Friday, 29 April 2011

Happy Days in the Land of the Gummi Bears

People always tell you how wonderful Paris is, or how magnificent is the architecture of Rome, or about the many splendours of Basingstoke, sorry, I mean Barcelona. But I've never heard anyone talk of Luxembourg City. Why not? It's a little gem.

Luxembourg proves that you don't need to be massive to be a great city. She has the same population as Blackburn, the town into which I was first shat upon this earth, but the simularity ends there. The old and the new work in harmony, with the fortified walls gazing down upon the old town with its winding, slow-paced river, while efficient, uptight, modern Europe, with a European Parliament and shiny, modern office blocks sit up on the hill counting its cash. You can guess which is the prettier, but the new stuff doesn't look bad either.

Unlike in London and Paris, the locals seem relaxed and happy, and again unlike London and Paris, there are no swarms of tourists buzzing from one site to the next. There's just a handful of wandering folk taking the occasional snap. Maybe there's a connection. Or maybe the tourists in Luxembourg just don't know where they're supposed to go buzzing to next.

Other reasons to visit Luxembourg:

1) It's the perfect size to walk around in a few hours.

2) It has an excellent cyclepath system and (almost) city-wide WiFi.

3) It has a shop that sells nothing but Gummi Bears. I'm not sure why but, to me, that seems like A Good Thing.

4) Since crossing the French border, beer has returned to affordable prices.

5) I was told that the official languages are French and German but a third language (is it Flemish?) is used in shop windows, which seems to be a cross between the two. This lends an air of mystery or makes you feel you're going slightly mad. You choose. (Or maybe these are just words my rubbish French and German haven't come across yet.)

6) There's a tranquil park beneath the viaduct if you want to escape the noise, but there isn't really that much noise.

7) It's not Blackburn.

You should come here, and I should stay longer. But I've got to leave in the morning and head towards Brussels, where I have three - count 'em, three! - people to meet and a date with a fully functioning tent pole from Hilleberg. Oh, and Belgian beer. Can't forget Belgian beer. So farewell, Luxembourg. It's been a pleasure.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Are You 1) Pale, 2) Ugly, 3) Heavily Tattooed? Then You Might Be British.

Some days things go well, and other days things go so perfectly that even the things that go wrong actually cause better things to happen.

A couple of days ago (25th), I'd arrived at my campsite in Juniville to discover that it had closed down five years earlier. I was told about another site, 20 kilometres away, in Attigny. I'd already done 80 kilometres that day but it seemed like the easiest option. But it all worked out. The campsite was lovely and so I stayed an extra day and studied under a tree, managing to get two weeks' worth of MST209 done in one day. And by starting from Attigny yesterday (27th), I had a lovely rural hour and a half's ride, by the side of a little river, and then through villages too small to have shops. It was gorgeous, absolutely flawless cycling.

For the rest of the day, the sun was shining and it felt like the perfect end when I arrived in Montmedy, up a huge hill on the way to its famous citadel, to find the campsite gates open. Perfect! But looking at its notice board the site didn't open until the 1st of May. The gates were only open because the gardeners were in giving it a once over before the season started. They directed me to the tourist office even farther up the hill, inside the walls of the citadel itself.

At the office it became clear that I wasn't the only person looking for a campsite. Also there was a Dutch cyclist whose partner was halfway back down the hill. They couldn't let us camp but instead they would open a gite especially for us. It was my first time in a gite. It's like an independent youth hostel, where you usually sleep in shared dorms, but this time I had a dorm entirely to myself. It was like staying in a hotel, in the shadow of the citadel, with a fridge, freezer and a fully equiped kitchen, and all for only €10.

The Dutch cyclist, Joris, was reunited with his girlfriend, Joëlle, and they decided to head back into town to see a doctor. Only four or five days into their ride, she had developed a knee problem that was stopping her doing much more than 20 kilometres per day. I went into town too, to find some food, and we eventually bumped into each other and decided that the best option, given that we had a kitchen at our disposal, was to cook something together.

