Bratislava provided a perfect place for a rest day and some refreshing local beer sampling. We also had a flight to catch - back to the UK for Mike and Emma's wedding. Amazing fun, if a bit discombobulating to be thrust back into 'normal' life. Tim and Tom did a fantastic job delivering the best men speech.
Being back on the bikes after a fairly indulgent weekend proved a little challenging and it was slow going from Bratislava to Budapest. We found our first natural swimming spot as we crossed into Hungary along cycle route 6. We stopped early that day as we happened upon a very sweet little campsite by some water, which we were sharing with a Dutch cyclist called Frea. We ate dinner together and the next night met her at a campsite near Tata, but only after an arduous day involving a disappearing cycle route, some busy roads and a wrong turn after Gyor (which was itse!f a beautiful place! Distractingly so it seemed). Frea had also had a horrible time of it, though managed to arrive at the campsite five hours before us.
The next day she was up and off when we woke up. Tim navigated the route well though we endured our longest climb since Wurzberg - rewarded at the top by a view over sloping Chardonnay vineyards and our old friend, the sleepy grey Danube. That night we camped at Domos and slept soundly to the sound of heavy rain pummeling of tent. For anyone with insomnia I believe cycling must be the best cure, we can't seem to sleep enough. This was a special night for us - the first time we successfully got our campstove working after a frustrating five weeks of thwarted efforts and cold dinners!
The next morning we caught a ferry across the river and enjoyed a scenic stretch. After navigating our way past a rather wobbly pedalling tour group we were off - speeding through forests, parks, towns and dripping willow trees. Our joy was short-lived as the route 6 signs disappeared again and we followed a hot and dusty main road into Budapest.
As we neared our campsite - Bikercamp - we saw Frea walking ahead. We were very relieved to see her and she showed us the beautiful wee campsite that would prove an peaceful oasis that evening (before the snoring choir of five German men cycling to the Black Sea who would arrive the next night).
Budapest was incredible, a lot to see in one day but we strolled pretty far. We visited the Terror Museum and learnt something about the seemingly relentless suffering inflicted on different groups of Hungarian society throughout the twentieth century. You wouldn't guess at this dark past when witnessing the vibrant and youthful energy permeating the city today.
We were also lucky to coincide with my friend Sarah and her family visiting Budapest for the weekend, enjoying a lot of laughter and catching up. We were sad the next morning to bid our new friend Frea farewell, as she set off to retrace her steps (tyre-marks?) back to Rotterdam, whilst we continue along the Danube to its end.