Category Archives: camping

Pedaling with Ghosts in the Normandy Rain: Isigny-sur-Mer to Bayeux

Thursday 27 August 2015 (Day 95 of my midlife gap-year)

9:15 am, Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer, France: Rain Rain Go Away

I slept until 9 and it’s raining again.

At 7 the church bells were pretty insistent on waking everyone. I’m surprised I fell back to sleep. If I’d gotten up at 7, I might have packed away a dry tent. Now, and since just as I woke, there is a steady pitter-patter. Riding in this sort of rain is not too terrible but I’m growing weary of it, as a constant companion.

Rainy view from a tent door.
Blech – I don’t wanna go to school today, ma.

I’d like to get to Bayeux today – but that’ll be hard if I just sit here in the rain. Hard in the rain and with two cemetery stops. We’ll see. I don’t want to go out in the rain right now. I really don’t.

10:40 am – The Café at Camping Le Fanal: Still Raining and Feeling Sorry for Myself

Worst morning weather so far.

Who is Cool Kids by? No idea – it’s playing for the yoga class going on in here now.

It’s hard to make quiet my friend when there’s little quiet.

There’s noise and voices and people – but I haven’t the skills to talk to them. Simple … simple conversation doesn’t satisfy. The cuts come both ways – I’m in a cone of a monolinguistic silence or really muteness and the sort of conversation I crave is highly articulate – something erudite and clever.

Between the rain and the silence, I’m feeling sad. On the bicycle it’s fine because I can make quiet my friend. I can have my imagined conversations.

God, it’s miserable – just pissing down.

Maybe I should just pack up the wet tent and go anyway? It’s just rain. Sigh.

This place is making me sad.

Okay, I’m sure the radio announcers aren’t saying “Shitty FM” but that’s what it sounds like. Time to go.

3:50 pm – German War CemeteryMore Dignity Than Deserved?

As expected, this is a place of mixed feelings.

In the display – pictures of Nazi boys, maybe 17 years old, happily surrendering. For their peers lying here I feel sadness – too young to have agency. But the men buried here – maybe they didn’t ‘deserve to die’ – maybe they didn’t personally round up civilians (Jews and otherwise) and send them to their deaths. (Those who did – for them I will reserve “deserved to die”.) But I’m glad they are dead, all of these Nazi soldiers, in so far as they – or some of them – had to die to liberate France and ultimately the camps. And these boys and men – they have graves.

Nazi war graves in Normandy
More dignity than Nazis deserve?

I think of the concentration camp soil at the Holocaust Memorial in Paris. The soil on which the greasy human ashes of thousands fell – that’s the best we can do for those victims – here is some soil which may contain a smidge of DNA from whole families.

I don’t know that Nazis deserve the dignity of this cemetery – even if they were someone’s sons, brothers, etc. Jumbled in a nameless pit would be about right.

All that – and while looking at my bicycle noticing all the German bits – Schwalbe tyres, Abus locks, Ortlieb panniers.

I wrote in the book at the German cemetery: “They have the dignity of graves, their victims only ash.”

As I was leaving a tour bus full of retirement-age Germans arrived. So so weird. One fella wandered over to admire my bicycle – we tried to exchange a few words but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to do so. A real pity – we had common ground in my bicycle and I was deeply curious what had brought him here today. Is his father here? An uncle perhaps? How does this place feel for a 65-year-old German?

10:30 pm – Omaha Beach Campground: With Ghosts All Around

It rained more than it didn’t today – no clear spells until the usual one at, like, 8pm. The ride today was map reliant – gone were the good bicycle-centric road signs – but pretty straight forward and easy enough. All the fighting zones feel ghostie and blood soaked.

Pont du Hoc – where the US Army Rangers scaled a crazy cliff to take some German guns, is American run – so everything is in English first. And there are water fountains plus soap & hand driers in the toilets. Sorry, bathroom.

Pont du Hoc cliffs - scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cliffs – scaled on D-Day
Pont du Hoc cows grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops
Pont du Hoc sheep grazing in grassed over war-damaged clifftops

People look at the bike, at me, with a sort of admiration or envy or wonder but not like I’m nuts.

I was dead keen to find a hotel tonight but this campground appeared first, so here I am, night four under nylon and surrounded by the (mostly) French, which is good. As it should be – though tomorrow night I wouldn’t mind finding myself in a bar with fluent English-speakers.

(There’s a pair of hedgehogs making noises out there – they are snuffling around near my bicycle. There are also goats insecurely penned in what I’m calling an old German defence on the sea side of the campground. We are on the headland of the western end of Omaha Beach.)

I walked down to the beach tonight. And nearly wept. It was high tide – waves lapping into the break wall behind which the landing troops sought a little shelter. There’s a memorial – from the Army Reserve, I think. There’s also a hotel, a place to rent kayaks and paddle boards, people’s summer homes. Life goes on.

Selfie of middle-aged, short-haired woman on a pebbly beach with ocean and jetty
At Omaha Beach at sundown.

The French have gotten on with using these spaces for the living but don’t think for a moment they have forgotten about the dead. In all the rain I’ve taken few photos this week but had I they would show Normandy to be a place of slate-roofed, stone villages adorned with flowers and wind-whipped quartets of flags (those of France, Great Britain, Canada and the United States). Memorials and remembrances – official and private alike – abound.

It’s been a tough day – in the rain and the places I went, but good too. Always good.

I’m still reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and writing my own poem about reading his poems. I’ve nearly finished the book, the poem … still needs work.

Where:

The Western headland of Omaha Beach

Where a German bunker houses sheep

And the French enjoy their beach hols

Had I been on this spot on 6 June 1944

The sights would have haunted me into oblivion

Friday 28 August 2015 (Day 96), 8:15 am

Omaha Beach Campground: OMG Sun!

Oh, what is this golden burning ball in the sky which lights the world?

And where is my blanket of cloud?

The tent is damp with condensation and dew which sparkles in this strange morning light. May it last, may it last.

Yesterday I had Midnight Oil’s Blossom & Blood on the mind and Love & Rockets Ball of Confusion – riding through history can do that to you.

1pm – Normandy American Cemetery Visitors Centre: Beauty and Pain

There was a gaggle of French road cyclists hanging about when I arrived. One went to pee in the bush – really? I looked at him – I wish I had the French, but still I said, “There are no toilets? Nice way to show respect.”

I sighed entering.

It was noon and a bell was tolling the hour. Then a carillon played something really tacky – I think it was The Yanks are Coming.

And then in among the graves in the shining sunlight – all grandiose American Americaness.

So much loss. So much gained.
So much loss. So much gained.

The cemetery is profoundly beautiful, and I felt a deep sadness looking at this sea of graves – all these lives sacrificed – all those futures lost. I allowed the scattering of Stars of David to lead me through the graves – taking the time to read the names as I went. There was a quartet of markers which, I thought, said much: on the front right – Adolf Greenburg of California died 24 June 1944, behind him Edmond G. Sokolowski of Connecticut died 9 July 1944, to the left Vito Monticciolo of New Jersey died 2 August 1944 and in front of him “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms Known But to God”.

These were American boys, yes, and a reflection of the immigrant nation they came from – but, these were also descendants of Europe. Much is made of the idea of that the Americans came thousands of kilometres to help people they didn’t know – and there’s truth in that – but I’d put good money on none of those three Americans being more than two-generations removed from somewhere in the Yiddish homelands, Poland, and Italy. More than likely all three did know people, had relatives, who were suffering under the Fascists.

