England
5th to 9th June 2006

Our final lift off took place last week from Reading, and we were happily surprised with the turn out - it was really good to see so many of our friends (and Mark Oliver) there to see us off. It was however a relief to get the media circus done with and get on our way. We spent the first few days making our way to Dover in the heat, which was pretty exhausting, and no doubt partly responsible for some of our disagreements! It didn’t take us long to realise that we were carrying too much weight, so we posted some back to Kat’s dad, on the second day no less! By the way, there are no hotels in Horsham, and the cliffs in Folkestone are not meant for cycling up. The highlight of Blighty was camping on the racecourse at Folkestone, on a non raceday.

France
9th to 11th June 2006

The ferry dumped us safely at Calais, where we camped in a bit of a dump. We decided to take a rest day here, for no good reason that we can recall, having been in Calais many times previously and never found a great deal to do. I think it was just to catch up on our eating, and because it was a Friday so there was an inherent need for beer. We had the nastiest piece of food we have ever had the misfortune to encounter, in the form of a curdled and subsequently burnt Crème Brulee. The ride up to Dunkerque was beautifully flat, though even hotter than England. The La Licorne campsite was very good, and with hindsight we should have stopped there instead and avoided that dessert...

Belgium
11th to 15th June 2006

We spent our longest day yet lugging ourselves over to Belgium and Ghent - a whopping 114km (that's about 72 miles for the metrically challenged.) There seems to be a distinct lack of activity outside of the cities in Belgium. In all that distance we found a grand total of one cafe open, and one shop. And that shop was a buy-in-bulk Lidl's. Lunch that day was a supersize brick of cheese and a large loaf of bread. Still, better than that Brulee. After all that whinging, Ghent was a lovely city, and the staff at our hotel (Eden, appropriately) were unbelievably helpful. And just to serve us right for complaining so much about the heat, as we left Ghent the heavens opened and the temperature plummeted, and it rained for the next couple of days.

The mystery of what Belgian shopkeepers actually do deepened as we continued in the country. We'd assumed that we must have stumbled in on some national holiday, which would explain why nothing was open. It was the same all the time we spent there though, and we're at a loss to explain it - even the petrol stations were closed, although we could buy Stella from the vending machines!

As we left Belgium we discovered that the Euro zone is truly borderless, as there was not even a sign to tell us where we entered Holland. We whizzed through Maastricht, and on to the German border - Three countries in one day!

Germany
15th June to 4th July 2006

Our first day in Germany started to go wrong as soon as we entered the city of Aachen. Firstly it was far, far bigger than we anticipated, and secondly, due to this underestimation, we did not have a clear idea of where we were going. We knew there was a campsite somewhere in the place, and had just thought it would be signposted. We spent nearly two hours trying to find our way. In the end we were thoroughly fed up, hungry, hot and exhausted. This must have been apparent to passers by, as we were approached by a German woman who patiently directed us to the campsite, and even gave us her own map. It was the first of many such experiences in Germany, where we only have to stop and look at our map for someone to come over and ask if we need help. Almost every passing cyclist smiles and calls out hello, and people are only too pleased to help if we ask for directions.

On our second day we deviated from our chosen route, to try and avoid the World Cup-hosting city of Köln (Cologne.) This was a mistake. We had failed to identify what hills were on our road atlas; those heavily shaded grey areas we cycled into turned out to be the Eiffel range. We spent a couple of days wrestling with them in near 40 degree heat. Every time we thought we had reached the end, a new hill would reveal itself round a bend. At the summit we did finally get a payoff for the hard work, as the road snaked along the top of the hills revealing some stunning scenery. We had not expected Germany to be anywhere near as beautiful. We then descended for miles through the Eiffel nature reserve, and I think we would both climb those hills again for that experience. Having said that, we re-thought our route and decided that from now on we would follow as many rivers as we could.

River following sounds fairly straightforward, but the two of us have managed to make a bit of a meal of it. We were completely unable to escape from the city of Koblenz due to the fact that we had failed to account for a second river being there, in addition to the Rhine. We went round in circles for hours; a repeat of Aachen. We figured it out that evening after very close map inspections, but in spite of this we then managed to take the path on the wrong river when we left the city. It did strike us as a bit odd that the Rhine should have become so small, but it took us over 20 miles before it dawned on us that it was because it was actually not the Rhine.

Before entering Germany we did spend a fair amount of time learning the essentials of the language - Yes, no, two beers please, thank you, two more beers please etc - and had thought it seemed a fairly intuitive language for English speakers. For the most part we have got along just fine, albeit with lashings of sign language and the odd word in French! (Somehow it seems more polite to attempt another language in a foreign land than to start speaking your own, which is ridiculous really because no one understood our French in France, so there is no reason why they should in Germany.) Anyway, we seem to have had particular problems with the words "two" and "Coke" or "Coca Cola." Often ordering the soft drink has been completely unsuccessful, or we have just had to point to the menu. On one occasion Kat got served a very strange shandy, but with coke instead of lemonade. Sounds ghastly, but was not unpleasant. We think that one of the beers here has a similar sound to "Coca", which is where the problem lies.

Since the wrong Rhine incident, we have successfully managed to follow various rivers as we head south-east through Germany. The cycling has hence been mostly flat, with the added bonus of some picturesque river towns, bountiful wildlife and lovely landscapes. Our only problem was when attempting to cycle down the Main River in Frankfurt. Our path also turned out to be the venue for 100,000 football fans to watch the Germany vs Sweden game on some giant screens. It took us some time to negotiate this obstacle. Although we haven't come here for the football, and haven't seen any live and little even on telly, we have to say that the atmosphere in Germany surrounding it has been fantastic. This whole country has gone completely nuts about their team, in a good way.

