Saturday, December 09, 2006
It is an interesting mix of pride and astonishment to see exactly how far we travelled each day. 50 miles a day may not sound like much but even in the car we would be lucky to do that in an hour. The hills aren't any less deceptive either, I actually checked to make sure my hand brake wasn't on at one stage, then released we were going up the same climb that had caught us out last time, it really looks flat but the engine was struggling and telling me otherwise.
Yesterday we were in Spain for the sunset and it was absolutely gorgeous. Most of our route across was stunning, and on lovely quiet roads too. If only it wasn't so far from England, and so sparse on the camping ground front. Of course we didn't even try to eat there, we know better than that, so we had an early lunch in France and a late dinner in Portugal. Since we had another chance to check out a recommended restaurant - just down the road from the campsite between the border and Braganca, we stopped there and had a really good meal. It was a little pricey but not a rip off at all. We had soup followed by wild boar and were regretably too stuffed for pudding.
Arriving back in Valpacos didn't go quite as expected. Our hosts need their room back, they kindly put us up for the night (we arrived gone midnight) but we will be on our way again today once we have packed everything, including the bikes. We just need to figure out where we are going now and then how to get there. It was freezing in the room last night but having duvets this time helped no end. Apperently it is too cold to bark, we didn't hear from Inca at all and went to check she was still there and alright this morning. In fact it was lovely and quiet and probably the best nights sleep we have had here so far so was a fitting send off.
We have lots to arrange now so had better get on with it, but not before a breakfast cake.
Monday, December 04, 2006
Despite all the things that we don't like about the UK, it was unusually good to get back and indulge in things like showers that are hot for more than a minute, (relative) peace and quiet, a change of clothes, and of course heavy traffic, miserable weather and winter colds.
We're not planning on spending much longer in Portugal - the house is cold, leaky and noisy and we're no longer considering a permanent move there, so we need to move onto other things (quite possibly France, but more about that another time). But we still have stuff there, including our bikes, so on Wednesday we are leaving again for Valpacos, with a car so we can transport the bikes and everything else back to the UK.
We'll probably be in Portugal for a couple of weeks this time, during which we plan upon inflicting Typical English Food upon our housemates. This is what we have so far:
- Classic British cheese selection - Cornish Brie, Red Leicester, Westcountry Cheddar, Wensleydale with cranberries, and creamy Stilton.
- Branston pickle, to accompany the cheeses
- Thick-cut marmalade
- Green & Black's - one bar of Milk, and one bar of Cherry
- Biscuits: custard creams, ginger nuts, jammie dodgers, garibaldi
- Pickled onions
- Christmas pud
- 4-pack of Heinz baked beans
- Earl Grey tea
- English mustard powder
Any further suggestions welcome, bearing in mind that this has all got to survive a car journey through France and Spain, so that battered cod & chips just ain't gonna make it.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
2. Add as much chilli as you dare. I used a mix of piri-piri powder (lethal stuff) and crushed dried piri-piri peppers.
We reached Lisbon at about 4:30pm and took the train to Cascais (seaside resort where dgym's mum was staying with some friends). We found ourselves a residencial, met up with everybody, and soon were reunited with our long lost love, curry.
The next day we took the train (about 45 minutes) into Lisbon to take a look around. Lisbon is very steep in places, and paved with small white bricks which can be very slippery in the wrong shoes (e.g. cycling shoes with metal cleats in the bottom), and probably gets its fair share of injuries on a rainy day. Fortunately it wasn't raining. Unfortunately, Lisbon was filled with noisy beered-up green Scots (although there was considerable debate as to whether they were Scottish or Irish) due to a Celtic football match happening nearby, so we did what any sensible English person does when confronted with his football-obsessed fellow countrymen abroad - felt a bit ashamed and embarrassed, tried to tell ourselves they were Irish and therefore from another country, and even if they are Scottish that's kind of another country, and tried to steer clear of the rowdy green masses. Not a Portuguese fan in sight...
We went up to the castle, which cost 5euro even to get into the grounds, but was worth it - it's pretty high up, and the views over the city and out to sea are just stunning.
Pictures of Lisbon
The next day, Thursday, we stayed in Cascais and went for a walk along the beach.
Friday we got on the bus and travelled back to Valpacos - this time the driver was better, and the bus went up the motorway to Porto so most of the journey (distance-wise) was smooth and painless. However, the roads are smaller and bendier in the north east, whichever way you go, so it wasn't quite so pleasant towards the end.
This is a warning to anybody who is considering eating Portuguese fresh sardines: They don't take the insides out. This is important information, as it may kind of put a damper on your eating experience to get a mouthful of the wrong stuff.
PS. We ate pig guts yesterday.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
We are living with Manuela, her father, and a Ukrainian girl who speaks good Portuguese. We still don't understand much of what is said, but are learning to pick out words, and are coming to the conclusion that most conversations are about food. Everybody cooks for everybody in the house - huge pots of soup (including a fantastic Ukrainian red soup), stews, roasted castanhas (chestnuts)... We have been working our way through a selection of delicious sausages which hang over the fireplace, some made with bread and some with honey. Unfortunately, we have provided suitable representation for English cuisine by cooking such delights as a bland, tasteless stew that I don't think anybody really liked, and a bolognese that nobody complained about but ultimately ended up in the dog's bowl.
We did make an apple crumble, and as many of you will know, Dgym is an expert in the field of crumbly goodness. We couldn't find cooking apples, only sweet eating ones, so it wasn't really fruity enough. A couple of plums helped, but it could have been a lot better. It is quite possible that they are trying to keep us from cooking by getting up early to make lunch. In the UK I think we rely a lot more upon exotic and/or pre-prepared ingredients, rather than knowing how to work with the basics. We would welcome any suggestions as to how we can make a favourable culinary impression upon people who seem to be able to whip up the most delicious meal from a few basic ingredients. (We're good at washing up though)
At the moment, we're not quite sure where we want to end up living, but we think it's probably not here. Here is lovely in many ways, but too far from our friends and families, and too far from any decent cycling - and one thing we have learned this year is that cycle touring is great fun and we want to do lots more of it. Portugal would be great cycling if the drivers weren't psycho, and Spain would be even better cycling if they actually served food there. At the moment we're thinking France (lovely mountains, great cycling, quite convenient for exploring the continent by bike) or Scotland (low population density, very beautiful, the exact opposite of convenient for exploring the continent by bike but still lots of good cycling, and a good deal more convenient for getting back to Southern England). Both have nice houses we can afford, and both are close enough.
We will probably leave here in January, and then start focusing on finding somewhere we do want to live.
