Archive for March, 2012

The train slowed to a halt in a French-German border town around two a.m. A great silence swept through the carriages as through the corridors of a vast and deserted manor, then quietly, furtively, like timid nocturnal creatures, a scattering of stark figures emerged from compartment doors and picked their way out to the platform.

I was leaning against a passageway window and watched as flames flickered briefly in the night, dying to leave only a drifting firefly. Hurrying out to spark a fag of my own, I smoked it while looking at the stars and wondering whether my lungs could cope with the distances ahead. A shiver of nervousness raced through me as I thought of those distances, 10 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles, 500 miles, 1000 miles all to be pedalled across by me and me alone… I thought that I knew no one, not a single sweet soul, in all the countries I expected to pass through… And my anxiety, reacting with either an irrepressible surge of youthful energy or the serotonin buzz of nicotine nestling in my brain cells, morphed into a blaze of excitement and exhilaration at the prospect of this complete unknown.

I inhaled deeply and looked up the rail tracks winding into a darkened Germany.

Birthed in Ignorance

In May of 2011 I was a heavy smoker who had never embarked on more than a half-day cycling trip. I read maps like fortune tellers read palms and had as much hope of fixing a banjaxed bike as I did a malfunctioning magic carpet.

A month later, tired of the incessant postgraduate ebb and flow of acceptance and rejection, I caught trains from my home in London to Berlin. From there I rode – initially huffing and hocking, by the end gliding up and down hills like an albatross over the ocean waves – through four countries I’d never set wheel in before, alighting in Budapest four weeks later.

Central Europe in 2011 is not Yugoslavia in the 1930s: the cities I touched on were Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna and Budapest, all easily reachable from London by a one-hour budget flight. If you’re reading this in Britain you could stop now, flick on your computer, and book a ticket for £30. But between these historic cities, in Czech pine forests and on the margins of Hungarian national parks, I met fascinating people and watched lives unfold in the strangest of manners. A few encounters stand out in particular…

A Pair of Incongruous Adventurers

The first day’s pedalling took me from the heart of Berlin and deep into the former GDR. After sixty sweaty miles my legs were feeling like a pair of absurd brass statuettes I’d inexplicably chosen to lug along with me, so I slowed my pace and began to scan the horizon for a secluded place to sleep.

The road climbed to a high ridge before turning sharply to the right and plunging into a wide plain of copses and cornfields. I was struggling up the slope when a cyclist materialised beside me. He sat with his back arched and legs circling effortlessly as he glided past and offered a eupneic greeting. His bike was magnificent; he wore a heart rate monitor on his wrist, a platypus on his back, an immaculate sweat-removing shirt, and moved with the elegant control of a ballet dancer. I gasped a return greeting and watched him gradually diminish in size.

Shortly afterwards, as I trundled along the hill’s crest, I heard loud and erratic breathing bearing down on me from behind. A glance over my shoulder revealed a wild-haired, fresh-faced, skinny white lad in a ragged cotton vest and baggy shorts. A battered 2-litre supermarket water bottle wobbled precariously against his bike frame and his rear rack was topped with a jumble of carelessly-lashed items: maps, a tent, a sleeping bag, whisky, more squeezed and crinkled plastic water bottles. He reached me and came to a sudden halt. His eyes gleamed with a manic excitement and friendliness.

‘Ha’ you seen a Korean guy go past?’ he asked jauntily. “Yeah, bout ten minutes ago.” “Awesome!”

His accent was Welsh, and his name was John. “I met that dude in a hostel in Munich,” he explained; “we’ve cycled together for the last few days. It’s a fucking constant challenge to keep up with the bastard!” They planned to be companions as far as Vienna, from which the Korean would turn towards Italy, and John would continue east to Serbia where he was meeting friends at a music festival.

“This is such a fantastic way to get around ain’t it?” John enthused. He’d been going for two months, starting in a Dutch port with a few friends, who’d since given up the cycling and planned to meet him in the Balkans.

“There’s quite a few people you meet on the roads, everything they need hanging from the back of their bikes,” he added.

It was quite a vision – the roads of Europe that bridge the great historic cities speckled with hunched cyclists, riding in styles as diverse as these two, all exploring the old continent at an average speed of 20mph. I’d joined a global diaspora with coruscating eyes and Adonis calves, sleeping on roadsides and rolling into small towns brimming with energy and good-will.

“Right, I’ve gotta get on,” chirped John, “or I’ll never see that bastard again. We wanna reach Prague tomorrow night.”

The air around us was cooling rapidly. I looked out at the undulating landscape of green and gold tinted faintly orange by the deepening colours of the setting sun, and screwed up my forehead; Prague was 150 miles away.

