Posts Tagged ‘France’

The humble fare


As a teenager, before I had enough money and time for exotic adventures overseas, I would hitch-hike wherever and whenever I could. For me this was a source of adventure. I would hitch to festivals and to visit friends, to go on holiday and sometimes just to see where I would end up. As any seasoned hitcher knows you meet many colourful characters along the way. Aging hippies, who are returning the favour after years of thumbing it themselves, are the hitcher’s staple. I have met my fair share of born again Christians who would often try to convert me en route. Some drivers want to talk, some to listen, some are comfortable with silence. Occasionally I’d be privileged to hear someone’s life story and at other times I would take on the role of a makeshift counsellor, my job would entail listening to the story of the driver’s latest relationship crisis. Once I was even privy to explicit phone sex when the driver’s girlfriend, who was on speaker phone, failed to realise her boyfriend had picked up a hitch-hiker. I have kept all my old cardboard signs to remind me of this time in my life… “M1 north”, “Glasgow”, “Glastonbury” and for emergencies “Anywhere”.

Hitch-hiking gets a bad press, there’s no doubt about that. Joe Public seems convinced that hitch-hikers are all potential axe murdering sociopaths. A quick survey of my friends and a unanimous verdict, not one would pick up a hitch-hiker. I can’t help but think that the demise of hitching is a symptom of the increasingly paranoid world in which we live. The sensationalist mainstream media (and American B movies) must be partly to blame but you probably have as much chance of meeting a sadist or psychopath on a social networking website or on the bus than you do when hitch-hiking. Only once have I encountered a problem on my travels around the UK when I got into a car, glimpsed a half empty bottle of whiskey in the foot well and quickly realised my driver was blind drunk. So clearly a small risk does exist and I am never afraid to refuse a lift if my instinct tells me to. Aside from the perceived dangers the other obvious reason as to why less people hitch-hike now is the ease of travelling around Europe via Eurorail or Easyjet and the ilk. Hitching may be a free way to get around the continent but I don’t hitch just to save money, it’s an adventure and dare I say it, I think you can learn something about human nature on the way.

I’d never hitched in Europe but I had heard that “autostop”, as its known, is an easier task than in the UK and I was keen to try. Although I was homeward bound I was also chuffed that I could cling onto some sense of adventure now that I couldn’t continue my journey by bicycle. I would swap my enemies… dogs, punctures and headwinds for boredom, the police and the ubiquitous axe murdering psychopaths that everybody at home knew I would encounter frequently en route. Due to the ash cloud emanating from the Icelandic volcano there was a huge backlog of passengers in Istanbul waiting to return to the UK and I would wait ten days if I wanted to fly home. I suspected I could hitch back within this time. I had no imminent deadlines, the operation on my knee is scheduled for the end of May, so I said goodbye to Belinda, my bike, glad that at least for her it will be an unbroken journey around the world, and set off. How long would it take? I honestly didn’t care.

The first challenge would be getting out of the immense sprawling metropolis that is Istanbul, the fifth largest city in the world. On my way in I had cycled for eighty kilometres, all within the city limits, just to find the house I was due to stay at. I started to thumb it from just outside the old town. After forty five minutes a car stopped and I jumped in. The occupant, Apo, was a perfume seller and producer in his late 30s, and he would be my first lift. The cloying scent of his perfume “Candy” filled the car and he told me his story. He was originally Kurdish but had left Turkey in his early 20’s to move to Germany where he had managed to work without a VISA for 10 years. Eventually he was discovered and deported but on arrival in Turkey the military police arrested him, this time for skipping his military service, and he was sent to the army for two years. After finishing this stint he had started up the perfume company with his brother and they were doing well. He brought me as far as he could and then bought me breakfast before I thanked him and moved on. In the end it took me eight separate lifts, each of just five or ten kilometres to finally breach the city limits.

In the neighbouring Turkish city of Tekirdag I had my first lucky break. Hussain, a Turkish lorry driver, stopped to offer me a ride. He chain smoked Winston’s and spoke to me in broken Italian whilst I replied in broken Spanish. Mostly we understood each other. That night I slept on the dusty floor of an old church near to a truck stop. I woke during the night to convivial shrieks and cheers from the inebriated Turkish drivers, who stayed up until the early hours drinking Raki. The next day I found Hussain and we continued the journey together but it was salt in the wound as Hussain drove down the exact same roads I had cycled along almost a month before. After waiting for three hours at the Turkish border whilst the lorry was checked we entered Greece and travelled the breadth of the country. For a reason I didn’t understand the Truck drivers were not allowed to drive me the last twenty kilometres to the dock where we would catch a boat to southern Italy so I began to hitch again.