I will admit to feeling different for the Jewish boys and men here … they died, as Jews, fighting Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds I do hope most of them died with Nazi blood on their bayonets.

The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.
The landing beaches aka my route the past few days.

Looking for somewhere to eat my lunch I, strangely, found no provision for people to sit somewhere away from the graves. The signs even said no eating of food or picnicking anywhere – including the carpark – I ignored it, finding a bit of shaded grass next the parked coaches.

Another bus arrived disgorging a herd of Americans – tethered by earphones to their leader. I thought: I would rather stay home and watch travel docos than travel like that. I thought again of how I may cover less ground but see so much more.

I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.
I am not even on the same plane of existence as these people.

I thought about how motorized travel is mediated travel. They ride in their buses – sleeping against the window, emerging to a ‘place to visit’ having not experienced anything of the in-between.

They are barely here at all.

After my lunch (with a side of superiority), I left my sadness and thoughts of war and death at the cemetery gates and rode into the sunny afternoon with a relieved sigh. I thought the best way to honour those brave, crazy, ignorant, terrified boys and men was to enjoy this beautiful day with a light heart and a happy internal dialogue. I whistled and sang my way into Bayeux – greeting the cows as I went.

What a glorious afternoon for living.
What a glorious afternoon for living.
Map showing cycling route described in this post
My route (click to enlarge)
My route in context - see Paris in the lower right.
My route in context – see Paris in the lower right. (Click to enlarge)

To Ride is to Live: Jonville to Isigny-sur-Mer (Normandy, France)

Tuesday 25 August 2015 (Day 93 of my midlife gap-year)

9:25 am, Camping Municipal de Jonville

Today’s ride will bring me closer to the landing zones of D-Day – I’ll be following Utah Beach much of the day. This campground is filled with holidaying European families, including some German-speakers. There’s a dissonance in that.

Over a breakfast of pain au chocolates I’ve continued to read Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and write my poem about where I’ve read them.

Where:

And in the morning

With Irish tea and the crunch, chewy, (not too) sweet of ‘deux pain au chocolat’ from the bakery van.

Three blonde German-speaking children appear and I think: D-Day beaches – weird place for a German holiday.

It’s grey, windy, and cool but, for now, not raining.

11:35 am, St Vaast-la-Houge – To Ride is to Feel Alive

French stone village houses on a small wet street under a grey sky.
A village in Normandy – St Vaast-la-Houge

I’ve ridden 30 minutes in the wind and the rain. I’ve stopped to just get out of it for a bit.

Riding thoughts:

To ride is to feel alive – to really feel it in a way too often masked by all the modern comforts and easy-ways we’ve made for ourselves.

I feel my heart beating and my blood coursing and not in some sort of urban panic or frustration or some professional (or financial) anxiety. And not from some manufactured ‘exercise’- but from transporting myself and all I need from last night’s rest to tonight’s.

I experience the weather – feel the wind and the misty Atlantic rain gathering on my face until the weight of it brings it coursing toward my chin.

In a car – it’s like you’re playing a boring, frustrating, but dangerous video game. You’re watching TV. You’re sitting on your couch.

Driving is not living.

8:50 pm, Camping Baie des Veys – They are Not Forgotten Here

The rain kept my camera in the bag most of the day but with my mind on poetry and my emotions being stirred by how the past is vividly on display, everywhere, here – when I stopped to get out the rain I recorded this ridiculously overly earnest bit of spoken-word picture-making.  (The rain was also pretty loud so I was over-enunciating too boot.)

I saw a memorial disc on a house – as new as yesterday – commemorating it as the landing place of a particular officer from the 82nd Airborne on the morning of 6 June 1944 – something in French about the soil of France and the beginning of the liberation.

And I thought: You boys. You crazy, brave, ignorant, terrified boys. You are not forgotten here.

Memorial road sign for Sgt J. Z. Pritchett, killed in action 25 June 1944
They are not forgotten here.

The ride today – other than being (mostly) wet and (mostly) windy was beautiful. (Mostly) flat and (mostly) small quiet roads – not too much on dirt or gravel, and, generally, near the sea.

In a moment of sunshine, I came to my first German pillbox in a field of French cows.

(French cows, French milk, always make me think of this scene)

I stopped at the second pillbox I passed, to lean my bicycle and reorganise some. I didn’t want to touch that Nazi cement. Is that weird? Maybe. But I didn’t want to. So, I didn’t. My bike did but not me.

Fully-loaded touring bicycle leant against a Nazi pillbox in Normandy.
Nazi pillbox … I didn’t want to touch it.

l almost stopped at a farm camping ground but pushed on thinking I’d go all the way to Carentan but came to this campground with a restaurant and I was home.The steak and chips and beer for €12.60 and now a ½ litre of red wine – very happy. But there are two whingy noisy small children putting lie to the myth of well-behaved French children.

10:25 pm – Tent

In comparison to how we think of the WWII generation – we are miserable at collective action. The EARTH is becoming less hospitable to our species and we can’t agree to do something.

Where French General Leclerc and his 2e Division Blindee landed on 6 June 1944 (Utah Beach)
Where French General Leclerc and his 2e Division Blindee landed on 6 June 1944 (Utah Beach) – Wikipedia Link

1:45 am – Pee Break

I love the French devotion to the freshly baked. There was the boulangerie van at the campground this morning and here I was able to place an order tonight for two pain au raisin – available in the bar at 8:30 am.

Wednesday 26 August 2015 (Day 94)

 8:15 am – Tent

Where:

And in the tent in morning showers (waiting for a break so I can make my way to the loo)

Mild breezes bicker with the trees, small birds twitter. Here it smells of a Chinese tent factory and me. I will not be like ‘The Old Man’

9:00 am – Full of sweet French pastry and almost, but not quite, enough coffee.

I’ll ride to the next town and hope their tourist office can supply cycling information for the neighbouring province – where Omaha Beach is.

Where:

In here – warm with scent of Chinese tent factory and of myself – sleeping breath, yesterday’s riding clothes – of effort and life. I will not be like ‘The Old Man’

2:05 pm – Caratans: Waiting for Rain (Which Will Never End) to End

I’ve become a little stuck here. I stopped at the tourist office and found nothing for the next department. Then I got ham from the charcuterie and F(ruits) & V(eg) from the F&Vie to make my lunch on a bench in a spot of grass next to a car park. The post office, closed when I arrived in town, was open after I’d lunched so Rob’s birthday card, Jim’s and VAL’s postcard are finally on their way. When I came out it was piss-pissing. I retreated to the arcaded shops where the tourist office is for un café in hopes it will pass – lessen – or I’ll just get on with it.

People – hiding from the rain – keep stopping, lingering, to look at my bicycle – propped and locked outside. Still it rains.

Where:

In a pizzeria in Caratans – foolishly waiting for the Normandy rain to stop (as if it ever does). Having un café – a husky-mix under the next table. Interrupted by West End Girls to which I semi-consciously lip synch.

Simple memorials adorn a telegraph pole on a quiet country lane.
Simple memorials adorn a telegraph pole on a quiet country lane.

6:45 pm – Camping Le Fanal, Isigny-sur-Mer: I Make Quiet My Friend

Where:

Third night camping and four days of dialogues beginning, “Pardon, je non parlez francaise. Parlez vous ingles?’ I return to Samuri Song: When I had no friend I made quiet my friend.”

Perhaps it’s that in the quiet I’ve made a friend of Robert – that I fill the quiet with an inner monologue which is more interesting imagined as a dialogue? It is what it is – he’s the presence in my silence for now.

Not that I’m lonely – not too much anyway – okay – a little bit. I do wish I had internet and might find someone to chat with.