“Hey you’ll understand when you’ve been going longer!” John cried, seeing my disbelief. “It just gets easier and easier, it’s all in the legs, you’ll be doing a rhythm of 25 miles an hour in no time. See ya kid!” And he leapt back upon his pedals, pressed down hard, and propelled himself away, his negligible bottom bouncing like a basketball.

Come Friendly Rain, and Fall on Dresden

That night I camped in a small thicket beside a farmer’s track which wound through the fields of corn flanking the main road. Somehow, despite the bright sun filtering through the leaves and tiger-striping my dark green tent, I overslept and didn’t get going til 11. I was beginning to learn that cycling in the middle of the day was a foolish idea. From 1-4 I took shelter in a café in Finsterwalde, a small stone town, and supped coffee and smoked. Dresden was still over 50 miles away.

By the time I entered its industrial fringe it was completely dark and rain was lashing down. Dresden lies in a valley on the banks of the River Elbe; while known in Britain primarily for the terrible destruction it endured in WW2, its tourist board calls it ‘the Venice on the Elbe’, and its old town offers a stunning skyline of Prussian palaces, ornate churches, and domed university buildings. As I careered down the busy road into the northern Neustadt (New City), however, I could barely make out the beams of car lights tunnelling alongside me. The rain streamed down my glasses and an orange bin bag billowed over my non-waterproof panniers.

My host for the night, arranged through the wondrous website www.couchsurfing.com, lived on Louisenstrasse (Louise Street). All I knew was that it was somewhere in the Neustadt, so once I’d been encased in buildings for a short stretch of time I veered off the road into a supermarket car park, riding straight into a plastic trolley shelter. From here, utterly sodden, I called out to startled shoppers like some crazed King of the trolleys until one ventured over and gave me directions.

A quintessential couchsurfing experience followed: I was hours late, having been so absorbed in eating up the miles that I’d forgotten to warn my host, and he’d given up on me arriving. But when I did he embraced my soaking form and told me to shower and change while he cooked dinner. As soon as I was in the shower my stomach suddenly warbled back into life as gorgeous smells of frying garlic and onion mingled with the steam. I passed the night eating, drinking a procession of beers, and talking environmental politics with my thick-haired, bearded student host Friedrich, who finally insisted on me sleeping in his bed while he took an absent friend’s.

The next morning I arose at 11 to find a note telling me to eat anything I fancied from the fridge and to close the front door after me – no one was in the house. I luxuriated in the success of my first stretch of biking – I’d made it to Dresden, burrowed from Berlin into the depths of the former DDR. But I had little idea where to go next.

I’d cycled from London to Paris with a friend and a night train ticket to Berlin, and originally intended to travel with him deep into Eastern Europe. I even had a copy of Dracula, envisaging Romania as a final destination. But he had fallen ill along the flat, sun-baked Avenue de Vert, a tarmacked path between Paris and Dieppe built specially for cyclists, and caught the Eurostar home.

Alone, the amount of solitary pedalling required to reach Romania looked less attractive. I needed a new plan.

Friedrich had a shabby laptop on his desk. I flicked it on, loaded up google maps, and spent a while perusing the cities east of Dresden. My eyes traced a line from Dresden, to Prague, to Vienna, to Budapest – the famed capitals of three countries I’d never set foot in before. The distance was 800 miles. I had five weeks until a job interview near Birmingham. The challenge was set.

A Colourful Republic

That weekend Dresden’s Neustadt held a famous street festival, the Bunte Republik Neustadt. Its roots lie in the Wende (‘Turn’), the transition from socialism to a market enconomy in East Germany. Originally a statement of political autonomy, the festival’s first incarnation in 1991 celebrated the anniversary of the founding of a semi-satirical micronation in Dresden-Neustadt during this period. The nation’s name, which translates as Colourful Republic, was conceived as a play on words on Bundesrepublik, Federal Republic. The Bunte Republik itself ceased to exist in 1993, but the festival, largely shedding its political polemic, proved more lasting: by 2006 it had a massive 150,000 attendees and over 100 live bands.

Friedrich fled the revelry and sequestered himself in nearby mountains; fortunately, I found another host, and with her group of open-hearted friends danced and drank through the city streets, greeted every ten steps by another genre of music blasted from towering black speakers: Baltimore hip-hop, Persian horns, fast-paced Balkan folk, New York lounge jazz, scummy London-basement punk, and of course German street-party techno. My new friends danced with infectious vivacity and abandon and talked with passion and curiosity. It was fascinating to hear of the persisting sense of difference between the east and the west of Germany, with my second couchsurfing host, Corinna, having moved between the two from Heidelberg to Dresden – to the bafflement of her old schoolfriends.

Spending time with them was as easy as during the fleeting friendships formed between five-year-olds, though it left a very different imprint on me. Memories dance and shimmer through me still now, and it was easily the best weekend of my trip.