The twenty kilometre stretch of road led to a port on the Greek mainland from which boats come and go to the party island of Corfu. ‘Boy racers’ sped past me, a brand of soul-destroying bland house music blaring from their expensive sound systems. When looking for a lift you begin to recognise your target demographic. The typical driver who stops is male, aged about 20-40 and usually on their own in the car. The exception to this is the ‘boy racer’. Young speedsters driving VW Golfs with blacked out windows. They virtually never offer a lift. They belong in the same category as mums on the school run and people who drive hearses, Ferraris or milk floats. They are a long shot. As I waited, thumb outstretched, they shouted abuse at me from the windows. One stopped, only to speed off as I approached. From another an empty plastic bottle was hurled in my direction. Most would put their thumbs up and flash me sardonic grins whilst speeding past. I was being mocked by idiots. And the worst kind of idiot. An idiot in white jeans, a Ben Sherman shirt and with terrible taste in music. Eventually I got a lift with an elderly couple to the port and took the nine hour ferry to Bari in southern Italy.

At Bari I spent most of the day in a lorry park where a couple of hundred vehicles were parked in rows. Turkish, Iranian, Polish and Greek drivers congregated, each playing music from their respective homelands at full volume and drinking copiously in the sunshine by the dock. The Turkish band of drivers found someone going to Naples for me. I got the impression that if I desired I could get all the way to the UK by being passed from one Turkish driver to the next at these lorry parks, but I had never visited Naples and I was curious, so I decided I would leave the truckers behind when I got there. I got a lift with another burly Turkish truck driver called Louis, a friend of Hussain. I knew only two things about Louis. First that he was driving to Naples and second that “he really likes Raki” as I was reminded again and again by the other drivers. Things would be fine, I decided, as long as his passion for Turkish liquor and the fact that he’s driving an 18 tonne truck along the Italian motorway didn’t get horribly intertwined.

I semi-reluctantly joined up with the tourist hoard in Naples and Rome and managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, although my attention was elsewhere. I found it hard to concentrate on all the museums, monuments and churches. The Colosseum was impressive but it had nothing on the Italian girls and I frequently found myself distracted. I began once again from outside Rome and hitched to a petrol station north of the city in the countryside just off the motorway. I ate strawberries as I waited for nobody to stop. I discovered that the strawberries had stained my hands blood red and that probably wasn’t giving off the best impression. That’s when the police arrived. I wasn’t sure if they had been called or if they had spotted me by chance, either way I began to think the world has it in for hitch-hikers.
One officer addressed me

“No autostop here. This highway” and he pointed at the section of tarmac on which I was stood, well away from the motorway.

“No highway. This petrol station” I retorted and pointed at the same spot.

“No. This highway” He replied with asperity.

“No. This petrol station” I chanced.

We were at a deadlock.

“Look” I said pointing to a vehicle ten metres away “He’s parking on the highway. Arrest him!”

Not even a smirk. They glowered at me before turning to leave. What could I do? I was in rural Italy surrounded by grassy fields, the highway and this petrol station. There was no chance to catch a bus or train. I banked on this being one of those situations where the police were forced to give me the official line, but knew I was in an impossible position and so would turn a blind eye if I continued. I had no choice but to keep hitching. Just in case, I mentally rehearsed my defence. I decided to pretend their instruction got lost in translation.

During a five hour wait for my next lift two questions swam around my head “What the hell am I doing?” And “why don’t I just fly home?” Eventually a car pulled in and I was heading towards Genoa. On my route through Europe I have made lots of friends, I remembered I knew some in Genoa who I could call in on. The day after the night before started with a vicious hangover and perhaps I was not hitching enthusiastically enough but after another five hour wait at the port I still hadn’t found a ride. To my shame I cheated this time I took a short train ride to Turin, not far but I wasn’t waiting another day, I had to move on. The next day in Turin was the 1st of May or “workers day”. A procession paraded through the town. It was a curious mix of union members, protestors, communists, anti-capitalists and out and out anarchists. There was a party vibe as they made their way down the main streets. Towards the end of the parade I watched a girl, dressed as the pope, stand aloft a large truck waving majestically from a giant model vagina at the laughing crowd below.