The SUN – THE SUN – fantastique!

The bloke in the tourist office said this much rain is unusual for August.

11:45 pm – Oppa

After two nights of wind and rain tonight the elements are silent but there is a thumping disco going here at the campground. And also, a complaining cow in a nearby field.

I ate dinner in the restaurant here – hopefully tomorrow night will be clear and I can cook. It’s hard when it keeps raining and there are no campers’ kitchens or even covered tables. Pizza & wine for €15 – €2 more than the campsite.

While I was eating some sort of entertainment began. I don’t know what it was – a game or maybe trivia. Kids and parents were being led by a loud, excitable woman with a microphone.

The music, the thumping, is fucking awful.

I think …

Oh wait, I think maybe, just maybe that’s Gangnam Style. Yup. Ha ha ha.

Oh, world you are funny.

Ah, there’s a slow song – promising for a midnight finish – oh, now it’s thumping again.

My first stop for the day tomorrow is the German war cemetery. That should be interesting – not sure what to expect.

How often must the keepers of this memorial return to refresh it?
How often must the keepers of this memorial return to refresh it?
The route.
The route.
Context
Context

Back On My Bicycle in France – Riding from Cherbourg to Jonville

Bonjour (again) France
Sunday 23 August (Day 91 of my midlife gap-year)
11:35 am , Cherbourg YHA: 

I woke to the ferry-wide announcement that we were soon arriving in Cherbourg. It was raining;  perhaps I wouldn’t start riding straight away after all.

A view of a rainy morning at sea taken from a cabin window.
Hmmm … rain again

Waiting for my passport to be stamped and returned to me, the driver of a car – also awaiting their passport – sought my attention. “Excuse me!” he said, “Yes?” I replied. “Are you from Australia?” The guy waiting for his passport was also Australian and as a huge Oils fan, noticed and loved the Head Injuries t-shirt I was wearing.

Pedalling off in the now heavy rain, my face was soon streaming with it but I spotted and was able to follow street signs to the local hostel.

Of course, now that I’m all settled in here, the weather has cleared so I best go have a look at Cherbourg.

1:00 pm – I’ve Been Attacked by A Giant Hungry Seagull

It’s Sunday and most shops are closed. I found an open bakery and got a Croque Monsieur which I was eating as I walked towards the city centre. I just sensed an approaching mass in my peripheral vision when – swoop, snap, flap-flap to land, and there, a few metres ahead of me, was an enormous seagull gulping down my sandwich. All I could do was laugh.

It’s weird, but good, being surrounded by French and being back in my monolinguist cone of silence. I feel like a traveller again. And, ah, yes, back in a land still full of smokers, sigh. But there is almost acceptable coffee available everywhere, so that’s good.

4:40 pm, in a Parc: From Here …. To a Liberated Europe

This morning’s rain has given way to warm, bright, sunshine and a cloudless blue sky.

It would have been a beautiful day for riding – but I’m glad I stayed. I’ve gotten useful information from the tourist office and visited the Liberation Museum. I hadn’t known that the choice of the D-Day beaches was driven by the desire to capture Cherbourg. The Allies needed a port, a good one. The Germans, of course, destroyed the port facilities and the Allies had to put an insane effort in to clear it and get it operational again. But when they did, it became a busier port than New York – then the busiest in the world. The liberation of Europe – on the Western Front, anyway, began right here with the troops and materials delivered through the Port of Cherbourg.

I am struck by the idea that it was from here – this secured port and the materials it could deliver to the front lines – that the beginning of the end of the Holocaust originated and that soon those who could hold out until the troops got to them would be, forever more, Survivors.

11:30 pm YHA Cherbourg: First day back in France Counts as a Good One

Middle aged, short-haired, glasses-wearing woman against a blue sky and the French flag.
Vive la France

It’s funny how a person can get in your head and settle in there. I’m reading Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems and I’m having a conversation with him, in my head, which he doesn’t know about. I guess that sort of happens whenever you read a book but, in this case, it’s made a bit more peculiar because I am having an email conversation with him. A chat, an email chat, not so much really a conversation.

I think it’s been a good day. I’m back on the Continent, and back – sort of – on the bike. Someone liked my Oils shirt, I had that weird seagull incident, and the weather cleared. Cherbourg is lovely. I learned stuff about WWII which I hadn’t known before. I didn’t spend much money and I fed myself dinner, and oh – got good info at the tourist office (Do you have … bicycle tour? Oh, of course, yes.) And this is the second night in a row where I expected to share a room but haven’t had to, which is nice.

Tomorrow: I RIDE AGAIN!

Stone French three-story house with flower boxes and a sign for Rue Grande Rue
Old Cherbourg, Rue Grande Rue
Modern apartment blocks with multi-coloured window dressings.
New Cherbourg – I liked how colourful the window dressings are.

2:00 am – Thoughts in a Wakeful Night

I can’t sleep. I don’t know if it was the tea with dinner, the excitement of riding again, or the little nap at 6:00 pm.

There are eucalyptus trees by the waterfront here. I plucked and crushed a leaf – the scent so strong. Home.

I’ve finished reading Jane Smiley’s Some Luck – which I enjoyed – but an e-book doesn’t give the satisfaction of closing the back cover.

It’s raining again – off and on.

In the parc this arvo there was a drug-fucked but friendly enough (not too friendly) French guy – who wanted me to take his photo (I didn’t) and later asked about my writing. I said I write about … stuff. Which is true. I wonder how these notebooks will read later.

They Sent Boys Such as This
Monday 24 August (Day 92)
8:25 am , Cherbourg YHA: 

I’ve just met young Quinn of Utah – recently studying in England. An email from Dad provided the details of Grandad’s service – he landed at Omaha Beach – so he’s come to look.

Grandad was probably no older (probably younger even) than Quinn when he landed on D-Day. Quinn chose the Coco Pops for breakfast and dipped his baguette in the left-over chocolate milk. Soft-spoken, soft-eyes, wheaten hair. It’s hard to imagine such a boy, such boys, retaking Europe from Hitler.

But they did.

1:10 pm – Le Vast: Feeling the Joy of Bicycle Touring (Again)

Sigh, it’s so good to be riding again! To feel my legs turning, hear the wheels on the road, smell the salt in the air.

I’m toying with writing a poem about reading Robert’s poetry. Why not? I mean what’s the point of being out here doing this if I don’t follow some random ideas.

I’m only about half way through Selected Poems but I have some ideas already.

Where I’ve Read Your Poetry

[First line of the first poem in the book]

Keeping one eye on the changing colours of Mount Leinster as the sun set on my last day in Ireland

On board the Oscar Wilde sailing from Rosslare to France and wondering ‘does he have a tattoo on his right shoulder?’

In Parc E. Linis after a drug-fucked and bruised, but happy, young man interrupted to ask what I was writing about. I said ‘stuff’

When I meant – Cherbourg, D-Day, the first day, finally, counting toward the day when the survivors would be freed to tell the truth of the horrors visited upon them (again)

In La Vast – at picnic, beside the river Saire, under menacing clouds. Riding again – joyous (or joyful). Poem with Refrains – dog eared as a favourite.

Heavy grey clouds blot the sky, but a small river courses through a sunlit green landscape.
The view from my picnic spot beside the River Saire

4:45 pm – Camping Municipal de Jonville: It’s Raining in Normandy (Of Course It Is)

My new tent is being put to a test straight away – it’s windy and raining off and on. It started showering with intent just as I got everything into the tent. So far so good – I’m dry and it hasn’t blown away but this being the first use I am a bit nervous.