By River or by Mountain?

I embarked for Prague deep into Monday afternoon, having been led by the uninhibited energy of my Dresden hosts through whole stretches of night until the sun began to slip fingers of light into the sky. The journey onward was one of farce and incompetence. I climbed, among other things, a very steep learning curve.

One of the group of friends with whom I’d partied late into the night, Birgit, who spoke reasonable Czech along with English, French, Spanish and German, recommended I follow the curve of the Elbe all the way into Prague.

I found the south-bound riverside cycle path and was just beginning to move beyond lushly-manicured lawn to the city’s shrub and cowslip-tangled edgelands when, zooming over a speed hump, the fabric of one my panniers ripped and the entire package soared away into the long grass. It was an incapacitating accident. I turned around, headed back towards the city, turned left from the riverbank and cycled towards a patch of shops and ambling pedestrians. Slinking along the pavement I prowled up to a cluster by a bus stop, circled once or twice, and pounced on a middle-aged, eccentrically-dressed women waiting with a particularly nice bike. She spoke a little English, and directed me to the nearest bike shop. I arrived just as it was closing, and my instinctive aversion to large expenditure quailed at the sight of the pannier prices – 100 Euros upwards. I dithered momentarily, then forked out 120 Euros for a sleek-looking black pair of fully waterproof Vaude panniers – farewell to the fluttering orange Wandsworth Council bin bags that had been my personal flag to this point, jolly proof of my amateur, tight-fisted preparation. I’d bought a number of such essential items since leaving England – a tent, inner tubes, cables, food, train tickets – and was beginning to feel, as briefly-skimmed newspapers reported financial crisis, that I was single-handedly propping up the world economy

The late start coupled with small-scale disaster meant I only made it a short distance along the river before stopping for the night. As darkness thickened I was forced to settle for a spooky-looking spot – the garden of a vast empty house by side of the Elbe, with boarded-up windows climbing to six floors. What on earth such a prime property was doing abandoned caused me some concern, but when a slice of land has had the kind of history that the east of Germany has over the past 60 years, it is not hard to assume a very human explanation. I fell asleep quickly, still exhausted by the weekend’s revels; and it wasn’t until the light of the next morning that I noticed the grass in the driveway had been recently flattened by a large vehicle. There was no sign of building activity, and the sight was enough to dissuade me from attempting to explore the slab of stone and instead continue working towards the border.

I soon passed into the Czech Republic with  soft auf wiedersehen, the border today marked by nothing more than a roadsign. After a couple of hours the river’s lazy meandering – the water clearly had no desire to move from one city to another as swiftly as I did – caused me to pause and consult my map for a shortcut. I traced together a snake of small white lines bending away from the river and cutting directly across a swathe of the historical region of Bohemia. After thirty km they linked up with a larger red road which looked like a theme park water chute down which I could whoosh into Prague. It would cut forty km off my journey, at least, and I fixed upon it, proud of my new-found map-reading skills.

However, soon after bending away from the river onto my small road, marked by tiny, pretty but quietly decaying villages, the terrain began to steepen – considerably. Rather foolishly, I hadn’t considered the fact – as I’m sure multi-lingual Birgit had, in her advice to me – that biking directly away from a river generally means clambering uphill, as rivers tend to run along the lowest point of the valley. And in this instance, ‘clambering uphill’ was something of an understatement. The Czech Republic’s terrain is particularly uneven, and I hauled myself up 25km of continuous, steep hillside, hating the cars that revved past and stopping only once to eat  a couple of fun-size Snickers’ bars.

I was utterly sodden with sweat, my legs trembled, and my face was pink as a wild salmon when finally I reached some kind of apex. The road ran straight for a short distance, then recklessly threw itself downwards. Presumably I was now bending back towards the river, having cut out several of its languorous, well-fed-serpent bends. I paused briefly at the top, marvelled at the dense forest and occasional patchwork field or church spire that spread out below me on all sides; I strained to see a glint of river, but the trees were clustered too thickly. Congratulating myself on what was probably the hardest cycling I had done in my life I used the sole of my trainer to roll into into casual movement. Momentum built swiftly – I must have had 30kg in the hot-to-touch panniers on the back of my bike – and soon I was hurtling down the face of the north-western Czech Republic at around 60km an hour. It was mayhem: I had a ‘fuck you, I’ve earned this’ attitude to vehicles coming in the other direction, my presence of mind and control were shot by the exhaustion of the previous two-hours climb, so I took corners at a reckless pace, bending out into the middle of the road before leaning back in.