Monday, October 23, 2006
Our last day of planned cycling in a country usually goes slightly awry, either because we can't find accomodation where we were hoping to (France, Netherlands, Germany, Spain) or because we got horribly lost (Belgium) or just because we have to cross 2 miles of London. This time it was raining and we had a hill to get over, but other than having to get off and push because a cobbled street was too slippery for our tyres nothing too strange happened and we made it back to Valpacos in reasonable time.
Comming in to town we headed straight for the cafe we had stopped at last time, we were both wet and it was raining too hard to eat lunch outside and we knew we could get some sandwiches there. The trike attracted some attention as ever and when we sat down one of the locals tried a bit French with us. Upon learning that we were English he tapped his friend on the shoulder who turned round and said hello with a definite cockney accent - he was Portuguese but had moved to London more than 35 years ago.
We got chatting and when I told him that we were looking for somewhere to rent over the winter he asked the barman and before we knew it we were being shown around an apartment just a few doors down. It was large, with two bedrooms a kitchen and a dinning room, but the bathroom was horrible and we hoped that we could do better for 200 euros a month. So we all went back to the cafe and then things got really weird. Tony (at least I think that is his name) was going to drive us to see somewhere else, but then we ended up just walking around the corner and talking to a few people, and then walked back to a house on the square and knocking on someone's door. There we met Maria who had already been told we were looking for somewhere to stay and she said this was her father's house and they had a spare room and they didn't want any rent but if we could help out with the bills we could stay with them for a few months.
The families here seem to be very large (or at least people know a lot more of their family) and I think Maria is related to the owner of the cafe who Tony was talking to so maybe that is how it happened, but it was all rather strange and rapid none the less. So now we have somewhere to stay that is obviously within our budget, and fully furnished too. We are learning Portuguese from Maria (who has recently returned after spending 6 years in Ireland, and I thought the cockney-portuguese accent was strange) and living very close to the centre of town and being introduced to more and more people daily.
Hopefully we should be getting broadband installed over the next few days and then we should be all set for the winter in this strange and wonderful place.
We stopped considering Poland as a potential place to live - it's not that we particularly disliked anything about it, we just didn't particularly like anything about it either (well there were the cherries, and the nice cake shop, but that's not really enough) - it didn't really grab us as somewhere we wanted to live. Portugal is different - it grabs us in lots of ways. The food is fantastic (we really do applaud the quality of the baking in particular), people are friendly, and there are some lovely houses here. However, we have found there to be certain things lacking from what we would consider to be quality of life for us - the concept of peace and quiet seems completely foreign to most people. The idea of making any effort to ward off swarms of flies is also foreign to most cafe owners - (but that's also true in Spain). We are probably experiencing the noise problem a lot because we are staying in residencials which are almost invariably on busy main streets of towns, and put you in close confinement with other people. I can see the problem being greatly reduced by enough double glazing and / or distance from busy areas, in fact that would be essential to our being able to live here - but if the real problem is that we're just incompatible with Portugal, it would likely catch up with us eventually. I suppose we are doing what we came here to do, which is find out what life is like in Portugal.
Today we cycled north again from the Douro. The gradients stopped being completely insane - still mostly an uphill day, and still pretty average by mountain standards, but it was nice to feel the effects of having built up a lot more strength over the past few days, and be able to climb a little more easily (although I don't think Dgym's legs were really up for anything more than holding up his laptop today)
Clockwise, from top left:
1. Nutty goodness (chestnut, we think) in a flaky pastry case.
2. Moist chocolatey loveliness with chocolate icing, this one really was fantastic
3. Coconut cake (apologies for the bite marks, dgym was out of control)
4. Mostly like an eclair, I think the orangey stuff was some form of orange-based confection.
And, for anybody who thinks we may not have truly earned these cakes, this is what the terrain is like around here:
Somebody forgot to iron Portugal.
However, there are also things we don't like. There is quite a lot of litter in the countryside, particularly in laybys, lookout points and other roadside stops. There are a lot of noisy dogs, especially in the towns, many of them bark all night. There are quite a lot of flies around. There are also a lot of those insanely loud little scooters around. And the standard of driving leaves a lot to be desired. It wasn't too bad, at least not by English standards, until Wednesday when we reached the port-producing region of the Douro river and its wine tourists driving from one wine-producing town to the next, um, obviously staying completely and utterly sober the entire time. In and around Peso da Regua, which is where they make the port (it is then shipped up the river and matured in Porto), we had a fair few experiences of drivers who were either too drunk or too stupid not to do things like, say, accelerate to overtake a truck whilst completely oblivious to an oncoming cyclist on the other side of a narrow road, or try and overtake a cyclist who is signalling left. We weren't going to stop at Regua but the road we had chosen out of the city proved so dangerous, we ended up turning around, cutting the day short, getting ourselves a room for the night and rethinking things.
Yes we did have a little bit of port wine and yes it was very nice. Regua is set in really beautiful surroundings, the river and mountains are stunning - but it's way too trafficky and noisy.
On Thursday we headed out of town on a different road, which had a bit of motorway-bound traffic but was less narrow and the drivers behaved themselves. However, the gradients south of the river are much tougher. Unlike some mountain roads, which are fairly gentle and just mean putting in a little bit of effort for quite a long time - these are a little closer to the unforgiving English gradients, only much longer, and require some serious effort. We climbed up to Armamar and decided we deserved some cake. After the cake, we decided the town seemed quite nice and we were quite tired, so perhaps we should try and stay there. Unfortunately, the tourist office knew of nowhere to stay there. So we continued towards Tabuaco, along tiny little roads that weren't even marked on our country-wide maps, only on the local map we had recently acquired. This leg of the journey started with a long steep descent which was not very well surfaced and therefore required almost continuous braking. We had to stop half way down to let our braking systems cool down and our hands recover. We were then faced with an equally harsh ascent, during which we had to stop many times to let our legs recover.
Tabuaco had somewhere to stay and, being kind of knackered, we got two nights. Being kind of knackered, we felt we also deserved more cake and spent some time in the local pastelaria with hot chocolate, iced tea and a fine selection of local pastry, and ended up talking to the nice young man who served us. He had been to London, and said it rained on him most of the time. He was very surprised to hear that we had cycled all the way from Bilbao.
Television seems quite an important part of life here. Every cafe, bar and restaurant has the TV on. If you come into an empty restaurant and the TV is off, they will switch it on for you. In some restaurants, the tables are laid so that everybody is facing the television. We rarely bother with TV these days, we don't have one in the UK and don't usually watch it while travelling - but in Portugal we have been culturing ourselves by watching the soap opera Floribella - which is truly a televisual work of art. The Australians have a lot to learn. Not only does Floribella have terrible acting, it has sound and visual effects to try and make up for it (e.g. adding computerized blushes to somebody's cheeks when they're embarrassed), and everybody dances in the end credits. We don't understand a word of it, so can only guess at what might be going on - but it is compelling viewing anyway. There are occasionally English wildlife documentaries with Portuguese subtitles, which helps us pick up a few words - and the evening news leaves its captions on long enough that we can flick through the dictionary and figure out what's going on.