I have to pee and I’d like to shower – so I’m hoping it will lessen soon. That’s how it seems to go here.

It’s a joy to be riding again. The day was mostly lovely – a little rain, a few hills, a bit more than a little unpaved and muddy/wet road. I rode through what strikes me as a very French landscape – familiar, perhaps, from war movies?

A white-stone French chateau reflected in a pond.
It could only be France, non?

It’s been exactly a month since my last riding day. On 24 July I rode 28.74 km from Laugharne to Tenby (Wales). Today it was 49.65 km and they felt pretty easy.

Where I read

Huddled, hunched and happy

In my new tent as wind shimmys the nylon

And Atlantic rain tap-dances (Jonville)

(Welcome back to riding: Tent cramp – right thigh, ow, fucking ow)

9:15 pm – A Sky of Fuchsia, A Navy Blue Horizon, a Dark Sapphire Sea

The rain has stopped. I went to the toilet, and on the western horizon below the clouds a burst of pink as close to the colour of my jacket, thongs (flip flops), and computer as I’ve seen – brilliant – a reminder that the sun is out there. I climbed a dune to get a better look at the sunset and at the sea as well. Heavy charcoal clouds remain, dropped to the sea. A smudge of navy-blue eyeliner marks the horizon – while the sea … what is that colour of blue? Dark sapphire perhaps.

Rain heavy sky over a deep green to dark blue sea.
The Atlantic Ocean from Camping Municipal de Jonville

Beautiful.

But hard not to think of Nazi German patrols and boys like Quinn’s grandfather coming to take it away from them.

12:40 am

Not only has the rain stopped and the wind relented but the sky is mostly clear. The Big Dipper – big and bold (it’s a plough in Ireland). And Orion – standing tall. I think we can see him in Australia – but he’s upside down.

Right now, I want the riding part of this journey to never end. To ride and camp or stay wherever day after day without destination or deadline. I feel like I’ve just kind of come to terms with a good pace and mindset. No worries about distance. Just ride. Of course, that’s especially easy on a well-marked route.

A fully-loaded touring bicycle leans against an age-wearied memorial cross in a small French village cross-roads, a signe reads: Village de la Croix Perrinot
A photo of near perfect happiness.

Wales: You Are Beautiful but Hard: 21 – 24 July 2015

21 July 2015 10:35 am, Cardiff

Cardiff makes me think of my ex-husband. It’s a Rugby place and a Doctor Who place. So it prods the scar tissue – tests the healing. I feel milliseconds of missing his friendship followed by doubts of the genuineness of that initial feeling. It reminds me of the swirling mess of thoughts and feelings I had in the weeks and months after we split. They are best left to lie.

I begin my exploration of the Welsh capital with an amazing exhibition at the National Museum.

Chalkie Davies is a Welsh photographer who was on the staff of both NME and The Face.  In the 1980s he put some of his work in a box, closed it, and waited to see how it would age. When the museum called to ask about staging an exhibition he opened that box.

These are glorious photographs of artists who are now symbols of their times but were then in their youth, in their prime.

P7211360 (2)

I walk to the pedestrianised centre of town. At the markets I sample Welsh Cakes – sort of sweet flat scones with dried fruit. Yet another yummy variation on flour, sugar and fat. I get lunch and notice many at neighbouring tables are just having hot chips as their meal – big baskets of them, topped with things, and eaten with little forks.

I pop into the city’s Cardiff Story exhibition – a telling of the history of the city through photos and mementos of citizens. Included was a “baseball bat” which looked a lot like a cricket bat to me. I’ve since looked up Welsh Baseball and it is a curious thing. Descended from rounders but codified as baseball in 1892.

It’s a lot like cricket: teams of 11, games played in two innings, runs are scored when a batter reaches a base and another as s/he reaches each subsequent base, an over-the-boundry hit is good for four runs, the field radiates from the hitting position (no foul territory). But like baseball it’s played on a diamond – albeit a smaller one. Unlike either baseball or cricket the “bases” are marked by poles. Strange … the things you learn while travelling.

I walk a long way to Cardiff Bay to gaze at the Millenium Centre and pretend to look for a rift in time then I do the most touristy thing of the whole journey so far – pay a crazy £18 for the Doctor Who Experience.

P7211364

It begins with a ridiculous children’s “adventure with the Doctor” led by a woman acting out her part to luke-warm audience participation. When I was a kid I watched some Doctor Who with my nerdy-in-a-good-way older brother – I wasn’t devoted to it but I did like it, this was in the days of Tom Baker and Peter Davison.  My now-ex-husband was a much bigger fan and when the re-boot was launched in 2005 we tuned in from the beginning.

I loved Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor – he brought a darkness to the role I really liked. The Doctor as a lonely survivor, powerful, sometimes vengeful, softened by human companionship and his special relationship with Earth. I loved David Tennant’s Doctor, too – he added a cheekiness and a difficult emotional connection with his human companions but still had a bit of the darkness, or, with him, maybe sadness. Or the stories did. Is there anything creepier than Blink (the Weeping Angels episode) or The Empty Child (“Are you my mummy?”)

Once Russell T. Davies ceased to write and produce the show, and David Tennant left, I think the show descended into family-friendly safety. It bores and depresses me. But the shift has made the thing a massive universal success and thus The Doctor Who Experience.

I, frankly, would have paid extra to skip the “adventure” and just get to the exhibition which is very cool to visit (though I think they could make it even better with the addition of more audio/video – interviews with cast and crew would be great). But: Tardises! K9! Several Tardis consoles! Costumes! The Face of Bol!

Nerding out and a bit embarrassed about it.

P7211370 (2)
Are you sensing my slight ambivalence? It was good, but expensive, and so geeky. And fun.

P7211366

A Tardis Console!

P7211375 (2)
Dr Who Costumes!
P7211374
The Face of Bol! And others!

Wednesday 22 July 2015 7:30 am

I don’t want to. It’s raining. Right now I wish I could skip ahead to arriving at Cornelia’s place in Ireland.

I know it’ll be fine. But the weather invites lying in. Reading. Sitting still.

The French family has offered me a lift to near Swansea and I think I’ll accept. If it’s still raining when I get there I might just roll into town and find a room. Sigh.

9:15 pm – Tanylan Farm Holidays Campground outside Kidwelly (Gydweli)

After my whinging start, it was a lovely day’s riding.

P7221416

And I hit another milestone: 2000 kilometres!

P7221418 (2)

The French family (Antoine, Isabelle, Gabriel and ____ – something I just can’t catch) and I cycled out together from Gowerton and are still together. It was a flat, quiet – almost entirely off-road – ride. We mostly followed an estuary of the Carmathen Bay, we rode through wetlands, and skirted Llanelli – where we lunched in the lee of an information centre/café/toilets next to a beach.

We rode through the Pembray Forest and stopped to climb a dune with a sweeping 180* bay view.  White horses in close formations galloping in – low tide – the sea was some 200 + metres away. A cyclist on the beach in the distance. A kite-flyer.  Leaving the forest, we emerged into open pastureland with cows, it was lovely.

P7221423 (2)

Then Kidwelly – home to a castle, many take-aways (kebabs, Indian, Chinese, fish & chips), a couple of pubs, and a small Spar grocery store with sad vegetables. But friendly helpful people with lovely Welsh accents directed us toward the campground.

It was nice riding with people. They assure me they are happy to have me ride along with them as we’re going the same way at a similar pace.

P7221424 (2)

11:30 pm

Just near us … a family arrived after us to their campervan. This park has a lot of simple onsite vans with extender type set ups, obviously owned by individuals as their holiday homes.