Joris and Joëlle had started from their home town, Nÿmegen, and were hoping over the next four months to reach Timbuktu in Mali. The knee problem was putting a serious cloud over that project but they seemed determined to get there by any means, even if it meant occasionally putting the bikes on a train. Joris had just completed his PhD thesis in human geography and so had time to spare before returning to his university in September as a doctor and as a lecturer. Joëlle had chucked her job and was hoping for the best when she got back. As with everyone on this trip so far they were fantastically lovely, interesting people. They were both fizzing with energy.

I helped to make a salad while Joris created a vegetable couscous. They had an amazing collection of store cupboard ingredients, whereas all I had to offer from my bag was a jar of chilli powder. But it helped. We finished off with a selection of stinky cheeses and some tasty Leffe beer. Topics of conversation varied greatly, but it was amusing to learn what the Dutch stereotypical view of the British is (cover those sensitive ears): pale, ugly, loud, heavily tattooed and always in a football shirt. Well, it was my fault for asking, and there aren't too many surprises there.

As I've said before, the best bits of this trip are the people I meet. It was a rare coincidence that we were both looking for the same closed campsite on the same day, but staying at home I doubt I would ever have met people on their way to Mali. It's not the travelling that makes the trip but the people you find while you are out there.

Good luck Joris and Joëlle! Here's to Timbuktu!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Celebrating St Patrick's Day in April in the Middle of France

I'm not weird, right? My mum thinks I'm weird because I never wanted kids. And even The Lovely Nina sometimes says that I'm eccentric. I'm not. I'm very normal. Very, very normal indeed. And the talking gerbils that live in my hair agree. No, I'm not odd, but I met a man today who is.

I was cycling through the Champagne region of France and hit the town of Thierry Chateau. Walking with a drunken gait at the side of the road in mid-afternoon was an older bloke wearing what appeared to be a giant, Guiness-sponsored, St Patrick's Day comedy hat. That's unusual, I thought. You only normally see such hats on drunken idiots on St. Paddy's night. I know, I've worn one.

A minute or two later I decided to stop at a junction and check which way I should be going. While sat on the grass having a minute off the bike, hat man approached me and in an accent that sounded heavily French asked me if I was cycle touring. Oui, I replied. He then gave some sort of indication that he was doing the same thing. Really? I asked if he was French and he said, "Non, anglais". Right, so we were both English.

I know that I'm a bit of a porker but Andrew really didn't look like a cyclist. A packet of loose tobacco bulging from his shirt pocket isn't a definite sign of a non-cyclist but it's not that common. He spoke with a strong Norfolk accent and muttered to himself under his breath. Andrew was cycling from East Anglia to Palermo on an electric bike, towing a little trailer. If you're unaware, an electric bike charges up when you pedal so that it can give you a helping hand when climbing up the hills. The trailer was attached to the bike with the loosest, wobbliest fitting you could imagine. It was like the sort of handiwork I'd do, and then pay someone to put right.

It had taken him three weeks to get from Dieppe to here, and it's not that far. He'd wasted a lot of time getting lost in Dieppe until the early hours of the morning when he'd been picked up by the police and decided he would overnight in the cop shop until they got sick of him and told him where the nearest hotel was. And why did he get lost? He refuses to carry maps. No, he's not a modern cyclist using the latest spunky SatNav. He has simply used Google Earth to write down all the names of the towns that he will pass through from Norwich to Palermo so he always knows where to head next. Foolproof! Unless there's one of France's frequent Route Barrée signs blocking your way. Or the village you need isn't signposted. Or you take a wrong turning. Or, or, or a million different reasons. Get a map, you chump! They're cheap, especially if you're doing the daily distance he's doing.

Oh yes, and how far are you travelling each day? About twenty miles, he replied. And how long have you planned to get to Palermo? Well, the money will last for three months, he said. Something told me he possibly hadn't done the maths. Ninety days at twenty miles per day, especially when during the first twenty of those days he'd moved about one hundred and forty miles, isn't going to get him to Palermo.

Anyway, mad though he was, good luck to him. However far he gets, he'll have an adventure. And if you're one of the lovely people somewhere across Europe who has agreed to meet me later in the trip, keep your eyes out for him. He's bound to end up near one of you. My money's on St. Petersburg. The first thing you will notice is the hat. The second thing will probably be the trailer overtaking him on the downhills.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The City of the Dead

Paris is for lovers. I was hoping so. Remember that James Bond nonsense in the other blog? A transmission was decoded that seemed to indicate that Nina, my sexy agent, would intercept me in the French capital, a few weeks ahead of our scheduled rendez-vous in Berlin. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be. That was a great shame. I was looking forward to seeing her Pussy Galore. Y'know, her impression of a secret agent. What did you...? Oh, stop it.