Today we did a nice little 500m climb for a warm up, then went down 400m very slowly (it was very steep and the road surface was a bit bumpy), and then went up another 400m in the afternoon. I think that is proof enough that trikes can do hills. Because we were on very small roads the gradients were far harsher than we have seen so far - we only covered 23 miles. Going down into the valley my brakes got literally boiling hot (I'm glad I tested them with a little water rather than my fingers) and then it was my legs' turn to suffer on the other side. It was a great day's cycling, but we are staying two nights at the hotel to recover and I hope that is enough.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Lunch was in a bus shelter, and unusually fly-free. We had sausage with fresh brown bread rolls (not so dense this time), a leftover fig from yesterday and an orange. The oranges are most excellent here. The afternoon was much kinder to us, with a lovely foresty descent into the valley town of Villa Pouca. Villa Pouca is quite nice, but would be slightly nicer if they weren't digging up the roads left, right and centre (it's like a little slice of Poland fell into Portugal) and if they weren't building an enormous motorway bridge right across the valley.
However, it does have a fantastic cake shop. Damnit, after 27 miles of uphill, we deserve cake! We agree most strongly with Portuguese cakes and pastries, they are definitely the way forward for this world. In the absence of Eiscafes, perhaps we need to start taking pictures...
The cloud lifted, the sun came out, we packed up and, careful not to interrupt the line of ants, left the campsite. We climbed up to Valpacos, seeing some very nice houses along the way in Possacos, and Valpacos itself turned out to be quite lovely too. We looked out for a padaria (bakery) but they were all shut, as were all the other shops - then we remembered it was Sunday. So we stopped at a cafe and had some nice pastries, lemonade and ham and cheese sandwiches.
We continued with a climb up out of Valpacos, to Vassal, followed by a climb to Algeriz (are you detecting a theme here?) then we found a nice lookout point to sit down for a while. There was also a sign to a rural tourism centre about 1km away - so, despite having only been fourteen miles today, it had been a ridiculously tough 14 miles - nearly all uphill and in baking heat.
The "rural tourism centre" turned out to be a lovely little farm in a quiet village, overlooking a fantastic view. A bit expensive at 50euro but well worth it. We went to sit by the pool and take in the view and a bit of sunshine, and the owner brought us out a bowl of delicious home grown grapes. This was followed by a full tour of the fruit trees, and sampling of real live delicious figs. We've never had real figs before, only in fig rolls. We tried to explain the concept of fig rolls but I think the impression we gave was that England has the most fabulous fig cakes. Since there were no restaurants around, they cooked us a fantastic dinner for 5 euros a head - homemade bread and super-strong wine, vegetable soup, then bean and seafood stew, followed by more fruit. They were very friendly and we had an excellent stay.
Not long after that we reached our campsite on the River Rabacal, which we were pleased to find was open, had a restaurant, and was about half the cost of the Spanish one we stayed at. Unfortunately, it doesn't have red squirrels or woodpeckers but it does have free warm(ish) showers - but the ground is hard as hell, leaving us wishing we'd gone for a free-standing tent. It took us an hour and a half to pitch the tent, during which we were told we were not allowed to pitch on the nice soft grassy ground on the other side of the road (I swear, it was greener). We eventually got the tent up using rocks and the spare old tent peg I didn't know why I'd been carrying until now, to hammer out holes for our nice tent pegs.
For the record, Campsite Rabacal, near Valpacos: nice riverside location, cheap, decent facilities, but the ground is hard and stony.
We also spotted a lovely house just out of town, overlooking a similar view (minus billboard).
Wouldn't say no to that. Unfortunately, Vinhais is on the N103 which is the only real road between Braganca and Chaves, both of which are quite big - so it has a bit too much traffic to be really pleasant. It's been quite a short day today, but we've been up three or four big climbs. Tomorrow we're turning off the N103 and onto some littler ones.
We are pleased with Portugal so far. We are finding decent rooms for 25euro, and the food has been most excellent (and easy to come by). Today we had quite an early lunch because the bread we bought this morning weighed a ton and Dgym didn't want to carry it any more. It was nice bread - dense and brown and quite cakey. While we were eating, a bloke drove by in his car, beeped and waved enthusiastically at us. We're not quite sure why, perhaps he was a big fan of roadside lunches.
We then began our last few miles (about twelve of them) into Portugal, which consisted of a long climb followed by lovely winding mountain passes. The border was unmanned, as many of them are in Europe these days, but you could see where there used to be barriers.
So we carried on into Portugal, through small villages and past lots of heavily-laden chestnut trees, and found a snack bar in a little place called Raban. After some confusion in which we tried to ask for the ementa (menu) and they thought we wanted pimentos (peppers), a mixture of English, French and Spanish got us what we wanted. They didn't seem to have a menu but Dgym asked for chicken, I asked for fish and we had a lovely meal - nice home-made bread with cheese, sausage and delicious fresh olives, followed by our main courses, which were fantastic and actually served with vegetables (not something you usually get in Spain) - all for 15euro.
Raban was only 3km from the campsite we had intended to stay at, which unfortunately was closed. A real shame, because we had a recommendation for it, and it looked nice. For the benefit of anybody who is passing that way and wants a campsite - it's about 6km north of Braganca on the N103. Apparently it was open a few weeks ago but now, in early October, it is closed. About 1km away, in the direction of Braganca, is a restaurant for which we also had a recommendation. It serves wild boar casserole, and has a picture outside of a pig in a pot.
So we continued to Braganca, which is a very hilly city with a most excellent castle. Accommodation turned out to be very cheap and we got ourselves a room (with a decent hot shower for a change) for 25euro. Thursday was another rest day, and we stayed two nights, giving ourselves the chance to get an up-to-date map of the country and acquaint ourselves with the local cake shop. Both nights we ate at the Restaurant Pocas which was fantastic, huge delicious main courses and lovely puddings. We haven't had the chance to speak much Portuguese yet. Nobody has understood any of the Portuguese words we have tried to say, and quite a few people seem to know either English or French.