It feels very working class. The family group next to us includes a pile of children: Tommy in footy boots, Luca who seems a bit albino, another boy in glasses – all of them sort of 4-6. And a toddling girl.

When I just got up to go to the toilet I thought I might have stumbled over their bodies – fallen where they were – having finally exhausted themselves of running around and screaming. But the adults seem to have collected them up. I think there may be nearly 10 people between caravan and extender there. But some of the kids may come from elsewhere in the park.

When we pedalled into the park – a chatty red-faced blonde girl, maybe 7, asked where we’d come from then she stared gape-mouthed as I answered. The accent – my accent – I think was too alien for her.

It’s really, again, so very English – fitting all sorts of stereotypes of English working class holidays … a caravan park by a Welsh beach. While we were putting the tents up the Mr Whippy van came through playing … of course “Greensleeves”.

Some of the vans are strung with Christmas lights. It reminds me of home – this culture of caravanning summer holidays at the beach has been transported wholesale to Australia.

When I just went to the loo: there was the Big Dipper. It would be ridiculous to say I haven’t seen it earlier in the trip – for surely, surely I have – but I don’t recall seeing it – like that – just big, clear, dipper shaped and upright.

Thursday 23 July – 8:10 am

Either the country was invaded at dawn or there was a military exercise this morning. At 5:15 or so there was gun fire in the distance and voices. I got up to pee and there were weird trails in the sky too.

8:35 pm – Antshill Caravan Park

Well that was a fucking hard day. Beautiful in its way – quiet back roads through farms – but rolling – very rolling. A lot of climbing just to roll down the other side, around a corner, then up again. Really hard, really really hard.

I’ve realised that when I’m riding alone I stop more frequently than the French family does. We didn’t really stop at all. Only to eat our lunch in Carmathen, where we just stood around eating.

While lunching I watched a young man – maybe 20, sharing lunch with what seemed to be work colleagues (a man and a woman) in a busy shopping mall. The whole time he had his hand down the front of his trackies, and inside his undies (I could see the waistband). He seemed sober and otherwise normal – I really should have asked WTF??

Heading into St Clears late in the day I was going to leave the French and find a B&B – I was ready to pay whatever it cost. But the route didn’t go straight through town and we saw the for this campground. So here we are. The campground has a clubhouse with a pub/restaurant – dead empty but for me. I’m having a beer and Pringles – well earned – tent’s up, showered, made dinner.

I nearly wept today pushing and climbing up a hill.

It’s two months since I left Sydney.

I am thinking of Vickianne and Jim seeing me off at the airport. I miss everyone.

Rooted.

Knackered.

Shattered.

Friday 24 July 8:10 am – Anthill Caravan Park near St Clears

It’s been raining pretty much all night – certainly since before 4 am.

Last night I’d been discussing with Antoine my need of a new tent. The rain has put paid to that idea. It could be a lot worse (and the day with the puddle (link) was). The tent seams are gone so water is getting through the fly and then some drips into the tent proper. I woke – 4-ish – to find dampness on my sleeping bag so set about rearranging and putting stuff into my waterproof panniers.

Packing and riding in this is totally uninviting.

It’s not pouring but it’s solid and steady and giving no hints of letting up.

P7241432
The view from inside my tent.

The French are awake. I wonder what they’ll do.

I’m tempted to throw away the tent here.

I’m tempted to ask Cornelia if she can collect me from Rosslare on Sunday night.

I’m tempted to find out about the train from Rosslare to Wexford.

Basically I’m tired. Tired of riding. On the bike it’s good – mostly – not the climbing. Not the packing and unpacking.

7:27 pm The Lighthouse Tavern – Tenby

The daughter – Felicity – or some French name near that, had to learn the word ‘unabashed’ for school English. She knew the definition but wanted to understand it in context.

It took me about 10 minutes to come up with a good one – everything I thought of was like from a 19th century novel.

I suggested that it probably relates to bashful – “A teenaged boy might be bashful around a girl he likes, but some would be unabashed in showing their interest.”

I’ve said goodbye to them – having checked into a hotel in Tenby – which is a super-cute town with pastel houses about the beach and harbour. It’s a walled city – not sure who walled it or when – with a ruined castle on the headland.

I abandoned the tent at Anthill. It served me well – but now is dead.

From the campground we rolled into Laugharne, home to Dylan Thomas’ boatshed. An adorable village full of B&Bs. Sigh.

P7241434 (2)
Laugharne – Dylan Thomas had a boatshed here, people come to see it.

Leaving there it was a super hard climb on cold legs after a wet night – and it was still raining off and on.

And that set the tone. More climbing through beautiful wet green Welsh countryside. I was generally well behind the group but would catch up now and then.

We stopped in Saundersfoot for lunch. I had fish and chips, we went to a café for tea. Everyone was pretty ready to not ride much more today.

Out of Saundersfoot guess what? A big climb?

The sea is beautiful, however – it really is.

I bought a postcard of sunny beaches for a laugh.

Knowing I’d get a bed of some sort lifted my spirits – which have been pretty low for a couple of days.

I want to go out and see what Tenby says for itself on a Friday night.

I want to lie in bed and watch TV.

P7241441 (2)
Au revoir, my French friends – may the rain fall more lightly for the rest of your holiday.
P7241442
Hello hotel bed! Yippee – no wet tent tonight.

A big trip is just taking the long way home: 18-20 July 2015 (Bath-Monkton Farleigh-Bristol-Cardiff)

Saturday 18 July 10:40 am – Colonna & Smalls Specialty Coffee (Bath) 

There were two young women in my hostel dorm last night who set an alarm for 4:15 am – snoozed it twice and took an hour mucking about. Selfish defined.

I’m spending the morning having a look around Bath before riding to Amanda’s in Monkton Farleigh – a village at the top of quite a hill not far from Bath. Amanda, you may remember, is one of the members of Tom Bailey’s band – among other gigs. Her steadiest of which is with the Psychedelic Furs, having played with them for 13 years.

I’m fortifying for the ride. The good coffee places here, well the one’s I’ve been to so far, are very scientific in their approach – there’s a lot of weighing and measuring. Same with Toby at No 35 Cofffeehouse in Dorchester. It’s good but all a bit fancy and ridiculous. I paid £2.40 (A$5.20) for my macchiato – not worth it. Toby’s was $3.25 – totally reasonable.

There’s a dude writing with a fountain pen and a wee pot of ink. That seems very Bath. It’s a hoity-toity place. Beautiful though.

£2.40 (A$5.20) - Really?
£2.40 (A$5.20) – Really?

Midnight – Amanda’s Back Garden, Monkton Farleigh

While I’m thinking of it:

– Riding: I cover less territory but see much more.

– A big journey is just taking the long way home.

This week has felt super long. It was only last Saturday that I was in Southampton … bizarre.

I think it’s to do, in part, with being back in an English-speaking environment. I’ve had more conversations, longer and more complicated conversations, this week than I have had in two months.

Riding here – getting up the hill is the single hardest thing I’ve done on this trip.

I rode out of Bath along the river then climbed up away from the river – up a decent hill. Then there was a bit of flat through a town and across the A4. Then I stared up Bathford Hill, which was tough but rideable – I just stopped a few times.

But when I turned into Prospect I just had to laugh when greeted by an incline of 25-30 degrees. It was like that for 150 metres then I turn a corner, and it’s just as steep, for another hundred – but through a forest, it was actually really lovely and quiet as I pushed 5 – 10 metres at a time. Then it shallowed to a rideable angle and I was rolling into Monkton Farleigh– well the edge of it.