Far more horns sounded during this short stretch of turbo travel than did in response to my bumbling along flat roads with my fat pannier arse holding up a line of traffic. Like a particularly ineffective kamikaze fighter I whooshed past astounded drivers until finally reaching gentle terrain again. I arrived in Prague in darkness, frantically sought out a hostel, smoked a trembling cigarette in its concrete prison-yard, and launched into manic conversation punctuated by wild gesticulation with any resident who threw me a casual greeting. In short, I was on the way to maturing into a hardened cyclist, but out of wild-haired Welsh John and the cool Korean wunderkid, I knew whose direction I was taking.

Scruffy Prague

Sitting atop the stone staircase leading up to the grand, monolithic yet intricate front of the Czech Republic’s national museum, I could see Prague unfold on all sides. To my right stretched the residential bulk of the city itself, sprawling over the far hillside, visible between and beyond the high stonework of more central buildings, open to a huge and dramatic cloud-swathed sky. In front lounged Wenceslas Square, on a balcony above which Dubcek declared ‘socialism with a human face’ and into which the menacing crawl of the Soviet tanks marked an end to that short-lived experiment. Two decades later, Dubcek appeared on a similar balcony to watch the Velvet Revolution unfold in the Square beneath him.

Today the square looks like a cross between a beautiful old city centre and modern-day Las Vegas. Proudly rearing gothic, baroque and Italianate buildings crowd in postmodern fashion alongside casinos and strip clubs. Like so much of the city that I’d seen, and like many of the small villes I passed through on my river-and-mountain journey from Dresden, the National Museum itself is a mighty and imposing slab of beautifully-crafted masonry – but it is also shabby, dishevelled, dirty with grime, the stone crumbling from its neo-renaissance columns and domes.

It was quite a contrast to Dresden. Despite its WW2 destruction and the failed economic system in which it was embedded for decades afterwards, the east German city is in most areas a pristine urban space, clean, smoothly tarmacked, elegantly re-built. Following the Wende the German government poured the capitalist wealth of the west into the reconstruction of it and other parts of the former GDR. Prague’s renaissance seems a little less convincing; its reliance on the wallets of foreign tourists rather than the tax packets of its new wealthy citizens in bank-rolling its post-Communist renewal has clearly been less successful.

The Fields and Forests of Central Bohemia

From Prague I was to head towards Vienna, cycling between two of the great cultural capitals of Europe. In between lay over 300km, 200 miles, of cycling, and I aimed to cover it in three days. Physically, it was my biggest challenge yet. Prague must be one of the most uneven cities in Europe, and just shedding its concrete skin was leg-aching work. But the thought of speeding away from the heaving, sweating, grumpy sight-seeing throngs spreading cash and ill-will through summertime Prague filled my will-power tanks to the brim.

The terrain was tough – I bid farewell to the Elbe as it wound to its sourcene in the Krkonoše Mountains, and climbed slope after slope. The landscape, though, was utterly gorgeous to cycle through. It was a bright mid-June day: I rode between golden fields of barbed and feathered wheat, silently swaying in the breath of the wind. The green canopy of rich-leafed woodland proffered islands of shade, and I moved through them gratefully, inhaling the sweet scent of sap and the earthy, nostalgic smell of dense vegetation, gazing into the cool moss-carpeted undergrowth and listening for scurrying sounds of the animal life within. Meadows of wild flowers, a carnival of purples, reds, blues, yellows and oranges, danced in the bright sunlight. In a sweep encompassing patches of wheat, woodland, and meadow, the textured silver of a lake glinted, and faint squawkings of pochards and tufted ducks reached my ears.

That night I succumbed to the draw of the soft-floored forests. As dusk settled on the dusty highway I turned down a small road which curled past a village before slicing through pine tree woodland. A safe distance from the village I braked, stiffly dismounted, and hauled my bike over a ditch and into the strong-scented shadow of the trees.

As always at this point in the day I was blindingly ravenous, and so swiftly emptied the contents of my panniers across the rusting pine needles and began boiling water on my stove. As the spaghetti bubbled merrily away I leapt to assemble my tent – and in the darkening light, wrestling with the unwieldy design, managed to snap a pole and render the whole thing entirely useless. My stomach didn’t particularly care, and led me back to the boiling pasta – where I found a large black dog sniffing around the olives I’d started scoffing. It was a great velvet-tongued Labrador, and bounded over to greet me – as I stroked it I looked for its owner, and spotted a dark-haired woman in the shadows, looking quite askance at the tramp who’d decided to turn her daily walking route into his combined kitchen-bedroom suite. I waved, and in response she called her friendlier half and turned to walk away.

Mixing the pesto and spaghetti, I scoffed the lot on the spot. My second Couchsurfing host in Dresden had given me a small clump of marijuana as a parting gift. I’d saved it for a moment I could relish after a hard day’s cycling and slip back into memories of that wonderful weekend. I gathered my sleeping bag, ipod, and rolling materials and cast around for a place to settle for the night. The lanky trees stretched upwards, and through the spiked canopy a few stars could be spied, pale in the twilight. They were a particularly skinny species of pine, but I found one with a broader trunk. Vast gnarled roots like haggard fingers spread out from its base and in between two of these was a luxuriously spongy patch of mossy ground.