I waited again for several hours by the roadside outside Turin. The traffic eventually thinned out and I realised I’d missed my opportunity for catching the rush hour. Every time someone made a hand gesture to signal that they were turning off or turning around I began to think “I don’t believe you”. Hitching in Italy I realised is near impossible. People eyed me up and then actually began to take aversive action! They drove in wide loops around me, perhaps worried that if they got too close I would use my telekinetic powers to force them to stop or that I would actually dive in through their windscreens. As I waited I noticed a large poster looming opposite me. It was an advert for Easyjet. Flights from Rome to Milan for just 22 Euro it boasted. What the hell am I doing? I kept thinking. After four hours finally a lift. He was a Swizz 6 foot 5 inch ex-basketball player on a nine hour mission from Rome to Lausanne to deliver coffee machines. More often than not hitching a lift is less a blag and more of a trade. My role in this instance was to keep the driver awake so we chatted away in broken English and French for several hours.


I debarked, thanked my driver and began again, hoping to find a lift over the French Italian border. People gawped and stared as if I were an ancient relic on display or the start of some alien invasion. Perhaps they were looking for clues as to where I had concealed my axe. What’s more it was a Sunday and most of the cars were full of families with no spare seats. I prayed for VW vans and old hippies, but none came. I was losing my faith in humanity. People I decided were either paranoid or selfish or both. I was entering that hitcher’s vicious circle. The more I waited the more miserable I became, the more miserable I became the more miserable I began to look and the more miserable I began to look the less chance I had of getting a lift and the more I waited. Yet again I wondered why I was making life so difficult for myself.

Eventually a car stopped to take me across the border to France. In my mind this represented the Promised Land, a veritable hitcher’s paradise, and as it turned out France did prove to be easier than Italy. Men and women often stopped to give me a ride and then from outside Lyon another lucky break, a lift all the way to Normandy. I would probably be back in Blighty before midnight I realised. The swarthy, tumultuous sky opened up and it began to rain. I knew England must be close. Rain is never a good omen for the hitcher. You might expect that a dejected hitch-hiker clutching a sodden cardboard sign saying something like “M1 north” might inspire a smidge of sympathy in your fellow man but in reality people just don’t want the inside of their precious cars to get wet. Luckily there was a brief respite from the rain between lifts.


After the ferry crossing from Le Havre to Portsmouth I decided a train would be the sensible option as it was already dark and I thought my chances of getting a lift poor. But I decided to give hitching one quick last shot. Within ten minutes a truck driver stopped and offered me a lift to my mum’s front door in Oxford. He had a thick Yorkshire accent. When I asked if he’ll be watching the world cup on tele he replied “Maybe I will when one of them footballers comes to watch me drive my lorry”. Although not exactly glad to be home, his answer made me not too miserable about it either. On the way to Oxford I watched a film on the small TV he had in the cab and finally reached my destination, ten days after setting out from Istanbul.

I’ve returned home to deadlines and to-do lists and dates have already started to accumulate in my diary. But I am trying hard to avoid anything resembling my old life. I don’t want to feel that I’m moving backwards. I will return to Istanbul, probably towards the start of August, after England win the world cup. Thank you to the 23 drivers who stopped, took me in and helped me out. Thank you as well to everyone who has sponsored my mini-adventure home, and if you haven’t you still can, now that I have completed the hitch, by visiting my sponsorship page.

Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard


Despite contending with mountains and ice I have hugely enjoyed the thirty three days I spent cycling through France. It was a privilege to cycle through the big alpine landscape and the Champagne countryside but more than anything I am grateful for the goodwill and hospitality of the French people. I am grateful to the people who took me, fed me and gave me a bed for the night on three separate occasions and to the strangers who bought me breakfast in cafes twice. I am grateful to the man who saw me cycling and insisted that I take ten euros to buy myself a coffee and some food. I am grateful to the supermarkets for stocking 1 litre bottles of coconut flavoured Yops. I am grateful to whoever decided to build tunnels under the Alps when I was tired of cycling over them. I am grateful for all the bike lanes (France has many) and to the French drivers who often gave me so much space that I feared I would be unwittingly responsible for a collision between them and a vehicle coming the other direction. I am grateful to the farmer who found me rough camping in his field the morning after a storm and instead of chasing me off his land with a shotgun gave me an understanding nod and a smile. Finally I am grateful to the French Alps and The Jura for teaching me to man up and for making the next leg comparatively easy. In fact the only thing I am ungrateful for is that scrappy mongrel who gave chase and very nearly sunk his teeth into my left ankle near Nice. You are a disgrace to your country. Vive la France!