So much worse than it looks
So much worse than it looks

I found a 13-year-old kid with a sequined marijuana-leaf hat and pierced eyebrow idling in front of newish houses and he directed me towards the pub. And from there I found Amanda’s.

I recognised, as I had been pushing my bicycle up that hill that, one, I probably couldn’t have done it two months ago, that I wouldn’t have been strong enough, or maybe wouldn’t have believed I had the strength. And, two, as with so many hard things – if I take my time and do it one bit at a time, I get there.

Amanda has a charming little row-house in this crazy cute village.

Apparently the area is popular with musicians – Peter Gabriel is over there, a member of Duran Duran in that village, one of the Tears for Fears guys is a native.

The views of the countryside from around the village are fantastic.

Amanda is … intense and very talkative and interesting. I really like her.

This evening a couple of her friends came around and we all went out to dinner then, too, a big looping walk around the village. As we did we passed the Lord of the Manor (really) out walking his dogs. A big proper dog and a little excitable mutt who said hello to each of us before Amanda led him back in the direction of his master who hadn’t broken stride though one of his dogs was lagging way behind.

And now I’m settled cosily into my tent, my wee travelling home, down the bottom of her garden. So nice.

Camping in Amanda's Garden
Camping in Amanda’s Garden

Sunday 19 July 8:55 pm Bristol YHA

Some days I’m cruising along feeling good about things and then – bam, defeated.

The ride from Monkton Farleigh to Bristol was lovely, and mostly on the paved Bristol to Bath Rail Trail.

Bristol is multicultural – more Muslim and people of African descent than I’ve seen in a while – and a bit reminiscent of Australia’s Newcastle (working class, revitalised/revitalising, a seaport town).

The Harbour Festival was on – masses of people eating crappy food from vans and drinking overpriced beer from tins and plastic cups. The YHA is in the midst of it. I tried to go to the shop – but it was full of festival-goers. I tried to get beyond the chaos but got turned around in Old Town and found myself back in it. I went into a good looking pub with Mac & Cheese on the menu but the kitchen had closed.

There’s an older woman in my room who was sleeping when I arrived at 6 pm. She has been in bed ever since. A while ago she stirred to tell me she’d forgotten her PJ’s at the B&B.

I’d like to go have a look around but I’m defeated by the crowds and my bad maps. There’s stuff I should do – work, emails, etc. But … just like that … defeated. Grumpy too.

It’s still light. There are lots of seagulls circling and cawing. People in a pub are singing.

I’m going to read and sleep and hope for revived spirits come morning.

10:30 am Monday 20 July – Bristol

I feel like I’m hitting a wall. Not sure if that’s hormonal or just because I know a rest is coming. Or the expense of the UK. Or just the thing of being defeated by Bristol yesterday.

Trying to go easy today – I’m out looking at Bristol.

There are quite a few families out walking and looking for Shaun the Sheep statues which are spread about the place. (The Wallace & Grommit guy is from around here.)

Shaun & Me
Shaun & Me

12:05 pm – Small Street Espresso

This is the first macchiato I’ve had in a long time that I’d describe as, basically, a macchiato. Double shot with a splash of milk and dollop of foam. It’s made with their house roast – which has an edge, but is nice. I’m having a salted caramel brownie too.

A proper macchiato and a salted caramel brownie.
A proper macchiato and a salted caramel brownie.

Feeling better for proper caffeine.

There’s definitely a funkiness to Bristol it would take much more time than I have to really delve into. But there’s something about it which I like – it has a good energy.

I’ve decided to simply take the train to Cardiff today. It’s just that sort of day.

Tired. Ready to spend some days in one place. Unpack everything. Wash everything. Get and feel caught up. Feel like I know what’s happening financially.

10:55 pm Cardiff – Richard & Iona’s (Cardiff)
I think all the Warm Showers hosts I’ve stayed with are better hosts than we were, my then-husband and I. I’m always fed. We gave options. In the future I’ll always feed people – it’s so nice.

There’s a French family here too. They weren’t scheduled until later but changed their plans and Richard and Iona couldn’t say no.

I’m pleased to be in Cardiff, in Wales. I like places where, against all odds, a people have held onto their culture.

I’ve done laundry. It’s drying in my room and I can smell it – lovely.
Ending the day in a much better head space than I began. Nice.

 

Eastern France Masquerades as Hades: 1 – 3 July 2015: Montbéliard – Baumes Les Dames – Fraisans – Dijon

Wednesday 1 July 2015: Montbéliard to Baumes Les Dames 

My Warm Showers host feeds me a fantastic French breakfast featuring rich, beautiful, unhomogenised milk they buy from a local farmer several times a week. Elisabeth then rides with me to the edge of Montbéliard and sees me off with a cheery au revoir. 

The heat quickly rises to the high 30*Cs and the French are hiding. Those who are out look wrecked, or determined, or a bit of both. I feel fine; I feel Australian.

What company I have comes from the beautiful grey herons which have been with me for a couple of days and the auburn hawks circling, as they have since I was in the Rhine Delta.

The tree-lined cycleway, running parallel to the river, is generally very quiet. I am immersed in blues and greens: fields, trees, the river, the sky. I am grateful for patches of shade and the cooling effect of the breeze generated by the speed of my pedaling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Along the Eurovelo 6 in Eastern France

I stop in a hot dusty-ish, hazy-ish and dead-fucking-quiet village for lunch. It’s the sort of town that would be in a Quentin Tarantino film if he made a modern French western. There are a few cafes open and not a lot of patrons for them. I have the plat du jour at the most inviting of them: melon and ham, bread, a bit of salad, ratatouille with two slices of pork and chips; an ice cream cake for dessert and a bottle of water. All that, air conditioning, and the use of a proper toilet for €13 – I count it a good deal.

In the afternoon heat I take refuge in what I’d call a washing shed. Once, there would have been flowing water and women would have washed their clothes, here, on these worn angled stones. It offers cool shade and respite.

It’s still hot as Hades when I arrive at the municipal campground near Baume les Dames. At its worst, the day must have been 40*C plus and with heat radiating off the bitumen. I pay €8.85 for my night’s accommodation and sit in the shade eating icy poles waiting for the heat to diminish a bit before putting up my tent.

Evening, and it’s cooling finally. I ride my unloaded bicycle into town to look for dinner. I’ve done this so rarely and it feels so light – I’m dancing up the hill into town. Baume les Dames is cute enough – more lively than my lunch stop, and I find an inviting looking pizza joint on a cobbled square. Kids are kicking a football and there’s a fountain splashing.

A revoltingly loved-up couple coo at each other to my right. They are hiding behind menus, which they are not looking at, gazing at each other, whispering, laughing. Ugh – coupledom, sometimes I miss it, sometimes I’m immensely grateful to be free of it.

Thursday 2 July 2015: Baumes Les Dames to Frisians 

The alarm goes off at 5:15 and by 5:30 I’m making breakfast and getting ready for the day. I cycle away at 7:30 as the rest of the campers are just beginning to stir. I’m philosophically opposed to setting alarms unless absolutely necessary. Days in the 40*+ range call for desperate measures.

While riding in the heat without too much complaint does make me feel all Australian – I’m also Australian enough to know how dangerous it can be, how heatstroke can sneak up on you and lay you low something awful.

The early start helps but it is, again, stupidly hot – at least as hot as yesterday, maybe hotter and the cumulative effect is starting to take its toll on me.