I doubt I would have been up to much loving anyway. Yesterday my body developed a curious new ailment. Although wearing the big rucksack while cycling doesn't cause any pain (it causes backache in other cyclists) I've developed a strange spinal affliction whenever I'm walking about without the thing. And then my right leg goes weird and tingly. I trudged around the Parisian streets for a while, having to sit down every few minutes and then realised that the best remedy in any pain-based scenario is to sit down for lots of minutes and have some beer.

Now, beer in France in stupidly expensive and, as you've probably guessed by now, I'm a cheap sod. I managed to find a tiny place in the middle of happy hour (actually happy four hours) where beer was just slightly more expensive than any normal, miserable hour in Britain. So I sat there and had a few. If I was normally going out to do this type of thing on purpose I'd take something to read but, because of my new condition, I'd been caught unawares. All I had in my bag was the Paris A to Z and there's only so many times you can look up rude-sounding street names. So I just sat and people watched. Several thoughts occurred to me based upon the things I saw.

I discovered that a Muslim head scarf, far from being the instrument of oppression many in the West believe it to be, is actually fantastically useful. I saw a young woman walking down the street pushing a pram with both hands while her mobile phone was tucked into the side of her scarf as she had a conversion. She was hands free and in a totally Islamic way. Brilliant!

I also saw pure unadulterated joy. Across the road from where I was sitting seemed to be a students' hall of residence. Given the weather, some of them were sat outside catching a few evening rays. A new student appeared and two of her girlfriends positively bounced to greet her, and kept bouncing. Like Tigger, they bounded on top of her and covered her in kisses, ending in a Mexican jumping bean-style embrace. Do you have any friends you really love? If so, the next time you meet them in town, bounce up and down with excitement. See what they do. That's what I'm planning to do. I bet it makes us all feel good. Or sick.

So today I thought I'd cure my backache by forcing myself to walk hundreds of miles around Paris. And so that's what I did. I saw the Palace of Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement, Notre Dame in the 4th, from there I headed through the 3rd and the 11th to reach my main target for the day in the 20th, the Cemetery of Père-Lachaise. It's massive, more like a city of the dead. It's the only cemetery I've been to that has its own streets. And it's stuffed full of household names in enormous tombs. Buried there are musicians such as Rossini, Bizet and Chopin, writers such as Balzac, Proust and our own Oscar Wilde and scientists, philosophers, politicians, actors and even a clown. But, possibly most famous of all, and the reason I was there, was to fulfil a Nina challenge and take a photo of Jim Morrison's grave while singing a line from "Light My Fire" (given where I was "...and our love become a funeral pyre" seemed most appropriate). From the graves I trudged back through the 11th and 12th arrondissements to my hotel home in the 13th. I'd walked nearly every street in Paris at least three times but my back was cured.

So, what to do now that I have a pain-free spine? Maybe go and have a beer.

Monday, 18 April 2011

How to Cook a Poo Sausage

Yesterday I was 100% Englishman. Today a tiny part of me is French. I ate an andouillette and I survived!

So far I've been in France for five days. She has treated me kindly. The weather has been great, the roads have been quiet and the people have been as friendly as it's possible to be. This is not the place The Sun would have us believe it is. It's a land full of smiles and bonjours.

Yesterday I arrived in Quessigny. You won't have heard of it because less than a hundred people live here. It doesn't even have a shop. But here in this village is my cousin Sarah who, until yesterday, I hadn't seen since the early 1990s. And she lives in a fantastic house with French husband Cyril, who loves to cook, two lovely children, a couple of fluffy cats and a guest bed that soothed away the pains in my legs and derriere. And it was Cyril who prepared the andouillette.

If you've been following this blog you'll know that I'm hunting out something I've never eaten before in each country I visit. Andouillette had an automatic attraction because all reports I'd heard told of its horror. Y'see, andouillette is a tripe sausage stuffed with intensines. Or is it the other way around? I'm not sure it matters.