I rolled a joint and a cigarette, placed them carefully on the brown-green ground, slid into my sleeping bag and nestled down with my back against the trunk and my sore arse on the cushioned ground. At irregular intervals the approaching thrum of a car engine signalled the imminent event of a lambent display – first the whole background of the forest would begin to glow with an orange light, which gradually intensified before abruptly fragmenting and flickering across the trees, illuminating five or six at a time to create an eerily artistic effect of the forest dancing and disappearing. Neil Young’s Harvest drifted from my headphones; I sparked the spliff, squirmed down onto my back, and fell asleep watching the twin radiance of the stars and the headlights.

In Praise of the Body

As wild-haired John had predicted, the daily cycling of 120km was becoming natural and easy. It was, as he had said, all in the legs. Mine were now strong enough to pedal continuously; I was past the novice’s temptation to battle up a rise with every muscle at full strain and then coast down, drinking in the breeze and bathing in the endorphin rush and letting one’s legs dangle uselessly until the next hill heaves into view. Instead, I was manipulating my gears intuitively, guided by the feel of my quad and gluteal muscles, working consistently as I climbed and descended. This allowed an immense momentum to be built and sustained, one that I still don’t fully understand – it was as if there were a wind-up engine hidden in the bike’s mechanism that stored energy from the wheels’ rotations and slowly released it as the day went on. I’d lean forward to the very tips of my curved handlebars to scythe downhill and without a pause in my pedalling conquer the next ascent at no less than 20mph. This kind of rhythm could be sustained for almost an hour, and I soared into Austria long before the daylight threatened to dwindle.

My lucky Ebay purchase of a sublime second-hand bike had a great deal to do with this. I was even luckier that there was nothing wrong with it, as I was precisely the kind of enthusiastic ignoramus you’d hope to fob your banjaxed steed off to.

As I approached the birthplace of Freud, I noticed that the continual exercise was having a transformative effect on my wellbeing as well as on the speed with which I could move across countries. My body was working with winter-sun clarity. It was as if the radio frequency that transmitted its signals to my rather slow and cumbersome conscious mind had lost its accustomed fuzziness, regaining some of the sensual sharpness of childhood. Muscular over-exertion, hunger, thirst, sleepiness, excretion all sounded with a clear insistency that demanded immediate satiation. The energy-content of my previous night’s meal, my current level of hydration, the quick-acting boosts provided by the small sweet snacks a friend had recommended I regularly stop to eat – all could be discerned by the ease or difficulty of the moment’s ride.

The effect jumped not only from my body to my mind, but onto the bike’s speedometer. Usually jumbled and clouded by our culture’s heavy reliance on the rational mind– and by my youthful disregard for my body – I felt my fundamental physicality vividly, and fully understood Nietzsche’s insistence that a great philosopher must have an excellent digestive system. The exertion left me feeling lucid, clear-headed, self-confident, and empowered: it’s no wonder that exercise is considered such a strikingly effective cure for depression.

The globe-trotting hermit

Before reaching Wien I had arranged to pass a night in a tiny village in the Austrian wilderness. Echsenbach lay exactly two-thirds of the distance between Prague and Vienna, not far from the town of Heidenreichstein – a name I’ll always recall with loathing. Anyone who has relied on a road map to roam countries will probably have a similar feeling towards some other unfortunate mid-size town. They are nigh on impossible to find one’s way out of, large enough to be fed by numerous roads but too small to merit an individual map. Surrounded by stretches of identical pasture land and sycamore forest, my fragile bearings were swiftly shattered. As dusk deepened I rode past signs welcoming me to Heidreichstein on six separate occasions. Eventually finding the right road, I followed it into swathes of dense cold forest, emerging to ride through crayon-coloured fields and playmobile villages, one of which, sitting docilely in a small dip formed by rising meadowland, was Eschenbach.

My host was Mathieu, a tall, vital-looking twenty-five-year-old who was easily the oddest of all the people I met on my travels. I was his first Couchsurfing guest: Eschenbach, an isolated hamlet located two-thirds of the way between Prague and Vienna is not a common choice of destination. He found me munching the last of my liquorice Haribo on a municipal seat and led me to his house. On the way he explained that he lived alone with his mother. Throughout my stay he kept disappearing to see her, but when I suggested going to thank her for the accommodation in person he vigorously shook the notion off. I decided to delay my next shower until Vienna.