Today’s ride is much like yesterday’s – along the river/canal with occasional forays into or near towns with, seemingly, no retail businesses at all. Elisabeth had said most have moved to the edges of towns (big boxes on the highways). An hour into my day’s ride I go through a little town and encounter a boulangerie van – a bakers’ van that does a circuit selling fresh bread and other bits and pieces. For less than €2 I get a pain au chocolat and half a baguette. France is seeming pretty cheap.

By 11 am I’ve ridden the 30 km or so to Besançon – home town to Victor Hugo. It’s a cool town built on an ox bow of river and guarded by a fuck-off looking heritage listed fortress. Winding, cobbled old streets open onto squares. I fail to take pictures – I blame the heat. And the ‘public toilets’ are guarded by money-expecting women. If it can be avoided I won’t pay to pee. For a coffee and a pee? Okay. Ice cream and a pee? Yup. Just pee? Not if I can help it.

I fail to find the information office and with it a source of WiFi. I also fail to find a post office. I think businesses are just more obvious in Italy. I do find a little grocer where I get fruit and vegetables, salami, biscuits, more sweetened condensed milk and yogurt. I look at the cheese and imagine it as a puddle of milk fat in my bag.

Since then it’s been a brutal slog in the heat.

In mid-afternoon I find a shelter near a lock on the canal. There are tables, a bathroom, tap water and shade. I end up spending a couple of hours there – napping, reading, just waiting for the burning ball in the sky to lessen its intensity a bit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Glorious respite.

By 19:30 I arrive at the campground in Frisians. It looks pretty there, across the river – but it feels like a bogan-y, dead-end, shithole of a French town with pretty buildings including a chateau. The main street is not quite Port Kembala-dead. There is a pizza place, a kebab shop (in someone’s shed), a proper restaurant closed tonight but looking like a going concern; a Red Cross op shop, post office and a boulangerie – the most prosperous looking place in town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Frisians – Pretty from here, kind of a shit-hole up close

This campground is the quietest I’ve ever visited. It’s me and a German guy with his dog – he looks all ultra-athlete-ish. Something extreme. When they say closed at 20:00 they mean it – gates go up and customers are turned away. It’s a municipal ground – €2, no WiFi.

I  dropped my toiletry bag and cracked my deodorant crystal – may need to be abandoned. Then nearly slipped and fell in the shower. I had a hard moment – a wee brief sob – when I wanted things to be familiar and just a bit easier. I know I have a good run of familiarly coming up – friends to see in Paris, the UK, and Ireland, a shift back to the English speaking world. This is good – it’s all good – a little hard and with the heat I’m just, I think, worn down a bit. Made a little worse by the lack of internet, and the sense of connection it brings.

France has felt flat out harder – I don’t know if that’s the heat, the language, that I’ve been at this for 39 days now, or what. But today has simply been hard. It’s been good too but the constant problem solving, decision-making, figuring out what’s next is wearing on me. Add small, but annoying stuff like with the deodorant or having to clean ants out of my food bag, or worrying that pine-sap is dripping on my tent, sees me pushed toward an emotional edge. Then I get a vicious leg cramp and, in a tent, all I can do is wait it out.

I need some good rest days in Paris.

Look – one thing at a time, one day at a time – don’t let the annoyances detract from the beauty of the river, the pleasantries with other riders, the freedom of being here and doing this. I’m living my dream – it was never going to be all roses and chocolates. And today is just being a bit hard. I should sleep. Tomorrow will be good.

Friday 3 July 2015: Frisians to Dijon

Another hot-as-fuck day. It’s been hard. I’ve found France hard.

The guy running the campground was weird – his dog and cat roamed around the place. I saw cat shit in the playground. I think he’s a municipal employee and gets the house with the gig. He’d just as soon not have guests. This morning the German ultra-athlete left his towel in the WC and, apparently, walked naked from the shower to get it. I didn’t see him, nor the other woman here. It was all of probably 5-10 seconds of public nudity. The campground guy – who’s also some kind of country cop, closed the campground gate, got in his cop car and went to threaten him with arrest. He also had words with the other cyclists who must have arrived after closing. Weird.

My friend Vickianne, back in Sydney, bless her, has booked me a room in Dijon near the train station. The heat got the best of me, the lack of WiFi undermined my ability to plan – I text messaged her before I went to sleep asking her to log into Booking.com as me and find me something in Dijon. And she has – it will cost what it costs, and that’s fine. There will be air conditioning and, probably, WiFi. It’s with a lighter heart I pedal out of Fraisans.

The riding was much the same as recent days: a quiet cycleway along a canal under the blazing sun.  Fortunately, portions of the route are tree-lined. I slow my pace in the shade and speed it up when exposed.

I ride as far as Dole before getting the train into Dijon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Arriving in Dole – it was nice, hot but nice.

On the train – two African guys in front of me have travel papers rather than tickets. I’m guessing they are refugees. The conductor is clearly pretty annoyed to have to deal with it. I’m getting a vibe about public workers here. Well, it’s just two guys but noticeable – this guy and the one at the campground.

Dijon after three days of mid-30*s plus is devastating and definitely hotter than Sydney under the same circumstances. The city is all stone, pavement, marble – a lot of it white. It soaks in the heat and reflects the sunlight.

Dijon has a rough edge – beggars, homeless people, a roaming bunch of shirtless and drinking men in their 30s. I got off the train and was going to shuttle my stuff down the stairs (one load, then the next) but a fellow cyclist was clearly worried by this idea and brought my duffel bag down to me.

I went to the Beau Arts Museum – which Lonely Planet made quite a deal of. They have a lot of lovely old Jesus stuff in an air conditioned area and 19th and 20th century stuff – including a Monet and a Manet – in rooms so warm that an art person might really freak out. It was all a little ramshackle – some of the modern stuff was displayed attached to, like, chipboard. Really weird. Obviously badly underfunded.

I was going to go back out now but this cool WiFi’d cocoon of a hotel room is just perfect for the moment.

Knackered.

 

The Rhine Delta and Konstanz to Flaach- 26th & 27th June 2015 (Days 33 &34)

Friday 26 June 2015: The Rhine Delta to Konstanz

The day is stunning and summery as I ride along the Rhine Delta toward Lake Constance (or the Bodensee as it’s called locally).

I turn onto a small road marked by a sign promising Erdbeere and soon find myself resting on a bench, a diminishing punnet of perfect June strawberries resting on my knee. They are all I could want: firm, full, juicy, sweet but with a fresh bit of tang as well. As I sit,eating one after another, the farmer drives past – his tractor loaded with trays of berries just picked. And in the distance the farm workers are coming in from the field for their lunch break.

Here in the delta, with the mountains fading behind me, hawks circle, circle, circle on warm currents above the fields. I shield my eyes to watch as one dives for a bit of prey then climbs again into a pale summer-blue sky scored with jet-trails. Far far up, at cruising altitude, are tiny aeroplanes. I think of my flight from London to Milan, of my looking out the window at the Alps – one of those wee planes may well be today’s BA 576.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Jet trails over the Rhine Delta.

The Swiss border is signaled by a supermarket, cafe and post office in a spot which is, otherwise, the middle of nowhere. The Swiss cross to Austria for lower prices. My crossing is made at a bridge over a wee creek where the style of the bicycle signage changes and I spy a Swiss flag dancing languidly.

I meet the pale blue, almost aquamarine Lake and follow it the rest of the day. I pass through towns, industrial areas and holiday communities. At my lunch stop in Romanshorn I meet a mature-aged group of men on a weekend cycle. I exchange a few words with the English speakers and they smile approvingly of my coffee making.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Bodensee

My destination is Konstanz – a lovely German university town thumping with summer visitors. So close is Konstanz to Switzerland, and otherwise surrounded by water, that the city left its lights on during World War II. Allied bombers, not wanting to risk attacking the neutral Swiss, spared the city. At the border I am greeted by a faded Bundesrepublik Deutschland sign and a pair of seemingly-abandoned guardhouses. And, just like that, I am in Germany.

