Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France & England...

26 March 2007 - 10 May 2007

We flew Air China from Beijing to Munich, and we only mention this because it was incredibly cheap compared to anything else we found. As much as a fifth of the price of booking through any European carrier. The flight was long and boring though, mainly because the on-screen entertainment was in Chinese language only, as were the magazines.

We were incredibly excited on returning to Europe, and were surprised by how much German we still remembered from being here the last time. Munich is a beautiful city. Kat had already decided last year when we were in Germany that she wants to live here, but has now narrowed it down to this region. We spent a couple of days just strolling round the city, catching up on all the stodgy food we've missed, and of course all that wonderful German beer.

We left Munich following the Isar river along a cycle route, mostly because of the novelty of there being such a thing after all those months on busy Asian roads. The route was quite clearly designed for mountain bikers, most of who looked at us pityingly as we slogged along up steep muddy trails with our heavily laden bikes. We were thoroughly knackered, and extremely cold, at the end of each day. We had almost forgotten what it was like to be cold, but Bavaria in March reminded us quite conclusively. Some of the roads we took were icy or still had snow on, but the fresh air was invigorating after the pollution of China.

We followed a route along the Bavarian Alps through southern Germany, giving us some tough climbs and amazing views. It was quite ironic that we had travelled halfway round the world, yet this stretch on the journey home was beautiful beyond anything else we had seen.

Even waking up on a freezing campsite, gritting your teeth as you try and use the least amount of time between unzipping your sleeping bag and pulling on clothes, then packing up a wet tent with numb hands, doesn't seem that bad when you look up and see the snow covered Alps in the background. The scenery doesn't make needing the loo in the middle of the night any more enjoyable though.

One thing we hadn't missed about continental Europe, and Germany in particular, was shop closing times. If you forget that it is a Sunday, then forget being able to buy food. Nothing is open. In addition, nothing is open on a Saturday afternoon, and during various other indeterminable times. Most places shut for lunch, some places are closed all day Wednesday, others on a Monday afternoon...

After about a week of pedalling we reached Lake Bodensee, around which Germany, Austria and Switzerland converge. It's almost impossible to tell which country you are in half the time, as there don't seem to be any official border crossings, which is a bit disappointing as we were hoping for a Swiss stamp in our passports. On the other hand we must have crossed in and out of the place at least half a dozen times, so it would have been a bit tedious.

We have cleverly combined Easter Sunday with a rest day, knowing that there will probably not be a single person around, let alone anywhere open to get supplies. We will start Spring proper by crossing into France, the last foreign land between us and home. We aim to take our time across the hills, and then meander with the Loire, giving us an expected time of arrival in Reading of 8th May...

Added (27 July 2007)

We did a long day to mark our arrival in France. Not that this was planned, more a case of no campsites en route. We found a nice little pension in quite a quiet town, where Kat was quick to get back into the swing of the language. When asked, she informed the owner that her name was '8 o'clock' (she thought the discussion was still about breakfast, as it mostly had been until that point.) A couple of days later Richard got in on the act, muddling his words and declaring to another pensioner 'I am two bikes in a garage.'

We were getting a bit concerned, financially, about staying in pensions (although it had only been two, it was two in a row.) We had mainly been stopping in smaller towns with smaller sites, and for them the camping season had not yet started. The second pension, which had been dirt-cheap but seemed okay, turned out to be infested with cockroaches. We killed about 20 in our room overnight, and saw several scurrying along the corridors the following morning. After that experience, we made it a priority to find campsites at all costs.

As you'd expect, we had a pretty decent French road map, and were able to pick our way along minor roads for most of the journey through France. There are many fantastic things about cycling in France, and the roads are among them. There are thousands and thousands of miles of beautiful country roads, which are totally empty because France appears to have more roads than cars to use them. At this point we were heading due west, aiming to join the Loire at Nevers, and the terrain was decently undulating. Challenging, but not tough. We had got into a wonderful cycling-camping routine, involving fresh croissants in the morning, baguettes for lunch, and Richard showing his age by listening to the Archers in the late afternoon (Kat sat as far away as she could with a book, but it was probably still obvious that we were together.)

Once we reached the Loire - amazingly where we had planned, which was a first - the cycling was almost embarrassingly flat for the most part. There are campsites everywhere along the route and many interesting French towns to explore.

We had been hearing horror stories from our family about the weather in England, but for us France remained gloriously hot and sunny. We knew it would not hold out, and for a few of the last days there we got some heavy rain - but only at night. A couple of days away from the coast we got hit by a massive thunderstorm. Kat made it into the tent, but Richard was trapped in the toilet block. He did finally make it back before it got even worse. The outer tent flooded slightly, and some of the tent pegs even started popping out as the ground became waterlogged. We were a bit grumpy and muddy by the morning.

After several changes of plan, we decided to cross to England at Weymouth, from St Malo. We were pleasantly surprised with the town, having expected another Calais. Knowing we would arrive back in England during a Bank Holiday, we had wisely booked a B&B in advance and were lucky to get a room thanks to an International kite festival.

We boarded the ferry with mixed feelings. We had had a great time riding through Germany and France, but were anxious now to be home. On the crossing we met a group of cyclists from Jersey, and sat discussing the trip, which felt very strange - this was really the first time we'd had a face-to-face conversation in English with anyone but each other for a very long while. The rest of the crossing was bad. Neither of us had ever been seasick before, but this time we were a bit of a mess. We both just sat trying not to move or speak, with only Kat whimpering occasionally.

We were feeling so ill on our arrival late at night, that we were more relieved at being on any land than worrying which particular land it was. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, cold, spitting, and at pub closing time. It all looked so familiar, but we felt alien. We had expected to be instantly elated at being back, but it had been so long that we felt as foreign as we had anywhere else. We settled into a great little B&B, watched telly and wished the hours away towards our full English breakfast.

Some of our family drove down to meet us for the following day, to avoid an emotional reunion in front of lots of people (we hoped) when we reached Reading. It was wonderful, but very surreal to see them. As the cliché goes, it soon seemed like we'd never been away.

We had been told (thanks Ben) that there was a 'big hill' leading out of Weymouth, but scoffed at it 'what terrain could England possibly offer that compared to what we'd ridden over' Well, after spending 2 weeks in a flattish part of France stuffing ourselves with croissants at every opportunity, and having just eaten a very big, very greasy breakfast, we were in for a bit of rude awakening. It is a very big hill.

We worked our way through the rolling countryside on our way home, overnighting in Salisbury and ending up in Basingstoke. We smiled at how unmistakably English everything was to us - the roadside burger vans, the hedgerows, the post boxes, the pubs and the horrendous traffic. The amount of it was a huge shock after Europe.

The guys at Cancer Research had organised cameras for 1pm on our arrival day, so we planned our last night away to be near enough to arrive on time, and not have a hard day! We set off ultra early due to nerves, which meant we had to stop several times for coffee to arrive on time. It was raining as we got within site of our rendezvous point, so we were very surprised, and very happy, that more than just die hard friends and family had turned out. Richard was especially overwhelmed to see that his Dad had flown over from Northern Ireland to see us. Thank you to all of you, even if we didn't get a chance to speak to you all, it meant a lot to be welcomed home like that.

It has been more difficult than we imagined adjusting to normal life again. Though we have been out on the bikes, we have not used our panniers, tent or needed a map since. We both miss it to some degree. Although much of the journey was physically and emotionally tough, we have more memories from the last year than from any other time in our lives, and we can now say thank you in seventeen different languages.