The meal itself was a lesson in French butchery. Before I was allowed to sample the legendary andouillette I had to try out andouille de Vire, a cold aperitif snack consisting of concentric tripe and fat circles. At first, like the eels the other day, it tastes quite bland but after a piece or six, there's a not unpleasant subtle meatiness. I don't think you'll be finding it in Tesco's any time soon but it went very well with the dark beer I was drinking. But this is only a distant cousin of the real andouillette that I'd heard talk of, the Peter Sutcliffe of pork surprises.

Andouille - it also means 'idiot' in French

So here it was in front of me. The main course. Two enormous, misshapen appendages in a creamy mustard sauce served with fried potatoes and salad. The andouillettes had been frazzed on the barbecue, giving them a smokiness cunningly disguising their usual scent. It's been said that they give off an air of urine and faeces and while that might be pushing it a bit, there was certainly something wrong in their odour. We've evolved to avoid bad meat instinctively and yet here came the first bite. Thanks to the charcoal grilling, the first sensation is that of your normal, crispy, non-entirely-offal-based sausage and the consistency is chewy and coarsely textured. But then there's an unpleasant bit. As you chew it - and you have to chew it - a hint of the slaughterhouse sewer wafts up and attacks the back of the nose. Thankfully, Cyril knows what he's doing, and the mustard sauce almost entirely masked the poo sensation, making it an interesting experience, if not one I ever want to repeat. But if Cyril can weave an almost entirely enjoyable episode from the evil andouillette, just think what he could do with a chicken.

Andouillette - the devil's own penis

You'd think that with all this eating, and the daily Snickers bars and litres of fizzy orange pop I've been guzzling, I'd be piling on the pounds. But yesterday I weighed myself for the first time since setting off and, in eighteen days, I've lost eight kilos. At this rate, I will be completely weightless by the time I reach my astronomy residential in Majorca in September. I won't even need a telescope. I'll just be able to float up and look at the stars without the atmosphere getting in the way.

Tomorrow I leave here and head towards Paris. I should arrive there on the 20th. The route map into the city is terrifying, looking not dissimilar to my old grandma's varicosed legs, only more infected. I've given myself a full day there to explore, but one thing I definitely won't be doing is hunting out restaurants serving andouillette.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Steven and the Hedgerows of Doom

After ten hours on a ferry I arrived in Jersey yesterday evening with just enough time not to find my campsite before it turned pitch black. By rights I should have been there in glorious sunshine but the Jersey government had invested all its money in this beautifully well stocked library that I'm now sat in (with free WiFi) and not one penny at all on road signage.

I wonder if Jersey still lives under the shadow of its former Nazi occupation. During the war there was a campaign in Britain to remove all road signs so as to confuse any incoming spies. Jersey still operates this policy. One hundred metres from the ferry terminal and they dry up. You might as well navigate by magic crystal.

From the ferry terminal I headed out boldly in what seemed like the right direction, ignored the road I felt was probably right because it had no sign (it was!) and spent the next hour and a half biking around country lanes six feet wide and with ten foot-high hedgerows. It was like cycling around Hampton Court Maze.

I asked several blokes, who all looked strangely similar and who all had a very laid back, slightly hippyish demeanour ("Yeah, not sure, man!"), and though local no one could tell me the name of the road I was on, or had even heard of there being a campsite, except one on the other side of the island. Eventually, with the sun long set, I lucked out and ran into a fellow cyclist whose map was considerably better than mine, in that it was printed rather than drawn in crayon. The campsite was just around the corner. By now the headtorch was on full blast and all my bike lights were blinking. Anyone looking out of their window would have thought it was another Close Encounter. Except they wouldn't have been able to see me at all for the soddin' hedgerows, that is.

So today I've been exploring, only St. Helier so far but it's a start. I've found my thing to eat I've never eaten before - Black Butter - I've done my Nina challenge, I have my Action for Animals photo, I've managed to get a map of France and I know roughly where I'll be staying for the next four nights - three campsites and my cousin Sarah's, who I haven't seen since 1376.

It's a pity I hadn't planned longer in Jersey. It seems like a place worth exploring. Given enough time I could have hired a set of step ladders to peer over the hedgerows and have a look at the view. I haven't seen any Jersey cattle yet, but the place is covered in Jersey potatoes. It makes the cycling challenging.