I am staying with Sara – a WarmShowers host, artist and art therapy teacher who lives on the top-floor of a narrow old apartment building near the city centre. We sit on her deck having elderflower cordial and apricots while overlooking a spreading oval of similar buildings with similar decks and, down below, a shared patch of green.

In the evening we meet up with some friends of her’s for dinner at the African Festival on the main square in the old town and later walk to the lake to listen to an Afro-Cuban jazz band playing in a park as the setting sun leaves the mountains ethereal in the distance.

"OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         "

Was this what I expected from Germany? I wasn’t surprised but, no, probably not.

Outside Sara’s place I saw my first Stolperstein (literally “stumbling stone”) –a cobblestone-sized brass plate set in the footpath informing me that a Jehovah’s Witness who had resided here before World War II, had been detained by the state and then murdered. That was more of what I expected, really.

Saturday 27 June: Konstanz to Flaach

I make a leisurely start of it today, lingering over coffee and chatting with Sara. I stop to collect supplies from the Saturday-busy local supermarket and then pedal from town and back into Switzerland.

The day’s riding is a mix of on-road and off, pavement and gravel, through towns, villages and farms, along the river and away from it, in the forest. The route weaves back and forth over borders and I often have no idea which country I am in.

Stein am Rhine is a surprising delight because I had no foreknowledge. I knew the route went though the town but I had no idea what to expect so when I roll into the medieval town square I giggle with delight. I’m not entirely sure which country I’m in until I choose a postcard to buy and everything in the shop is Swiss.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Stein am Rhine

Not far beyond Stein am Rhine I am rolling past meadows full of wild flowers and then climbing a gravel road into the Black Forest. At a bend I find an ambulance, a group of cyclists standing aside and the paramedics tending to an older rider who has come off his bicycle. It doesn’t look good but nor does it look terrible. It is a reminder to be cautious.Stein am Rhine

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Swiss Wild Flowers (or are they German?)

The forest is dark, beautiful and full of birdsong. That I am in the Black Forest also makes me chuckle – it’s a name I would use as a generic place I might be when talking of this trip before coming away. Like, “I’ll look forward to using my e-reader while camped in the Black Forest.” So it was funny to actually be here. And it is beautiful. And the birds are amazing.

Just as I stop for a late lunch in a swimming park next to the river the sky darkens and rain hammers down accompanied by thunder and lightning. Parents scoop wee children and run them to cover. Teenagers linger in the rain until lifeguards, dressed in familiar yellow and red uniforms, hustle them out of the water. An eave of the ablution block offers me all the shelter I need – I lunch, make a coffee and watch the rain fall. It doesn’t last long and soon I am packing up and the swimmers are back in the river.

Fearing the rumours I’d long heard of the expense of Switzerland I am hoping to avoid spending money there as much as possible, and when I do, to limit the damage. Somewhere in the afternoon I miss my chance to cross back into Germany. The route on the Swiss side is longer and come 6 pm I am nearing 80 kilometres on the day when I spot a campground on my map. Whatever the cost it will have to do. I passed some places I might have wild camped but I lack the confidence to do that – at least on my own and in a place where I don’t speak the language.

The cost of my patch of grass, access to the ablution block, use of a small campers’ kitchen and a swimming pool: 24f or about A$35* – the most expensive camping pitch I’ve ever used. I think about getting food in their restaurant but cheapest main was 18f and a bowl of chips was 9f (A$17.30 and A$8.66). So I cook up some pasta with reluctant acceptance that it is what it is – I’ve ended up in Switzerland on a night I’d hoped not to and paid the price.

I have 90km to cover tomorrow to get to Basel where I’ve a booking at a hostel. Ninety kilometres is a big day for me under any circumstances – that I am anticipating 90km means there’s a good chance it will be closer to 100 km. All I can do is try.

I do something very unusual for me on this trip – I set an alarm for 6 am in hopes of getting away early enough to give me every chance of getting to Basel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
In the Black Forest – How’s the serenity?

*24 Swiss Francs or about 35 Australian dollars.

Riding in the rain 100 metres at a time – Day 2 (Monday 20 April)

Last night I feared I maybe really couldn’t do this. Well, couldn’t do the wild camping – that particularly worried me. But here I am. Not wild camping as in set up in some shrubbery on the side of the road but behind the Timor Community Centre with no one knowing I am here. And I feel fine, safe. There is a little mouse scurrying around out there and the usual moths beating their wings against the wall of my tent as it is the only light source for some distance around.

The crickets are loud; the air outside the tent cool enough for me to see my breath. Tonight I am under the flight path – just the distant hum of JetStar and Qantas flights making their approaches into Sydney. I was on one of those flights just a couple of weeks ago.

I had anticipated that today would be hard and it lived up to my expectations in every way. My bike is too heavy, it was raining off and on, I started late, most of the ride was on gravel road (good gravel, but still) and the terrain was undulating.

(It’s just small animals going about their businesses … don’t let it freak you out.)

My friends were behind me; I could feel their support and encouragement. And I knew that none would think lesser of me if I changed my mind, if I did decide I couldn’t do it.

There is a pure mindfulness in the riding, in the struggle. There is just this moment here, this pedal push, this 100 metres to the top of the hill. But with it a real keen attention to detail – watching the road, looking for the hardest smoothest gravel; seeing and hearing the grass parrots burst from the bush, crimson rosellas chasing one another across the paddocks and the cockies whinging and moaning as they rise and whirl from their business of taking advantage of the cattle feed. Noticing that all those calves are watching me in wonder, ready to spook and gallop away. Not so the bulls: they just watch, silent unimpressed witnesses.

(Yup a pair of little tiny mice checking things out. The food is hung – if they can get in there good on them.)

So the day went … up and down, dry and wet, moving more slowly than I had hoped and the rising concerns about where I might camp. Properties lined the road and cars passed regularly so I knew I couldn’t get into real trouble – I could ask for help.

I wasn’t going to get to Nundle – that was always a long shot; as the day wore it became clear I wouldn’t get to Timor Caves or the campsite at the base of the Crawney Pass either. It had gotten darker, I felt I was riding in a cloud. I hoped that Timor, being worthy of a dot and name on the map, might provide something: a churchyard, a school, a rural firefighting station. It was with utter joy and delight that when I came over what proved the last crest of the day I saw what looked to be a church with a tennis court and small building besides. I was downright giddy to find the gate open, a covered area behind the community centre all but invisible to what little traffic passes, a table and benches and – the piece de resistance – a toilet. Fabulous.

Now if only my air mattress hadn’t sprung a leak. Tomorrow I expect to be at the Peel Inn at Nundle so just one more night of pretty hard sleeping – a fix or replacement is just around the corner. Or at the end of this 100 metres. Or the next. Or the next.

I Think I Need a Backcountry Bed

Yesterday I looked at a recommended sleeping bag – recommended by the authors of the Bike Touring Survival Guide. It’s called a Backcountry Bed by Sierra Designs and is amazing looking. I want – very much.

And I’m inclinded to get it. It’s less than US$300 and is like someone started from scratch: a zipless foot baffle, a sleeping mat pocket, an opening with an attached doona covering, pockets for arms out belly sleeping. Something which increases my tent-sleeping comfort as much as this promises to = must have.