After a brief visit to Monaco I crossed the border and arrived in Italy to a very Italian welcome. It was carnival season and soon after crossing the border a festival procession passed by with children on floats wearing an array of different costumes. Whilst waiting at the traffic lights and watching the display a young Italian girl threw a full bucket of confetti over my head. I cycled off chuckling and haemorrhaging confetti in my wake. In Switzerland I heard the locals describe the French as a little “chaotic”. I wonder which adjective they would choose to describe the Italian mentality. I cycled past cars at jaunty angles in Italian town centres, less parked and more abondoned with hazards flashing and as I approached Italian cities the apparent distance to my destination would intermittently rise and fall according to which road signs you chose to believe.

I had to rest in Genoa. There was no getting away from it. The hills and cold had taken its toll on my body, or more likely my student days of hedonism and indulgence which had spilled over into my postgraduate life had led to some serious deconditioning. This, I realised, would take a while to reverse. In any case I have lost almost 10% of my body weight in the last two months despite a voracious appetite. To ensure my weight plateaus I have introduced a new meal into my daily routine and “Middle breakfast” will now take place between breakfast 1 and breakfast 2. Twice I have wondered which component of my bike was clicking only to realise the sound was emanating from my left knee. This then proceeded to become painful and swollen. My back has been giving me the occasional spasm and I have some tendonitis in my hands due to clutching too hard to my handlebars. I took heed of my accident and emergency acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and put my feet up in Genoa for a few days before pushing on. My plan was to take off into Cinque Terre; a strange rugged coastal landscape with terraces spread over steep hills. My Lonely Planet guide to Cycling Italy described the riding as “demanding”. I naively shrugged this off forgetting that whilst I might be on a world tour as opposed to the average LP reader, I have a fully loaded touring bike and a dodgy left knee. But reinforced with cappuccino, cold pizza and a tubigrip I felt up to the challenge, at least mentally.


A rouge glow at dawn heralded the change coming my direction. The weather turned and it was my fault. I had commented to a friend the previous night that since reaching the coast I had been lucky with the weather. Hex number one. Then foolishly I believed the forecast on the BBC weather website and should have known better. The sullen murk descended and I was robbed of the views that I had worked so hard to enjoy, but every so often the grey veil lifted to reveal a glimpse of the landscape below. The road snaked towards and away from the coastline in a series of sharp chicanes. With an offshore breeze this gave the strange sensation of slowly fighting a headwind on the descents followed by exuberant sprightly climbs uphill with the aid of a tailwind. But things were about to get even steeper. I had saved money on my map of Northern Italy and mine gave little information about the altitude although I was in little doubt as to what lay in store. All the signs were there. The road I had started on was a series of S shaped curves on my map and I saw a sign stating that the road was open but that coaches were not allowed to proceed. I noticed young Italians passing me in four wheel drives with skis and snowboards strapped to the roof racks. Worryingly I also realised that even those Lycra-clad hill junkies of the coast were nowhere to be seen.

I began the thirty five kilometres of almost continuous uphill climbing and by lunch had reached the pass, cycling from roughly sea level to 1200 metres and back into the snow zone. My knee was complaining but I felt exhilarated and glad for the challenge and the change. The Riviera had felt crowded and claustrophobic with little countryside and I had been yearning for some wide open spaces. A group of Italian men bought me a glass of wine at the top of the pass. “Fantastico!”, pat on the back and I plunged down the other side to the pancake flat terrain of the Po river delta and on to Venice.

Cycling in Italy is a competitive sport and the common questions I had got used to “where have you come from?” and “where are you going?” were replaced with “how many kilometres have you done today?” from the Italian cyclists, invariably male. I enjoyed the Italian sense of humour as much as the landscape. Whilst friends in England have compared my new bearded look as akin to that of a Morris Dancer, Italians commented on my hairy visage by putting an arm around my shoulder, grinning and saying “hello homeless man!”. Whilst in Italy I also briefly appeared in the local newspaper in Ferrara, Italy’s “City for cyclists”. I was described as “The Real Forest Gump”. In a town near Ferrara a street gang of elderly Italian men stopped me in the street to comment on my shortcomings of bicycle maintenance.