Mathieu was an incongruous alloy of characteristics.  He was sincerely attentive to my needs, asking if I wished to cook and insisting on washing up everything I used. After eating in the immaculately-ordered kitchen, he led me through his bedroom into his personal living room. A mattress was already laid out on the floor – draped with a blue duvet and two pillows! French windows looked out over the twilit village, trees and a single spire spiking the dark sky. Carefully arranged around the space were the assorted passions of Mathieu’s life: a mahogany cabinet packed with sporting trophies for cross-country running; a trumpet and various grade certificates; vinyl records in glass frames; photographs of snow-covered landscapes; and along one wall, two large fishtanks containing two vast and ugly fish. GoogleEarth hovered over Iran on his computer screen.

Mathieu offered me drinks and snacks through the rest of the evening. It was easily the most luxurious night of my trip; I felt like Odysseus during one of his rare escapes from Poseidon’s vengeful wrath, relaxing with island Lords deeply versed in the art of excellent hospitality. Unlike Ithaca’s exile, however, I did not have to repay the hospitality with Homeric feats of storytelling. Despite his desire to meet my physical needs, despite the striking fact that I was the first person to ever ask to stay in his tucked-away house, and despite my rolling into his village on a heavily-laden bicycle, in the course of our three-hour conversation Mathieu never asked a single question about me. He showed no interest in how or why I’d arrived at his doorstep, and just passively accepted the event as an unremarkable turn of the world, an irresistible whim of gods. This was perfectly to my liking, as it allowed me to spend the whole evening exploring his curious lifestyle.

While his younger sister was at university in Vienna and his school friends were scattered around Europe working as chefs and ski instructors, Mathieu had only ever lived in Eschenbach. He had eschewed university to stay here and found work as an assistant to a local architect.

“Cities are horrible places, I never want to live in one,” he told me. “They are full of people in all their different clothes. There are no plants and no animals. I love animals, they are so” – we spent a while searching for the appropriate English word and came up with “guileless”. Here in rural Eschenbach it would appear he had all he needed.

On the other hand, he had two great passions that led him to roam far from his peaceable home.

Pointing to the vinyl on the walls, he began to tell me about the genre-bending Liverpudlian band Anathema. To his dismay I’d never heard of them. “They were a death metal band,” he explained, “but they always experiment and try new music. They will be the best musicians you hear in a band.”

Attending Anathema’s live shows had taken Mathieu as far afield as Canada, Dubai and Ireland, and rumours that they were to play in Iran explained GoogleEarth’s focus on the country. “This is why I start to do Couchsurfing,” Mathieu added; he was hoping it would be possible in Tehran.

Our attention was thus drawn to GoogleEarth, which brought us to Mathieu’s second all-consuming passion: Norway.

“It is the most beautiful place in the world,” he said. I asked him what he liked so much about it. “I hate the summer,” he said in answer, glowering out the window for a moment. “Winter is my favourite time of the year. You walk for hours in the cold air and are never uncomfortable, but in summer it is always horrible to move outside, it is like a trap.” His eyes flared momentarily; he leapt up and pulled two huge hardcover books from a drawer at the bottom of his trophy cabinet.

“Have you sailed on these?” The cover was a crystal-clear photograph of a vast black, white and red ship against a sheer stretch of rock streaked with waterfalls plummeting straight out of rough green foliage and into the ocean below; behind, towering white-capped crags intimated the looming presence of even harsher terrain. ‘Hurtigruften’ was blazoned in great letters across the front. He translated the German sub-title as “the world’s most beautiful sea-voyage”.

“A hundred years ago Hurtigruften used to take the mail to towns on Norway’s coast in the winter,” Mathieu said. “When the ice and snow came it took months to reach the towns by land, but the ships did it in days. Now they are only for tourists. It is my dream to sail on one.”

Soon after he suddenly ended a sentence by declaring his need to sleep and scurried off, ostensibly to say good night to his mum. I slid gratefully under my duvet, stretched my legs into the soft furrows of the mattress, and fell asleep swathed incongruously in warmth and hazy images of nineteenth-century Norwegians crowding a small icy port, hoping for post.

Hungary: Strange Encounters of the Two-Wheeled Kind

Hungarian was for centuries one of Europe’s mystery languages. Surrounded by Germanic, Slavic and Romance tongues, it sits in the middle like a philological teenager, obstinately distant from all these families. Somewhere deep in the past its Uralic roots entangle with two of Europe’s other linguistic misfits, Finnish and Estonian, and several travellers were keen to share this insight with me. But Hungarians themselves were often quick to point out that the similarity today is scant, with only one or two per cent of words sharing the same origin – and these mainly to do with fishing and reindeer.