We have come a long way over the last two days, 114 miles in total. I was a bit worried that the sun would fry us during the afternoon but luckily we were too busy gettting drenched for that to happen. The strong head wind has also been a problem, but we have made it this far and are now set up for a short trip across the border tomorrow if our clothes dry out in time. Google Earth is a great tool if you can find an internet connection, I was able to get a very good idea of the terrain we were facing from Cervera to Portugal. In fact we would not have attempted the last two days if it hadn't been clear that we were going to be going through a lot of flattish country. We have not seen very many places to stay after leaving the mountains, if we had our days might have been somewhat shorter, and the cycling has been a little dull too, but all that looks set to change just a few miles down the road into a new country and a new set of mountains.
The trip has also been good for getting some code done, which can often be a tricky thing to fit in. I am still optimistic that we might release another game this year, but we will also have to do some straight up earning over the winter so we can afford to visit people and fund a few other crazy ideas over the next year.
Given the wetness of our clothes, the tiringness of Monday, the cheapness of our accommodation and the excellentness of the local Chinese, we were tempted to take another day off and hang around in La Baneza, but the lure of Portugal proved too much and we were on our way again on Tuesday morning.
That may have been a bit of a lousy decision given the horrible weather of Tuesday. Which started out windy, changeable and a bit annoying that it wouldn't make up its mind between baking sun and cold rain (it makes wardrobe management very hard for us) and eventually decided it was going to be thoroughly wet. My socks, which had just dried out from last night, got very soaked again, and we both soon had squelchy puddles in our shoes.
It was another long day between two large-ish places - we were hoping to be able to cut it short and find somewhere to stay and eat along the way, but as we suspected, we went fifty miles before seeing any accommodation whatsoever, which was a hotel/restaurant just before Puebla de Sanabria. We stopped, found it to be reasonably priced, and got a room. All our stuff is soaking wet.
Monday was a long day on the flatlands, taking us away from the mountains and along the River Esla, past Leon and into La Baneza. It has been suggested that the majority of the Iberian Peninsula's precipitation ends up on terrain such as this, however our observations indicate otherwise. We got a fair bit of rain in the mountains, however today has been a dry day with sunny intervals and an horrendous headwind.
We noticed a strange phenomenon in the villages we passed through - the church in each one was topped by an enormous birds nest. Dgym thinks they were put there by people to attract birds. I think they were put there by birds so they have somewhere to live.
There were also no shops in any of these villages, and we needed bread for our lunch. Fortunately, after a dramatic action-packed chase scene involving me and a bread van, we got what we wanted, and sat down to a lunch of bread, sausage, nice cake, and cheese which I thought was ok but dgym wasn't too pleased with as it was a bit too goaty for his tastes.
At lunchtime we were about half way to La Baneza and our average speed was just over 14mph, pretty good going. Then the wind really picked up and our average for the day ended up at 11.6, still not bad by our standards. The afternoon was horrible - any cyclist who tells you hills are bad is either a liar or hasn't been on the right hills. Hills are great, they protect you from the wind and give you interesting views and interesting cycling. Headwinds are a far worse enemy, the only hope is that maybe they will change direction or go away altogether. Today reminded me of the Netherlands and not in a good way, fairly boring agricultural scenery, flat open land with strong winds.
We are staying in an unstarred pension tonight, which is actully pretty decent. It cost 20euro and we get the use of a washing machine, our clothes are quite happy about this and excited to be clean again, although in my excited washing frenzy I went and put all my socks in there. And there was no dryer. Doh!
We were surprised to find a Chinese restaurant for dinner this evening, even more surprised to find that it was most excellent (apart from Dgym's chicken salsa picante thing) - my pineapple duck, and the fried vegetables were superb. Do look out for it if you are in La Baneza, restaurants like this need all the encouragement they can get.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
We reached the grand altitude of 1413m at one point today, not so hard to believe as it was preceded by an enormous climb. After that, the road dropped down into the valley of the Carrion river and things got easier. We stopped at midday for some lunch - we didn't really want to stop as we were damp and didn't want to cool down too much, but also very hungry. So we found a sheltered spot during a less rainy interval and got out the brie and baguette. (yes I know, but given the choice between French and Spanish cheese, what would you go for?) I began to change out of my damp stuff into thermal wicking gear, and just as I was pulling on my legwarmers, the sun began to show through the clouds for the first time that day. Of course. We were able to appreciate the scenery a little more after that.
They have the loveliest cows here. They have sweet faces, fluffy ears and there are lots of babies around at the moment. We saw lots today, roaming freely over the mountains and valleys, and heard even more as they all wear bells. You can nearly always hear at least one - sometimes it feels like you're being stalked by cows. We found one cow happily munching leaves off a bush at the side of the road. She heard us, turned her head and gave us the guiltiest look we have ever seen on a cow. I'm not sure what she was doing wrong, but I think we caught her at it.
We reached Guardo at about 2pm. The signs to the tourist office neatly veer you off away from the town centre and towards a nice well-kept modern looking fountainy area. The office was closed, so we followed signs to the town centre which, to put it politely, is a bit of an Aldershot. Lots of cheap nasty looking bars and cafes, run down buildings, closed businesses, and unlike the other towns we've seen here, completely lacking in charm. However, we managed to find a cheap pension, got our menu del dia for lunch (which included bunny rabbits) just in time before everything closed, then some nice pizzas in the evening.
Friday, September 29, 2006
We weren't quite ready to get back on the road this morning, so we decided to put in another day at Cervera to get another menu del dia for lunch, allow my washing to finish drying and generally gear ourselves up. Besides, we had been wanting to leave early this morning but in our excitement yesterday at having some internet access, we completely forgot to go grocery shopping.
We have been treated very well in Cervera - we had some nice cakes for breakfast, were well fed again today at lunchtime, and the place we're staying in is really nice, the lady who runs it is very sweet, she even took my damp washing off the windowsill this morning and reappeared with it this evening, all dried and ironed. It is actually a hostal we are staying in, not a hostel - there is a difference. For the benefit the nice young gentleman who asked what a pension was, and anybody else who is interested, here is an explanation of the various types of accommodation.
We had nice pizza for dinner. We're on our way again tomorrow morning, honest.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Today was a short one. It was going to be longer, but we both felt like we were cycling through treacle - probably a combination of poor nutrition over the past few days, and quite a long day yesterday.
We stopped in Cervera around lunchtime and got ourselves a room in a hostel (which is nicer than the word "hostel" would suggest, it's just a nice little room with the skin of a dead goat on the floor). After freshening up a bit, we headed out to where we'd seen a sign for "menu del dia" for 8 euro - and had the meal we had been waiting for the past four days. A huge vat of noodle soup from which we were allowed to refill freely, followed by an enormous plate of chickpeas with vegetables and various meats (including a large hairy lump of pig fat which we ignored) - we stuffed ourselves silly, and then had to choose desserts. We didn't know what any of them were and the waitress was having trouble trying to explain them to us - so, bless her, she just brought out one of each for us. THAT was the meal we needed! Menu del dia seems to be what we need - very good value, includes drinks and bread and everything.