“You need to oil your chain”.
“I know, thanks”
“Your saddle is too high”
“I think its OK”
“When you come home you will have huge ass”
The gentleman then pranced around with his hands held out behind him to mimic my grossly engorged buttocks. His posse roared with laughter.

The ride from Venice to Trieste was complicated by torrential rain which persistently without cessation for three days and nights whilst I cycled and rough camped at petrol stations, staying clear of the swollen rivers. Many times as I cycle I sing. This is not a habit I had at home and for good reason. The more horizontal the rain and the more punishing the headwind the sunnier my songs become. On the third day I had bashed out an assortment of reggae classics and I was launching into “in the summertime” by Mungo Jerry when I spotted a hunched figure walking through the aerial onslaught in the road ahead. Poncho, beard, pack, a look of resolve. An adventurer. As I greeted him he turned towards me and his face lit up.

“You’re are the first travelling man I have seen in two months” he said with a French accent
“Where are you walking to?”
“I walk to Mongolia!” He announced.

After establishing we were on equally preposterous missions we took some time to share food, tea, stories of alpine cold and tips on how to live cheap on the road. Mateo is a French sculptor and as he walks he leaves cairns along his route. I hopped off my bike and walked with him for fifteen kilometres through the night. We camped together in the park before parting ways the following day. I admired his pluck and his ambition but also his resourcefulness. On his year and half march across the Eurasian landmass he gets by on very little by cooking on open fires and resolving to never spend money on accommodation. “There is always somewhere to sleep” he told me. He had no map but simply walked towards the rising sun in the morning and followed his compass bearing east through the day. This is his blog, in French but with good photos of his work.


Croatian drivers are faster than the Italians. This is a significant statement. In Italy I had begun to suspect someone was putting amphetamines in the Foccacia. As I cycled down the Adriatic coast cars and motorbikes whizzed by and I tried not to look at the roadside memorials, most for young Croatians and many I suspected had died on the road. The fierce weather continued to slow my progress but the rust coloured rock of northern Croatia looked spectacular in the wet. Whenever the sun came out I converted my bike to a rolling drying rack, clothes flapping in the breeze. A cycling rag and bone man. I knew that soon there would be no more putting on wet socks in the morning. Friends were waiting near Zadar with curry, beer, a bed and means to wash and dry the sodden conglomerate mass of fabric that used to represent my clothes.


I said goodbye and set off but again the recurring theme of my journey showed its teeth. As I rode through the hills I saw a flash in the distance. Sheet lightning. Soon I was in the midst of the storm. I had seen electrical storms of this intensity only once before in India. Forks of lightning were visible every ten seconds and I saw one hit the ground perhaps only two kilometres from my location. Milliseconds separated the spark and the boom. In the hills I was exposed and vulnerable. I sought refuge at a small cafe and ate Jaffa cakes whilst I watched for two hours as storm after storm rolled in and lightning lit up the horizon in almost every direction as I looked on. The next morning began with crimson patches of light scintillating over the eastern sky and the new day was a stark contrast to the one before. Sun, sea and the winter tranquility of the Adriatic coastline conspired to make this the best cycling of my trip so far. I coasted south over gentle undulations with the help of a slight tailwind. By nightfall I had covered 160 km. My front light wasn’t working but with little traffic and a full moon I continued into the night, exhilarated and high on endorphins. I reached Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, on the last day of February. Time to kill with another friend, time to rest my knee and time to explore the nearby island national park of Mljet.





I leave Western Europe behind with my budget in tatters and hoping to gain some fiscal control in the cheaper and beautiful Balkan lands ahead. Tomorrow I start on my way to the next stopping point, the European capital of culture and the end of continent number one… Istanbul.


Random statistics from my journey so far…

Distance cycled: 3470 km
Top speed: 67.1 km/hr (The Approach to Gap, Les Alpes)
Countries travelled through: 8
Nights I have paid for accommodation: 9 / 58
Most amount of Milka consumed in one sitting: 450g


Lesson one

LESSON ONE: When it’s cold outside… put your gloves in your sleeping bag at night time.