So it's France first thing tomorrow, where the traffic reduces and communication difficulty increases. But armed with my French 'O' level, I'll be fine. So, au revoir, madames et monsieurs! I'll seethee on t'continent!

The Day I Met The Beatles

Hey, I've just met one half of The Beatles, and the cool half at that. But more about this in a paragraph or five. Until then, please permit me to beam out a gushing beacon of optimism and good will to all mankind. Why? Because I'm feeling joyously happy about what happened last night and because I've recently heard that there's a certain primary school in Blackburn following my blog and I want to try to set a good example.

A while ago I was reading another cyclist's blog, a guy who was biking through the former Yugoslavian states, which I won't reach until the end of next year. When he was in Bosnia he was warned that the Croatians were a bunch of bad 'uns. When he was in Croatia, it was the Macedonians he was told to be wary of. Each country believed another was full of the wrong types. And yet, as he cycled through each of these lands, he met only friendly, helpful people. None of 'em were bad 'uns.

The thing is, everyone wants the same thing. Whether you are an Iranian, or a Massai, or an Inuit you want to live somewhere comfortable, you want enough to eat, you want your children to thrive and you want as little friction as possible from those around them. This is the reason why racism is silly. Because regardless of our physical and cultural differences we are all, at the most fundamental level, exactly the same. We are human. But, that said, some of us fear the unknown, and this fear often manifests itself as mistrust of strangers. Hold that thought.

Now, a brief but relevant diversion to Southsea. If you don't know, Southsea is right next door to Portsmouth, the starting point of my ferry trip to Jersey. Southsea is a special place for me because had it not existed I wouldn't be here at all. In the late 60s, my Mum was holidaying in sunny Southsea all the way from blizzardy Blackburn when she met my Dad, a sailor on shore leave. Had she chosen Bognor, or a different time of the year for a break, baby Steven would never have come gurgling into this world a few years later. So, thank you Southsea.

Back to the gushing. Now, there are friendly, helpful people in this world and there are people who go beyond. Last night I had the absolute privilege to meet two of the loveliest people on this planet. Georgie, an Open University student, had read my whinings on here about a leaky tent and sent me an email saying that there was a bed - a dry one - in Southsea if I needed it. She was there with her fella - philosopher John - and super-bright teenage son, Howard. To invite a stranger into your house shows a high degree of trust. But to accept such an offer also requires trust too. After all, they might have been in the process of setting up a Sweeney Todd-style pie company. But had I not trusted them, I would have missed out, not only on the friendship of two great people, but also on the weapons grade ginger beer served in their local and on a magnificent mushroom risotto that Georgie cooked. So now I have another reason to thank Southsea, or at least a few of the people who live there.

This bike ride might seem to be about places - about cruising into Rome or cycling over mountain passes in Switzerland - or it might seem to be about silly challenges that involve my eating deep-fried eyeballs or newts on toast, but it isn't. It's about the people I will meet. So far I have close to forty invitations, mostly for a coffee or a beer and a chat rather than a roof over my head, but that's enough for me. For a roof I have my tent. If the people I meet from this point onwards are 1/100th as fantastic as Georgie and John, my life on the road will be a golden dream of shiny unicorns, dancing fairies and rivers of honey. You get the picture.

As you know, George and John were the two cool ones from The Beatles and so when I said I'd met The Beatles that was a bit of a fib because I needed a title for this blog post. Ah, I'm not setting such a good example. Sorry, children, but there are times when a fib can be fine. Only Kant thought otherwise. Go on, ask your teachers all about him. (Sorry, teachers.)

Anyway, Georgie and John haven't been together that long but I really, really hope that things work out for them. They deserve all the happiness in the world. All You Need Is Love.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Battle To Trafalgar

Wow, isn't Milton Keynes weird? But it's the home of the Open University and I found myself on my way there on Tuesday, the day before the big team ride to London, to meet the gang behind the OU's Platform. That's where you can find my other blog if your nonsense quota isn't already exceeded by this one.