Tomorrow, instead of taking the boring straight road west out of Cervera, we're taking the scenic mountain route. Hopefully our legs will be ready for it.
Apart from the beginning of the day our route has flattened out a little. There were even some stages where we made some progress. Tonight we finally found an open campsite and even had a decent meal. We met a lovely Yorkshire couple also camping here and joined them for dinner. No one seemed particulary impressed with Spain as a touring country but we are now looking forward to Portugal even more and we know one good campsite and restaurant to go to, which is great as they are just as we come in. Another week and we will be there.
Last night we had fruit sandwiches for dinner. The restaurant that had been open in Soncillo when we arrived, had closed by 7pm. The owners of the shop over the road sent us down the road to a restaurant that was supposedly 1km away. At 500m away, there was no sign of it (and the next day when we headed further down that way there was still no sign of it) so we went back into town, by which time most of the shops had closed and we were only able to buy bread. Combined with our standard payload of kiwis, pears, olives, etc. we were able to make ourselves a fine dinner. Pear sandwiches is surely what posh people eat at dinner parties, right? The food of gods.
Early today we reached the grand height of 1020m before dropping down into the next valley. It's pretty amazing to think that since leaving Bilbao, we had climbed over a kilometre.
Most of today was valleys. We stopped for a picnic by the River Ebro, which included the most revolting cheese ever made. it was sweet and yellow and had a nasty aftertaste and absolutely no redeeming features - I wish I remembered the name so I could recommend you never buy it. Even Poland didn't sink to such cheesy lows.
We encountered a bunch of English people shortly after leaving Soncillo, they were gathered outside a pub in a neighbouring village, looked like some kind of car club as there was a bunch of posh-looking cars parked nearby with "GB" stickers on. We don't see many English people on our travels so we said hello, and one by one they overtook us as we climbed up the hill, some honking and waving.
We reached our destination of Aguilar de Campoo at about 5pm. One good thing about Spain is that this is not too late for tourist offices to be open (in fact, they're often only just opening after siesta). So we found out that there was a campsite 2.5km out of town, and headed for that. What the lady in the tourist office failed to mention was that it was more like 4km out of town, half way up a mountainside. At least it was open... Fortunately the campsite had a restaurant so we didn't need to go back down for dinner.
We ended up camping about three spots away from a retired Yorkshire couple, Cynthia and Frank, who were staying in a camper van and making day cycling trips around the area. Frank came over to chat as we were pitching up, told us that there were loads of red squirrels around and that the restaurant had a menu de dia at 8:30pm that night. That's the kind of information we like! We saw some excellent squirrels - too dark and too far away to take pictures unfortunately, but they were lovely. They make little chirpy noises as they wave their tails around, it's very sweet. At 8:30 we headed for the restaurant and had dinner with Cynthia and Frank, in what was the best meal we have had since getting into Spain (well, OK, compared to "salty plateful of grease", "nibbling on tinned sardines" and "fruit sandwiches" you can't really go wrong, but it was nice).
It's nice to occasionally run into somebody who speaks your language, and they certainly seemed to be having an interesting time travelling the world with their camper van. Nice to find somebody else who agrees about Spain being very difficult for food. Apparently Portugal is much easier, and we were enthused by descriptions such as "piri-piri chicken everywhere" and "the cakes are lovely". We also went away with a campsite and restaurant recommendation (mmm wild boar casserole) for Braganca, which will be our first stop in Portugal in a few days time.
We're quite high up, although not quite sure how high. On Monday we travelled from Balmaseda to Espinosa de los Monteros, where we found a campsite, tried to camp, but for some reason or other, were not allowed to. (See, we are actually trying to use our new tent, just not having much luck). However, they did have cheap rooms at the campsite, (it would have been even cheaper if Dgym hadn't inadvertently pretended we were over 30), with free wifi in the room. Pretty nice.
Today we didn't come very far, at least not in the horizontal plane, and got to Soncillo, where we are staying in a very nice guest house. Vertically, we've come quite a way. We've had a lovely descent or two but also climbed a fair bit - over all we have gone up. The sun is pretty harsh, we're grabbing shady spots wherever we can and getting through a lot of suncream.
The eating situation is slightly awkward, they don't seem so keen on it here. It seems to be a choice between nibbling on raciones and sandwiches in a bar, not really a sustaining meal for a cyclist, or going to a cafe and having platos combinados - described as potatoes, eggs and chorizo, for example, but turns out to be an extremely greasy salty plate of fried egg & chips with chorizo. We did find a proper restaurant last night but it was about 25euro a dish, way out of our budget. We're getting by anyway, and supplementing the bar food with tins of sweetcorn, olives and lots of fruit.
There are a lot of flies up here, which is pretty annoying, they seem to gather particularly in the bars and eating areas. (Right now I would really like to sit down to a nice big roast dinner without flies swarming around my head).
The views have been lovely. We've been cycling past / around a set of mountains which are covered in forest, and topped by sheer cliff faces - which, at the start of yesterday, seemed a long way off and very high up. They now seem pretty close and not so far up at all. It's hard work climbing up, but the views are spectacular and very much worth it.
The cycling experience is similar to France - we get lots of people waving at us and saying hello, and drivers honking their horns in encouragement (at least I hope it's encouragement). The people are friendly, we know pretty much no Spanish but that doesn't stop anybody chatting to us! We had a nice chat with a deaf-mute bloke this morning, actually the most coherent conversation we've had here, as he was obviously good at using alternative means of communication.
Today we did a bit more up and a bit more down. After one climb we were actually looking down on the tops of the cliffs that had seemed so very far away and so very far up yesterday. Unfortunately the town we ended up in was very small and we failed to get any food before finding out that the only restaurant shut early and was staying shut. We made do with what we had - pear sandwiches. Not a great ending to an otherwise very pleasant day.
Today we continued up the valley on the hardest part of the journey yet. The hills are really deceptive here - we have been caught out at the brow of hills to find that the road isn't flat or going down as we had percieved but is still ascending. It only really sunk in exactly what we had achieved when we got to the top of the longest hill and looked back to see a stunning view beneath us.
The sun and the long ascents without any shade made for some tough conditions, but thankfully it was mostly quite cloudy and the sense of accomplishment and an orange at the top of the hill made it all worth while.