I had been awake most of the night and I was wearing almost everything I owned. The thermometer on my Kestral weather metre had recorded a low of -19°C during the early hours and I had never experienced anything this cold. Although I admit I had enjoyed the looks of incredulity on the faces of the French drivers the preceding evening as they watched me erect my tent in thick snow at 1800 metres, it was undoubtedly not the greatest idea to begin my journey over the Alps in mid-winter. But almost as painful and frustrating as the cold was the question repeatedly posed by people I’ve met en route… “and why did you decide to leave during the winter?”

I’d like to say it was because I relish a challenge, that it was all part of the plan, perhaps a calculated decision in order to avoid even harsher climes further on in my journey. The mundane truth is that it’s just when everything came together and I was ready to leave.

I slowly eased out of an ice covered sleeping bag as the sun rose, almost everything inside my tent gleamed with a frosty coating. My gloves had also succombed to this fate and were rock solid. Unwearable. I had filled up my water bottle the night before and the expanding ice had ruptured the solid metal of the container. I began the long process of packing and taking down my tent amidst the freeze. Without gloves.

I cursed a lot. The metal of the tent pegs and poles stuck to my hands. I tried to improvise gloves with other items of clothing but nothing I tried enabled me to use my fingers well enough to deconstruct my shelter. I had to blow on both the tent poles in order to separate the links between them and then on my hands to keep them warm and this I was doing now every fifteen seconds. By the end of the ordeal I was unable even to roll my tent up to get it into the bag so I stubbornly stuffed it unpacked under the bungees on the back of my bike and cycled off slowly with guy ropes trailing behind me and praying for some uphill riding to alleviate the pain of the cold. The saliva that had accumulated around my mouth from blowing on my hands turned to ice within a couple of minutes and I had ice crystals in my beard. The honks of encouragement from French drivers that I had greated with a smile and a wave yesterday now felt like taunts.

That evening I eagerly clambered off my bike and entered a roadside cafe. I looked dispairingly into my coffee but allowed myself a small moment of self-congratulation. It had been tough yes, but I’d stuck to the game plan. At least by rough camping I’d saved the thirty euro it would have cost to stay in a hotel. As I re-lived the mornings events in my memory I remembered that in my haste to get cycling I had left my tent pegs behind on that mountainside. I picked some more up in the next town. They cost thirty euros.

I thanked the lady who had served me my coffee and turned to leave. “Did you travel from England by biycle?”
“Yes”
“And you’ve been camping?”
“I have”
“So why did you decide to leave in the winter?”

So I’ve had my rant and moan. In my first post I think I even embellished to the point of comparing Western Europe to Arctic tundra. I’m just not built for the cold. My hands turn purple with just the slightest nip in the air. But being an eternal optimist I thought I’d try and come up with ten reasons why its fun, ney even better, to cycle during the winter…

1. Misty valleys. Shortly after the sun rises and you’re cycling through the hills, mist sitting low in the valley can be an awe inspiring sight.
2. You’re living in a fridge. Ham, cheese, chicken, they can all be eaten a week down the line without the fear of explosive gastroenteritis.
3. Hotels always have rooms and campsites are closed (and therefore free, albeit without facilities).
4. You dont share the road with hundreds of other tourists or cyclists. The sunset is all yours.
5. There is no need for the courtesy two metre gap between you and the hostel owner when you arrive caked in summer sweat and exuding the scent of a decomposing skunk carcass.
6. There are less winged nasties to sting and bite you as you ride.
7. No need for suncream or sandals or sun hats (I know, I’m reaching).
8. OK I failed to make the ten. Please add your suggestions below. But this one’s a classic and the clincher… “fun doesnt have to be fun”.

After my alpine “fun” I pushed on towards the Riveria. The transition from one climate to another was abrupt and monolithic. It was as if as soon I exited the 330 metre long tunnel under the Alps north of Nice I was suddenly rolling through valleys of palm trees, lemon trees and succulents. I realised that it was the first time since the day I started on my journey from London that I wasn’t able to see snow on the ground. I followed the Var river into Nice, the sun in the southern sky illuminated the valley and I cycled to the coast where it was nineteen degrees the right side of zero. I’m currently resting in Genoa before some easier riding across northern Italy and then it’s down the Adriatic coast before pushing east towards Istanbul.

The beginning…



This will be my first blog post from the road and for those who were concerned confirmation that I did indeed survive the cold snap.