The landscape flattened and horizons widened as I cut into north-west Hungary; woodland gave way to wet green plains; this looked like horse-riding territory, and I could see why tribes from the central Asian steppes chose to settle here.  Imitating their forays on my two-wheeled ride I entered the hazy atmosphere of Fertő-Hanság National Park, taking breathfuls of warm damp air fragranced with summer blossom like a laundry room.

From the perspective of my bike saddle the Park appeared to encompass different worlds. Beyond the oak woodland to the west a single Alpine peak spiked the Austrian sky, while to the east an unbroken vista of pastureland merged into marsh and reed-fringed water: Lake Ferto, Niesueldersee in German, is the westernmost of the saline lakes that speckle central Eurasia.

A purple heron rose, flapping languorously, from somewhere within this swampland. Pedalling slowly I listened to the sparse cries of the water birds diffuse into the thick atmosphere.

As dusk blended the day’s colours this all seemed Edenic, but as soon as I paused to take in the view I was beset by feasting insects. I simply couldn’t stop, and rode on long past sunset until I’d put some distance between my skin and this mosquito-patrolled marshland.

Finally I came to the edge of a small village named Balf. Here, just down from the road and encircled by dim orange streetlights and six public benches, stood a dark timber pavilion with a concave, slate-tiled roof. I wound my way along the red-brick path that led to its front. A wooden ledge ran around its interior and at its core rose a wide-eyed face, wild-haired, fat-cheeked, roughly-carved from bronze that time had flecked with verdigris, and gurgling a meagre stream of water that stank of sulphur. Other than the soft splash of the fountain, all was silent. I’d found my next bedroom.

I spilled the contents of my panniers across the wooden ledge and cooked my nightly spaghetti ration, enlivened by a little parmesan-crusted saucisson sec I’d picked up in Austria. Just as I finished eating, with red pesto smeared over pans, bowls and spork, an eery string of lights appeared at the top of the road I arrived on. The first dozen headed directly towards me while more kept materialising at the hill’s crest like candles during midnight mass. As they reached the glow of the sentinel streetlights tiny luminous jackets flushed into sight – a procession of children, aged around 10, dark-haired and sharp-featured, began to mass around the pavilion. In their midst were two grown-ups.

They dismounted from their bikes and the adults led them to fill their water bottles from the sulphurous fountain. I hurriedly pulled my possessions into a tighter heap and fled down the opposite steps, seating myself on one of the surrounding benches with a postprandial cigarette. They chattered and giggled and paid me and my dirty pots no attention whatsoever, as though my status as a tramp rendered me entirely invisible. I smoked and watched until one young girl with distinctive dark curls leant over the pavilion’s railing, held my gaze with her brown eyes, and gently intoned a single word. I waved shyly in response and she smiled before turning away. Then as smoothly as they’d appeared they all climbed back aboard their bikes with water bottles dripping in the shadowy light and one of the grown-ups led them up on to the main road. I watched the flashing specks of red disappear around the corner, one by one.

I’d learnt that the fountain’s water was fine to drink, and so washed up and brushed my teeth before clambering into my sleeping bag. My insect troubles, though, weren’t over. Mosquitoes besieged me: I hunkered deeper and deeper into my fabric fortress and despite the balmy night pulled on a stifling chainmail of jumper, hat, gloves, trousers, socks to protect my ravaged flesh. The resulting sweat, of course, just attracted more, and the incessant thin buzzing right by my eardrums kept me up long into the night.

Eventually I drifted into a doze, only to be hauled back up to consciousness in the indistinct 5am light by loud cackles of laughter. Four figures were beside me in the pavilion – short, round women glinting with cheap gold, with deep furrows in their cheeks and gaps in their teeth revealing sickly pink gums. They were filling great plastic tubs with water from the fountain, talking and laughing uproariously as they did so, one handing round cigarettes and following them with struck matches. Flames flared and were swiftly extinguished by a gale of verbal exclamation. I peered blearily around: a battered hatchback was haphazardly parked on the tarmac by the pavilion. One of the women caught my eye and jovially threw me a greeting; I returned a tired grimace, and she passed me a lit cigarette.

It seemed I had chosen as my bedroom the heart of the local community, the aqua vita that kept residents alive and active, cycle-owning schoolchildren and hatchback-driving Roma alike. Still, I didn’t feel resented by the area’s populace – puffing away I pondered on the locals’ reaction were one to cook dinner and attempt to sleep on a similar village pavilion somewhere in Kent.

Once their tubs were all sloshing water the women bundled into the car and screeched off in the direction taken by the children. The one who had greeted me earlier leant her head out the window and threw a fresh barrage of noise in my direction – it sounded friendly enough. The mosquitoes were still humming hungrily so I gave up on more sleep, filled my own water bottles, and cycled on. A couple of hours later, thirty or forty km down the road, I found a crooked picnic table in a layby backing onto sand-coloured cornfields. I stopped – held out my hands – listened – not a buzz. It was 8am and the sun had driven the mosquitoes away like the little vampires they are. I stretched out on the table, caressed by the faint warmth of the sun’s first strength, and fell into a blissful, undisturbed sleep.