This evening we found a campsite that wouldn't let us camp, but gave us a room instead for 23 euro. That includes breakfast and internet access from our room. We even got a decent dinner which is very hard to do here because they have nothing but ham, cheese and fish. This time we went to a grocers to get some fruit and vegetables into our diet. I long for a proper meal, quite how a country's most famous and only available dish can be "unvaried nibbles is beyond me and beyond a joke. Still, the cycling is excellent and we are getting by.
Monday, September 25, 2006
Arriving anywhere new on a Sunday tends to be a problem. The good news was that we already had a map, the bad news was that it is thirty years old, and a very strong head wind was making us work hard at going downhill. The hills have been massive and the views have been worth it. We have however stopped because of hunger, lots of bars are open and they seem to have tapas at the counter but we have yet to figure out how to get a full meal. The town we have stopped in is very picturesque and hopefully we will be posting some pictures.
I am becoming a little concerned about the size of my thighs, but I still have a way to go before they make me look any odder. A small mercy.
Sunday was an early start, forced upon us by the ferry's arrival at 8am local time (7am according to our body clocks) and the awakening made no more pleasant by the fact that it came only about three hours after the drunken howling chav-monkeys had finally left us in peace, so we were not exactly chirpy when we rolled off the ferry.
Having looked at our map and got a rough idea of where to go first, we headed out of the ferry port and started to look for signs to the towns along the route. It was then we began to notice something a little disturbing - the roads on the map were different to what we were seeing, and the town names on the signposts kind of corresponded to what was on the map, but were spelt differently, sometimes recognisably and sometimes not. We had been vaguely aware that the map was old enough to have a "50p" price tag stuck on it - but on closer inspection noted that it was older than both of us, and had celebrated its thirtieth birthday this year. (This is what happens when you borrow maps off your dad ;) During those thirty years, roads had become motorways and, according to a local, town names had changed. There is a local language here, I think it's Basque, perhaps that has something to do with the different version of town names. Well, once we figured that out things weren't so bad, and we started off for Balmaseda (formerly known as Valmaseda).
It was not the most favourable of cycling days. Northern Spain is quite mountainous, so we knew there was going to be a fair bit of climbing ahead, although its nature was a little surprising. The gradients are of the evil kind that are so gentle, you think it's flat - yet you're spinning away in your lowest gear and wondering what's wrong with your bicycle that it's so much hard work. And then you look behind you and see you have indeed been climbing quite a lot. We even managed to find a cycle path, which we followed for a while, although it suddenly ended and spat us out onto the left hand side of the road, perhaps not the best thing to do!
The weather is not brilliant, it's windy as hell and the rainstorms have been coming and going all day. However, the scenery is lovely. We ended up in Balmaseda around lunchtime, the first thing we saw there was an attractive church and lovely narrow streets full of beautiful old buildings. Dgym wandered off to look around and a young girl of about ten came to talk to me, she spoke a little English and told me her name (wish I could remember it) and that she lived here. Charmed by the town and seriously lacking in sleep, we resolved to stop and try to stay the night. Unfortunately there was no campsite nearby, but we found a pension for 33euro and it's pretty nice.
Mum, hel and I went into Chichester at lunchtime on Friday and got caught in a fantastic downpour. At least we all had coats on but our trousers, socks and shoes got soaked through. The weather dried up quicker than my shoes so when we set off for Portsmouth the sun was shining on me and my new plastic bag socks.
The ferry left a little late and the sea has been a little choppy but so far so good.
We spent all day on a ferry, which can be a bit dull but we did at least see some dolphins.
It's not far from Bosham to Portsmouth, and our ferry departed at 21:15 so we didn't leave until late afternoon, and spent most of the day in Bosham, apart from a short trip to Chichester during which it rained so hard we were soon wading through water three inches deep and getting our trousers and shoes thoroughly soaked through.
The ride to Portsmouth took us high up, overlooking the coast. We rolled down into Portsmouth, which is a beautiful city of submerged shopping trolleys, smashed phone boxes, and drunk teenagers who found Dgym's trike hilarious. Oh, and a nice friendly bloke on a bike who helped us find the ferry port. Unfortunately the ferry is... well, let's just say if somebody put that much human scum in a boat all at once and sent it out to sea, you'd hope the intention might be to sink it, not inflict it on Spain. We were woken up all night by drunken chavs shouting, whooping and fighting, and some drunk Spanish bloke trying to batter our door down. Our Saturday evenings entertainment was tone-deaf karaoke from a nearby cabin, courtesy of someone who knew approximately one eighth of the words to various Madonna songs. Throughout the trip there was a human zoo outside our door. And P&O, bless their naive little souls, kept announcing their cheap booze deals / competitions with free drinks as prizes. Nice one guys.
We spent quite a lot of time in the cabin, due to the turbulence of the Atlantic Ocean, I found it very hard to sit or stand anywhere inside the boat without feeling queasy. It was nice to stand out on deck for a while, very windy but we saw a couple of dolphins splashing around.
We are finally back on the road again after two months spent eating curry, apple crumble and all the other stuff we missed, visiting everybody (it was nice to see you all) - and we even got to see the biggest garden spade in the world. We managed to time things quite nicely to see our littlest nephew figure out the whole walking thing - when we came back in July, he was at the standing for a couple of seconds before falling on his bum kind of stage, and we don't claim to have anything to do with this but by the time we left he was a pro. I started with the online freelancing, which has gone very well and reinforces our belief that we can support ourselves just fine in a foreign country. We also both revived our rusty sewing skills and made lovely little cases for our lovely little laptops.
We bought our new tent, the Terra Nova LaserLarge, tested it out and found it to be a dwelling of great size and luxury. Well, it's both bigger and lighter than the last one, and Dgym's feet don't stick out the end, which is a big plus.
We are now on our way to Portugal. Yesterday we cycled from Guildford to Bosham (on the south coast, near Chichester). This afternoon we will ride to Portsmouth, from which we will board the ferry. Thirty hours later (yes, thirty) we will arrive in Bilbao, on the north coast of Spain, and will doubtless struggle our way up plenty of mountains in order to reach our destination which is Somewhere In Portugal. The precise location of Somewhere is not yet known, but it will most likely be in the North or Central parts, definitely not in the expensive southern Algarve regions. Basically, we will come in from a north-easterly kind of direction, and keep going until we find somewhere we like the look of. We will then use our vast knowledge of Portuguese ("piri-piri" is all we know, and surely all we need) to get ourselves a long term let for the winter. You will all then come out and visit us when you want a nice break from your freezy British winter.
If we like Portugal, we might spend next year looking for a house to buy there. If we don't, we might spend some more time in Slovakia and maybe buy somewhere there instead. We really liked what we saw of Slovakia.
