Return to Europe

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My head was swimming. Having not slept in 24 hours I was unable to think clearly. In my sleep deprived state it took a couple of hours to build my bike in Madrid’s sterile airport. With the price for a cab set at thirty Euro’s I was happy to take my time, However I was dreading the ride into the city center. The thought of rush hour in Spain’s capital made my numb brain anxious. So I was both surprised and pleased to find the city’s streets peaceful and quiet. Not for a lack of people but simply because it was so much calmer and more organised than the hectic roads of South America which I was used to.

After a couple of days in Madrid I flew to Budapest for my brother’s wedding. Three weeks passed in a blur but it was wonderful to spend time with Dan, his wife and my rambunctious little niece who never sat still for one moment (I guess that’s karma Dan!).

Dan's Wedding

The Best Man (photo by Nicole Baker)

Leaving Madrid at the beginning of June it did occur to me that I could just cycle south (rather than north) and end up in Africa. Though tempting, I managed to resist this urge to escape ‘normality’ for a little longer and instead began pedalling north across Spain with London finally in my sights.

While in South America I often longed for certain types of food I was not able to procure. Though delicious rice, beans and meat can only be cooked in so many ways and thus eaten so many times. So I found it ironic that on my return to Europe I was generally unable to buy the things I had craved due to prohibitive prices. Pasta and rice remained firmly on my menu while for lunch cheese sandwiches replaced the ubiquitous $2/3 ‘menu de la dia’ (menu of the day).

At lunch time I would sit in the shade eating and marvel at the differences between Europe and South America: silky smooth roads, drinking water from the taps, the orderly calm, the absence of rubbish and stray dogs. While the efficiency and availability of things made life easier I really missed the vibrancy, colour and exuberance of life in Latin America. For just the second time on my trip I was suffering with culture shock, re-adapting to the western world.

The long warm days back in Europe through verdant Spanish countryside and picturesque villages were what cycle touring is all about. Sixteen hours of sunlight provided me with plenty of time to ride but also to rest during the hottest hours of the day. Even if it took a while to assimilate back into European culture it took little time to adapt back to my routine of cycling, washing in rivers and sleeping under the stars in fields, forests and orchards.

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Segovia cathedral

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Abundant drinking water in Spain

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A week after setting off from Madrid I began to climb into the Pyrenees. My route home through Europe was not a direct one. Aware that I am unlikely to make another long journey for a little while I wanted to make the most of it. I cycled up & down mountains through perfect green pine forests & beside cool blue rivers until eventually I arrived in France.

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French village in the Pyrenees

French village in the Pyrenees

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For the first time in over a year I left the Spanish speaking world. I had not really considered the impact this would have but it was dramatic. Once again communication became a struggle. Not like it had been in China but it still made everything a little harder.

Enjoying the mountains and getting the strength back in my legs I began taking on famous Tour de France passes. The Col d’Aubisque, d’Aspin and de Peyresourde passed under my wheels. I then headed over the Col d’Portillion and back into Spain where I bumped into Ben an amicable Aussie. We cycled together for a couple of days sharing the highs and lows of the road. We stayed with a local family in an incredible stone village before tackling the highest pass in the Pyrenees by crossing Andorra back into France after which we went our separate ways.

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Col d’Aubisque

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Col d’Aspin

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Next I had to cross the South of France to get to Nice. There I would meet a friend who was to join me for a week in the Alps. I was pleased to stumble across the Canal du Midi where I spent two days riding a quiet track beside the canal. The ride was flat and pretty and the canal offered me an opportunity to cool off and wash. Keen to avoid the major cities on the south coast of France I instead opted to ride through the Luberon and Verdon Natural Parks which were stunningly beautiful and offered great camping opportunities.

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Canal du Midi

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It’s interesting how my choice of route has changed over the course of this journey. Andy and I began by ploughing down main roads in search of miles. Sometimes this is a necessary evil but I have come to think that by far the best experience is gained taking small roads and if possible dirt or gravel roads. Everything about these routes is better. The obvious benefit is much lower volumes of traffic, travelling slower. Also the fact that as they are more remote usually means more beautiful scenery. This naturally provides more and better opportunities for camping. Furthermore in these rural areas people tend to be friendlier, more inclined to engage with you and more willing to help if you need it (countryside vs. city syndrome). As such the entire experience of traveling these routes is different and in my opinion generally much better (if slower, but is that really such a bad thing?). It’s much easier to find dirt roads in the developing world but there are some tracks and trails in Europe.

As this expedition draws to a close I’m aware that my life is on the cusp of significant change. I will leave a life that I have come to know and understand and return to one I no longer do. Others that have gone on long journeys talk about suffering with post-trip depression and the difficulty of adapting back to ‘normal’ life. Perhaps I am just foolishly optimistic but at the moment this does not worry me. The journey must end at some point and it feels like the right time. The longer you spend away the more the things that used to amaze you seem normal. Don’t get me wrong I still have plenty of wanderlust and will begin planning new adventures. I will sorely miss the freedom and unpredictability of the open road but deep down I know this can’t continue forever. If I began this journey to undertake a great challenge then ironically perhaps my greatest challenges lay ahead finding meaningful work, a home and perhaps even a girlfriend (a shower should help my cause). Furthermore I’m confident that I can find regular nuggets of adventure even whilst working. So far from being sad I am excited by and trying to focus on the opportunities that lay ahead.

“Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened” Dr Seuss

In Sospel, just north of Nice I met Emily. An old friend and outdoor fanatic, she jumped at the chance of joining me for a week in the Alps even though she had never toured before. We agreed on the highest and most challenging route we could find, running alongside the border with Italy. For the first few days we were blessed with good weather and on the Col de Vars we had a stunning 30 °C day with clear blue skies to enjoy the magnificent scenery. However as we headed further north towards the bigger peaks the clouds gathered and some unseasonal storms rolled in.

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Col d’Braus

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Emily – The Champagne Gypsy

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Col de Turini

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Col de la Bonnete

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Col de Vars

Col de Vars

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As we approached the Col de L’iseran – the highest pass in the Alps – rain, snow and icy winds kept us company. The views would have been worth the struggle but higher up the rugged landscape was obscured by the fog. On top at 2,770 meters it was freezing so we dived inside the restaurant for a 4 Euro drink of hot chocolate and to layer up for the ride down. The descent was harder than the climb. On the way down I could barely see a thing through the rain and the fog added to which my brakes were barely working. My hands and feet were numb with cold and I had to stop regularly to revive the feeling in my fingers.

After what felt like a very long time we made it down to the ski town of Val d’Isere. Shivering and numb we knew we had to get somewhere warm quickly. Eventually we found a creperie that was open. We stumbled inside looking like homeless drug addicts. We hobbled over to a table at the back of the restaurant as the staff eyed us cautiously. We immediately began totake off our sodden clothes to hang them on chairs and rails to dry. We took the plastic bags off our feet and Emily took the paper out that she had put inside her jacket for insulation. A waitress cautiously approached the table and asked if we would like to order but when you are truly cold it affects your ability to think and to speak. So as I mumbled incoherently at the woman Emily shouted out “schnapps”. The confused waitress retreated but duly returned with two shots which we gratefully downed.

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Hobos

After hot food and drinks our bodies began to function normally again and we returned to the road to make the rest of the descent. In the valley we cooked up a huge dinner and washed it down with a nice bottle of red wine. This was Emily’s farewell dinner. The week had flown by and I had really enjoyed sharing the road with her. I was sad to say goodbye. Now just 1,000 miles lay between me and London.

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