It was great to see so many mates at my send off on the 5th of January at St Thomas’ Hospital. It warmed my heart. The warm feeling didnt last long. As the coldest winter in almost 30 years descended on the UK I pedalled off on my trusty steed Belinda.

As I cycled out of London, a bit emotional I admit, I glanced upwards to see this sign. It must be an omen. Soon afterwards my first hurdle. Leaving Dartford… a puncture. On closer examination a three inch nail had penetrated my brand spanking new top of the range Kevlar reinforced back tyre. You can’t plan for everything.

The following day the snow began to fall and by the late afternoon three inches had settled on top of each pannier. I cycled past abandoned cars and the air reeked of burning rubber as vans and lorries tried to ascend inclines on the ice. By 7pm I still hadnt found anywhere to spend the night after turning my nose up at two roadside Premier Inns, a night in which would equal my entire weeks budget. It was late. I was getting progressively colder. No pub I passed offered accomodation and there was nowhere to camp. I stopped to ask a passing couple in Sittingbourne. I explained my predicament and five minutes later I was sitting on the couch, mug of tea in hand and the promise of a bed for the night. A kind act from total strangers and in miserable England as well.


The next day came with the biggest challenge yet. Frostbite? No. Exposure? No. This was far worse. The children of Kent. Across the county over 200 schools had closed because of the snow. Manic hoards of kids were running wild and hurling snowballs at anything mobile. This was not the occasional cheeky chuck in my direction. This was more akin to a military operation. They flanked bridges and underpasses and fired at will and without restraint. Occasionally an arial bombardment rained down from bridges over the A2. I wasn’t just a good target, I was the ultimate prize. Kids would immediately turn their attention from passing lorries to me. With little physical preparation for the trip and with four heavy panniers I was a large slow moving and exposed target. There was little escape from the onslaught and I was ambushed frequently from Dartford to Dover. Unusually on one occasion a group asked permission to throw snowballs at me. I cycled a fair distance past and then turned to shout “Yes” before pedalling off. I turned the next corner to be confronted by an steep ascent. Behind me I could hear them gaining and letting out hysterical shreaks. “He said YES!”, “Get him in the face!”.


After drying off I arrived at Dover. The woman operating the barrier for access to the ferry declared that it was a bit temperamental. “Just like my wife” remarked a passing lorry driver. I was going to miss England. On the ferry to Calais I prayed that I would encounter the same kindness and generosity as I had in Sittingbourne but also that children on the continent would be more forgiving. Still the snow fell as I made my way south to Paris, the coastal route resembling more arctic tundra than Western Europe. After a brief rest in the capital I moved on again, edging east through the Champagne region.



Whilst cycling through the countryside outside Troyes a small foxhound saw me cycle by and gave chase. Initially I felt nervous and quickened my pace, forever edgy when I see dogs after my experience of South American canines. But he didnt look aggressive. Perhaps he’s after the food on my bike, I reasoned, so after a while I threw him some ham from my pannier. He continued without hesitation. Five miles later, with the dog still trotting next to my back wheel, I came across this sign (see left). Soon after the little guy was called back to the hunt. Perhaps he confused my bike with a horse.


I had forgotton exactly how life on a bike can be. A bit older now I have a few fleeting aches and pains, absent when I was a young un, but my gastronomic obsession has returned. A day in the saddle can make you obsess about food. I even dream of it. Those who know me well will vouch for my chocolate addiction… up until now kept in check only by virtue of working sixty hour weeks in the NHS. Now unchecked and fuelled by my new active lifestyle I am in hyperglycaemic freefall. France, with a Patisserie on every street corner, is my nirvana. If you locked me in a room of a million Yorkies I would surely gorge myself to a chocolatey death.


I’ve already gone through a set of front brake blocks (two weeks… how did that happen?) but otherwise Belinda is holding up nicely. After thawing out in Besancon I leave today on a six day ride through the Jura mountain range before hitting Switzerland. I am running out of the handwarmers provided by my mum for Christmas… undeniably the best bit of kit I have discovered to date, but I’m loving life on the road and this will be the first post of many as I continue across continent number one and ever nearer the next obstacle… Les Alpes.

STATS so far…

Distance cycled – 950 km
Punctures – 1
Got lost – 3 times
Kg of chocolate consumed – incalcuable

For my current(ish) location and to see where I have spent each night see the map above (there is usually some lag). There are more photos on Flickr (cyclingthe6).