The ride yesterday was pretty harsh. We have ridden to Bosham before so we knew what was in store, the biggest challenge being the South Downs ridge, which is unavoidable. The road that goes up the Downs, just after South Harting, is the worst kind of climb, in that they didn't bother to make it nice and gently winding up the hill - it just goes straight up. The gradient must be at least 14% and it goes on for about half a mile. I know cars that probably wouldn't get up there. Last time we pushed our bikes up. This time Dgym had a bike he couldn't really push, and I was determined not to have to push mine (it's harder work anyway with that kind of load) so we did cycle up but we would stop every 100 yards or so towards the top. Dgym does that all the time because it's easy on the trike, but it's the first time I've had to stop. It was great to have made it up there, but maybe next time we'll manage to find a nice route over the Downs. (The climb up the other side of that particular hill is really good actually - it's drawn out over enough distance that it's pleasantly challenging rather than insane).
Once over the Downs, we were suddenly hit by a strong headwind. The forecast had been for a 25mph headwind but we hadn't really felt it until then. Fortunately, the hills were mostly over by then so we just struggled on into Bosham with thoughts of a nice hot shower and a long sleep.
We made a good start today - we left a full half an hour earlier than last time and only had half the distance to cover. No description of a trip vould be complete without at least ten things being nice, so the weathear was nice, some of the roads were nice and feeling the strength being sapped from your legs at an alarming rate due to a general lack of fitness was nice. There are some good hills the way we went and it didn't matter how steep they were it was still better than endless flat, I wonder how long that sentiment will last. It could be that we end up becoming fed up of hills, mountains, flats and everything in between which might be as good a point to stop as any. then we will have to either fly or sail and I think hel will take a lot of convincing on either front.
Friday, August 25, 2006
We got back at 6:30 and went for our last Slovakian meal - for starters, a selection of meats and cheeses with bread (including super-cheesy super-garlicky spread) then dgym had steak with blue cheese sauce and I had pork stuffed with sheeps cheese and peppers. After all that and the yoghurt-and-cheese topped greek salad, we were feeling a bit cheesed out.
On Thursday we got up at 6:30am, checked out of our luxurious residence and headed for the bus station. Unfortunately the 8am bus was full and the next was at three, so instead we went to the train station and got on the 9:20 Eurocity to Praha (We were discussing whether to call it Prague or Praha. I'm all for calling places by their proper names but at the same time it seems a bit pretentious. We like Bratislava all the more for not presenting us with this dilemma.)
The train was horribly packed to begin with, reminded me of the good old days in London rush hour, but we got a seat eventually. This time we managed to get on a direct train and realised what we'd done wrong on the out-journey: gone from the wrong station in Prague - we should have gone from Holesovice, not the main station.
We arrived in Prague at lunchtime, hungry and ready for some dumpling action. We went to Prague about a year and a half ago, so we know where to go and get dumplings (Kolkovna, Staroměstská metro) and we shared a dish of assorted meats, dumplings and cabbages.
Being encumbered with luggage, we only had a little wander around, tested the ice cream (decent enough but expensive) and found ourselves a park behind the main square, furnished with a murky pond, plastic fountain and huge tree that looked like it had been split in two by lightning. We sat around for a couple of hours, chilling and watching two little girls gradually empty the pond by means of plastic bottles.
In the evening we had dinner at an old favourite of ours, Titanic (near Muzeum but tucked right out of the way, we found it during a random wander). We both had steak, with potato pancakes and peas, all of which were fantastic - the steak was even better than I remembered it being. I don't think the prices had even changed since last time (yes, we're used to the English habit of pushing up prices by super-inflationary amounts every few months).
Prague is a busy, busy city - there are some beautiful buildings there and several years ago it was probably a lovely place to visit - but the tourist industry has gone insane there - too many people, too many souvenir stalls, Russian doll shops, overpriced restaurants - the contrast with Bratislava is amazing. Bratislava is a lot more relaxed, fewer tourists, not overrun by tacky souvenir shops, you can easily find a bench to sit on in the centre, and sure there are some overpriced restaurants but it's easy to find good ones. It also has some entertainingly bad jugglers. I hope Bratislava doesn't turn into Prague.
After dinner, we went to the airport and caught our flight home. Again we were delayed leaving, delayed arriving and our baggage took ages to come out - we got past customs at about 00:40, well after the last train home. So we spent another jolly night at Gatwick South Terminal (yes there have been previous jolly nights) except this one was a bit less jolly as it was noisy as hell, and they've changed the seating so there are fewer squishy benches to lie on. We probably got about half an hours sleep each, before catching the first train at 5:30.
And so we're back. Hopefully there's some nice pictures of the trip which will be posted shortly - in the mean time, look at a few of Pete's pictures, which includes pictures of our zoo trip, and of the scary highwire thing.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
We have spent the past three days exploring Vienna. Sunday was really only a half day - we were all pretty tired on Saturday night, and Dgym and I were kept up by a huge grasshopper or cricket or something (it was about 3 inches long) that decided to hop into our room at about 2am, then jump and fly around for a bit and be very hard to coax back out of the room again. We eventually managed to trap it in the wash bag and set it free as far away from the room as possible, and it was about 4am by then.
So on Sunday we got a taxi to Petrzalka, the southern station of Bratislava and boarded the train to Vienna. The buildings of Bratislava disappear fairly quickly and quickly turn into fields and woods, with hills in the distance. Once in Austria we started seeing lots and lots of wind turbines, far more than we've seen anywhere else.
We arrived in Sudbahnhof and, not knowing how or where to buy bus or tram tickets (or which ones to get) we started walking towards the town centre.
The highlight of Sunday had to be the visit to the Eiscafe (which are even better in Vienna than in Germany, although more expensive) - we had just sat down outside the cafe with our overloaded Kugels when Pete pointed that Ant and Dec had just finished eating at the same cafe and were about to walk past us (for non-UK readers, they are English TV presenters). They were both shorter than you'd think, and quite scruffy. But apparently they gave me a really dirty look when I took a chair from a nearby unoccupied table (there were only three chairs to a table). I don't know why, as it wasn't their table. Maybe they heard us speaking English in an English accent, saw that we were of the generation who is supposed to recognise Ant and Dec on the street, and then I went in their general direction to get the chair, probably looked straight through them, and then walked off.
At least they have good taste in ice cream - I had lemon and blackcurrant - the lemon was at the bottom, and as I got to the bottom it combined with the taste of the cone to produce a cheesecakey flavour. Mmmm.
Dgym and I took the underground out to meet Maike in the afternoon, it was lovely to see her again - we played board games for a while and then went back into town to meet Rachael and Pete (who had spent the afternoon hiding from the rain) for dinner. We found an all you can eat sushi buffet and, well, ate all we could.