Our next leg of the journey meant finally leaving the river paths for the push towards Nuremburg, and we should have known this would bring trouble. The thunderstorms which had been threatening for days came down with a vengeance, while it stayed cloyingly hot. We were on a busy road outside of Würzburg, going downhill on wet roads, with lorries hurtling past; when Kat decided that the road was getting too dangerous with the poor visibility. She had the ill-conceived notion that trying to mount a slippery curb at speed to get onto a path was the best thing to do. The bike slipped from under her, and the first fall of the trip was the result. Fortunately she was thrown onto the path, clear of lorries and the bike. Unfortunately the path had a concrete barrier on the other side, and she hit her head on it.

No serious damage has been done; the head swelled up a bit, and there are some nasty cuts and a particularly attractive bruise on her leg. Several people stopped to help, amongst whom were two men who insisted that the wounds needed attention. One drove Kat to a house, whilst the other followed on foot, wheeling her bike back with Richard. Kat was kindly cared for by the wife of one of the men, who ensured she had her feet up, ice on her head, cleaned cuts and plenty to drink. One of the guys even went and fetched a mate who spoke English. Though they offered to put us up for the night, we thought this was an intrusion too far, so settled for a lift to a nearby hotel.

We rested Kat's wounds for a couple of days in Würzburg. They were not too serious, just painful. We are fairly sure now that the bike must have landed on her leg, from the swelling and bruising, and even after some rest we had to take it a bit slow. This was not too much of a problem, since the route through the rest of Germany largely followed the Danube (we haven't mistaken this river yet, which is just as well, since we follow it all the way to Budapest.)

The Danube cycle route hasn't quite lived up to our expectations, which were very high. From all we'd read about it, we were expecting a two mile wide pancake flat path lined with beer gardens, snack stops and, most importantly, toilets. Not a bit of it. In fact, one stretch somewhere between Nuremburg and Regensburg was actually quite remote. There were stints when we didn't see another soul for more than an hour of cycling. This may not sound like much, but considering we are talking about the heart of Western Europe it was quite eerie. And if you happened to be running out of water, or needed to pass it, it was not especially amusing. Nor if you were lost. It just happened to be in this part of Germany where we managed to get separated from one another for a day. While the road was winding along over a dam, Kat took a wrong turn (fairly common), and lost sight of Richard, who had taken a different wrong turn (very unusual.) We didn't see each other for another frantic few hours. Richard, being The Man, had the map, the compass, the phone and the puncture repair kit. Kat, not being trusted with important implements of navigation, had some food, and the phrasebook. So, she didn't go hungry and could at least say "I'm lost, the b******'s run off and left me" in German, if she needed to. Thanks to Karen and a phone box in Reidenberg for getting us out of that one!

The official 'Donauradweg' however, does not actually start until the town of Passau, very close to the Austrian border, and from there on in the beer gardens are more frequent, and the surface a little kinder on the behind. It really is great cycling for the day either side of the border, and the landscape is quite stunning. On the downside, this means that in the summer Germans of various shapes and sizes get out their luridly coloured lycra and also hit the road.

When we left Germany for Austria along this route, we have to admit that it was with somewhat of a feeling of relief. What with our initial struggling with the hills, and Kat's accident, it felt as if we had been there forever, so it was a bit of a milestone to leave. But we did enjoy Germany immensely, would definitely go back, and would heartily recommend it to anyone, particularly the east with its more traditional food and laid-back atmosphere.

Austria
5th to 10 July 2006

The Austrian side of the Danube cycle path became more in tune with what we had imagined - perfectly paved 'roads' meant only for cycles, and it genuinely does hug the river for most of the way. Most importantly, there are numerous food and drink stops here, along a peaceful and beautiful stretch of the river. There are also some fantastic 'pensions' (guesthouses) dotting the route. They are friendly without exception, cheap and most have a room set aside for storing bikes, so much is this path traversed by cyclists. On some occasions, the bike path switches from one bank to the other, in which case it is necessary to catch a ferry, to use a polite word for them. In reality they resemble very large tea trays. It was only after surviving the first one that we became confident they were capable of transporting anything weighing more than a yoghurt pot.

The path runs all the way into the centre of Vienna, but we, being seasoned navigators, decided to leave it and find our own, shorter way into the capital. Vienna is a city of no small size, and following the pattern of the trip so far, we quickly got hopelessly lost, confused by all the canals, and bumbled into the street of our hotel by sheer luck.

We spent a couple of days in this much vaunted city doing a spot of sightseeing, something we hadn't really done on the trip so far. I say 'spot' because it did not take long to discover that the 'Prater' lay but a short trot from our hotel. It is a very large old-fashioned style fairground, complete with a huge wooden helter skelter, ghost trains and candy floss. Plans to go to an opera (yes, seriously), and visit the Fine Arts Museum were quickly scrapped. Probably just as well, since Richard's knowledge of fine arts goes about as far as appreciating how well Dangermouse was animated. We did manage a small dose of culture in visiting a couple of the Hapsburg palaces, but that was enough. We weren't as impressed with Vienna as we really ought to be, but perhaps our expectations were a little too great. The fair was good though.

We got somewhat of a shock following the supposed cycle route out of Vienna, haplessly stumbling upon a nudist colony right beside the river. We were quickly pointed in the right direction by an elderly unclothed couple (we didn't stop pedalling) and it was quite a relief to get out of there, even for poor Richard. The Slovakian capital, Bratislava, is but a short day's ride away from Vienna, and so ends our leg through what we know as Western Europe.