Despite the OU's campus being the size of Ipswich, no one in Milton Keynes knows where it is so obviously I got lost on my way there. It's not surprising really when every road is an identical dual carriageway terminating in an identical roundabout offering you a choice of three more identical dual carriageways. Asking directions at a petrol station I was told I should turn right and it was just around the corner, I should definitely turn left, and I should turn left and cycle for "about six or seven miles". In the end I asked a bloke who had no idea where it was but typed it into his SatNav. I followed its advice and, ten minutes later, ended up back at the petrol station. In the end I abandoned my search for the OU and went to the hotel I'd booked instead. They drew me a map.

The next morning I was back at the OU to start our team ride. I would be joined by Fenella and Annie, recent OU psychology graduates, and Mark from the Blood Pressure Association, the man who has masterminded the UniCycle50 press campaign (at least six newspaper articles, four radio interviews and an appearance on ITV - I'm impressed!). Although I'd known each of them for months or years this was the first time we'd ever met. They were going to help me glide into my second capital, London.

We aimed to leave at nine but almost inevitably Fenella and Annie got lost on their way to the OU and then, with the various photos and people to meet, our departure wasn't far short of ten o'clock. We'd decided to take the most traffic-free route possible, which, given that this is only sixty miles from London, is relative.

Our route took us via a sandwich pitstop in Leighton Buzzard, Hemel Hempstead with the world's most stupid roundabout, a lovely little lie down in a park and a self-imploding pannier rack on Mark's bike, over an Alp in Bushey and then we hit London proper and came to a traffic light-flavoured halt every twenty metres down the Edgeware Road.

We weren't far away now. At about quarter past six we arrived at Hyde Park, which, given the tropical April weather, was crawling with people enjoying the last of the English summer. We each scoffed an ice cream and polished off the chocolate sqidgey thing lovingly baked by Ashley, the Blood Pressure Association's Head of Cakes. My, that was good.

From there it was only a death-defying ten minute scoot around the streets of central London to reach Trafalgar Square, where I was reunited with the lovely Nina and cool, refreshing alcohol.

Each member of the team had done him or herself proud, especially Annie, who had never cycled anything like this sort of distance before. I want to thank a great group of people for making it a very special UniCycle50 day for me. You're all stars.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Scrumpy, Savage Ducks and Men in Leather

So, here I am. Day Four and my first opportunity so far to post. Where are all the WiFi bars in Britain? Anyway, I'm sat in a biker's pub, piss wet through. That's biker's as in motorbikers, by the way. Big men, wearing leather, full of tattoos. Not gayboys like me in my Lycra with my nuts dangerously on display. So, with that in mind, apologies for any incoherence in this post. I'm writing this while drinking a pint of 7.3% scrumpy at half past five in the afternoon. I'm trying to look hard. I'm not sure it's working.

Here's a brief run down of the weather over the last four days:

Day One: Rain. Wind in my face.
Day Two: Rain. Wind in my face.
Day Three: Rain. Wind in my face.
Day Four: Lots of rain. Wind in my face.

You see a pattern emerging? I'm not going to bang on about the weather, but the times I got lost I just felt from which direction the wind was coming and headed that way. It always turned out to be right.

So where have I been? The ride to Douglas supported by brother Dave was great, with the ITV film crew at the beginning and end adding a tinge of excitement. The massive potato pie and a chance to see the family was perfect at auntie Rita's in Blackburn. But cycling through Blackburn itself was nostalgically depressing. As was Accrington and Burnley. The campsite just outside Holmfirth was lovely, even when the ducks tried to invade my tent in the early hours. Yeah, I showed 'em who was boss. But Holmfirth itself was fairly ordinary. Why was it chosen as the set of Last of the Summer Wine? No idea, but I paid careful attention when cycling up its hills in case geriatrics in tin baths came careening down. Matlock was odd as usual. All the smells of Blackpool - minus the shit-filled sea - but I'm miles from the coast. And Halifax, Huddersfield, Sheffield and Derby were all much prettier than I'd expected. We're not talking Paris but still.

Anyway, I'm on course. Tomorrow I plod on with a full day, with aching legs and a sore arse to Northampton, and then it's only a short hop on Tuesday 5th to the home of the Open University, Milton Keynes. And there I meet my fellow cyclists who will help me to reach London. Two capitals, one week. C'mon! It's all going well. Bring on Albania!