Budapest and Paris

That night my travels came to an end in a low-ceilinged, mahogany-panelled bar in Budapest, which sold reasonable red wine at 180 Florints a glass (about 60p). There I took out my tattered journal and began to record the last week of my trip, though the words are hardly legible now, so shaky is my handwriting.

While I felt drawn to the unknown expanse of land that lay to the east of Hungary – the Ukraine and, beyond that, the vast sweep of Russia, about both of which I know so little – it was clear that here my journey would have to stop. I was utterly shattered; various parts of my body creaked. I couldn’t light a cigarette with my right hand, shards of pain stabbed like broken glass through my right knee whenever I pushed down on a pedal, my left leg had acquired a dramatic limp due to an enormous swollen bite on its thigh, my glasses were broken, I’d lost the chargers for my phone and i-pod rendering both entirely redundant, and – although I didn’t know it at that moment – my bike’s speedometer was stolen at some point during that hour-long sojourn.

The theft, or something like it, had been prophesised on the train that my aching knee had forced me to take from Budapest to Gyor. Jorge, a Hungarian cyclist, warned me that Budapest was different to the other cities I’d passed through.

“Budapest is not Vienna,” he said; as I approached the capital English was again appearing as young people’s second language. “It is dangerous, criminal, exciting. You be careful and see your things.”

My first cursory investigations of the city had given me something of that impression. The statues and monuments that dot any major city were distinctly different in Budapest. Whereas in Vienna, Prague, Dresden and Berlin giant stone and brass effigies generally represented urbane, scholarly figures, clad in expensive fabric and studying books or music, in Budapest the statues often brought something of untamed nature into the heart of civilisation. Men in scant armour sat atop galloping horses and lithe semi-naked boys hunted deer past a torrential waterfall.

While these intimations of a vitality yet to dociled by progress surrounded me, I had no energy left whatsoever. Rather rudely, in the house of my couchsurfing host Muki I did little but sleep. It was utterly delicious: I drank deep the embered warmth of slipping into unconsciousness, “drowning in langours of feathered seas” as Laurie Lee so perfectly puts it in Cider with Rosie, his evocative account of an English childhood I began to read at that time. Supine with the book’s sensuous descriptions wreathing my tired brain, I felt ready to return to England.

Disorganisation led me to blow another 250 Euros on the return journey, arranging for a complex weave of trains to transport me and my bike to Dieppe: from Budapest to Vienna, then Vienna to Munich, then a night train from Munich to Paris, and finally a train to Dieppe. It was expensive, and an extra bike ticket had to be purchased for each leg, but considering I only arranged it two days before departure, it is at least proof that train travel across Europe is perfectly feasible. My adventures were over…

Or so I thought at that moment – in fact, the return journey involved a whole new set of odd and enjoyable encounters. I had to stay overnight in Vienna, and slept in a glass room on platform 6 of the West-bound train station, sharing a bottle of wine and the surface of my sleeping bag with a fellow hobo who snored violently.

At 5 I staggered up to watch the sun rise over Vienna’s deserted imperial centre. Twenty minutes later I gratefully found a dimlit café with brown cushioned benches in which I drank coffee and read Laurie Lee until it was time for my train to depart. On the Munich to Paris night train I met a Chilean woman named Vida, a scientist visiting Europe for the first time; I guided her round Paris and, two weeks later, while in England, she visited me in Oxford.

As I wrestled my bike into place on the Paris-Dieppe express train angry grunts sounded behind me – a young female couple were waiting with their gargantuan flat-tyred tandem bike. They’d attempted to cycle to a feminist conference of the Young Women’s Christian Association (apparently ferociously secular) in Zurich, but had been scuppered half-way through France by endless punctures and the incompetent help of patronising men. Together we drank rum and wine on the ferry, cursed the patriarchy and sang with sarcastic patriotism at the first sight of Albion. They allowed me to have the sofa of their Camberwell flat on my first night back in London.

I learnt a great deal on my trip: it taught me to be open and patient with people, to have faith in their depth and in the possibility of uncovering this with just a little warmth, trust, and perseverance; to have faith in my own strength, my own fighting spirit, my own capacity for self-reliance, and to engage people; it taught me the importance of the body – that there are certain problems and neuroses that need to be approached and solved with the body rather than the mind; it taught me the importance of being open to learn about things, about the myriad facts of this world’s geography, politics, geology, architecture, art, history, as well as other people’s personal experiences and ups and downs, their struggles and small triumphs. I arrived back in London physically exhausted but spiritually more vital and optimistic that I’d been for many years.


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