On Monday we went to Schloss Schönbrunn to visit the zoo and see the beautiful grounds and buildings. The zoo was pretty good, among other things we saw little tiger cubs with enormous paws, tiny monkeys carrying even tinier baby monkeys on their backs, otters with friendly faces, giraffes, elephants, penguins, and in the rainforest house you could walk through a dark room full of bats.
We went back to Bratislava for dinner, this time we stayed out of the Old Town and went to a Slovak restaurant on the high street - much cheaper than the tourist areas, came to about £5 per head with beer and pudding and stuff and was very nice.
Rachael and Pete have those job thingys to go back to, so we put them on a coach to the airport on Tuesday morning and spent the rest of the day having a nice relaxing walk around and eating ice cream and chocolate on their behalf. Vienna is pretty expensive compared to Bratislava, although not as high as England prices - but food quality is excellent. We had a nice relaxing walk around. In the evening we met up with Maike again in a cafe with over 800 board games, which were all stacked up in huge piles everywhere. We spent the evening playing games and eating chilli con carne. We really liked the idea of this cafe - so we have decided when we settle down, wherever that may be, we will set up an internet cafe with board games, snacks and free wifi. You will also be able to get your bike fixed there.
We have finished with Vienna for this trip - we have one day left in Bratislava, and will spend Thursday in Prague. Three capital cities in a week's holiday is not bad going.
Rachael and Pete are joining us in Bratislava for the weekend - they arrived late last night at the same hostel we're staying in. Also arrivng at the hostel, at 6am, not very quietly, was our next door neighbour. (the rooms are arranged in pairs and each pair shares a bathroom). Which kept me awake until about 9 before they finally settled down or went out or something, and I could fall asleep again.
The four of us headed into town around midday, had some sandwiches and coffee and then headed up to the castle, where we found the da Vinci exhibition we had been looking for - with copies of his notes, wooden mockups of some of them and their modern-day equivalents - including a wooden model of the bicycle design, displayed next to a very nice carbon racing bike, mmmm. Except that the bicycle design was most likely not drawn by Leonardo - comparing the scruffy sketchy style of that drawing to the clean precision of his others, it's quite clear to see.
The castle has some nice views over the city surrounding regions - we were able to wave at both Hungary and Austria, and saw the huge panelak complex (lots and lots of blocks of flats) to the south of the city.
It was a bit cooler by then so we decided to cross over the river and have a go on the playground. Pete, being a vertigo sufferer, decided to stay on the ground. The three of us got practising on the lower level which, like the other levels, consists of a circuit of 8 or so stretches of different rope-based activities, each a few metres long - e.g. walking along a cable while holding onto two lengths of rope, or stepping between several loops of rope. (will post pictures when we get back next week). The difference between the lower level and the other two is that you can use the lower level for free, it's about a foot off the ground and you don't need safety gear. After mastering (well, sort of) the ground level, we hired our safety kit, were taught how to clip/unclip the karabiners, always have at least one of them attached to something, don't accidentally unclip somebody else, etc. and taken up to the second level.
At which point I discovered the vertigo I never knew I had (I'm absolutely fine on the rope bridges at soft play), was unable to get onto the ropes, waited a minute, tried to pull myself together and just go for it but realised my legs were shaking like hell and I'd completely lost my cool. Went back down to try and get more of a feel for things on the lower level by doing them with my eyes closed, but before I got half way around, I was sweating and still quite shaky. The upper levels hadn't looked scary before I went up there - but now, the more I looked at them, the worse I felt about them. So I went to sit with Pete and watch Rachael and Dgym, who were both doing really well - they both got all the way around the middle level and across the first leg of the top one before turning back and aerial-sliding back down. We were also watching a little Japanese boy on the middle level who had been really scared at first but the instructor lady was helping him around and he was doing really well. He made it all the way round eventually (well, you have to - once you've started, you have to either complete the circuit or go back the way you came).
Vertigo aside, this puts Slovakia waaay ahead in our "country with the best playgrounds" stakes. We had been impressed by the quality and variety of playground equipment in Spain and Poland (and there are even a few good ones in England), but this one blows them all away. It's fantastic that a facility like this is available, that you can stick your kids 20ft up in the air on a harness and watch them wobble along ropes and beams - and not at a huge cost (in fact, it's free if you get vertigo and chicken out at the last minute). Amazing playgrounds, free wifi, Italian ice cream, virtually car-free streets in the centre... Bratislava's definitely our kind of city. Tomorrow we're off to Vienna for the day.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
We have spent a lovely couple of days wandering around Bratislava.
On Thursday we slept till midday but were still quite tired. We had a huge lunch then sat by the Danube for a while, watching tiny shy lizards scamper back and forth when they thought we weren't looking. We then crossed the river via the covered walkway and sat on a bench under some shady trees to let our stomachs get on with some serious digesting (we were rushing so much on Wednesday we didn't have time to eat very well, so I think our stomachs were surprised to get food).
While on the 'other' side of the river, we paid a visit to the shopping centre. After a visit to the juice bar (where I had a custom combo of lemon, apple and ginger that might as well not have had the apple and ginger - very zingy and awakening, it's a good think I like lemons) Dgym showed me the way to the pet shop (he's been to Bratislava before) where we saw fish, bunnies, and most importantly, tiny tortoises feasting on pineapple chunks.
Outside the shopping centre is the ultimate playground - well, there's a normal kiddie playground and then there's an adventure playground with high wires, climbing wall, etc. I think you pay 50Sk to hire the safety equipment - there was a bit too much sunshine for comfort on Thursday but hopefully we will be able to do it on a cooler day.
Bratislava has city-centre wifi. Supposedly all three central squares (Main, Primatial, Frantiskanske) are covered but we could only get on in Frantiskanske - the networks seemed completely firewalled elsewhere. But there are always a few people sitting around with laptops, and it's really nice not to be the only ones!
On Friday I woke up two hours earlier than dgym, fully recovered, although he was still a bit knackered. So we decided on a nice relaxing trek around a museum (always surprisingly hard work). We'd been aiming for the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the History museum. Noting that it was called SNM (Slovak National Museum) we went for the first thing labelled as such, not realising that SNM is a group of museums. So we ended up in the Natural History museum instead, browsing a mammoth exhibition and a rock collection (not as extensive as the rock collection in the Prague museum).
We also had some pancakes on Friday. They tend to be filled with huge quantities of nuts, caramel, cream, fruit, etc. here. I think I'm more of a crepes-au-citron kind of person.
Today has been a crazy day of travel. When booking our trip to Bratislava, we discovered that direct flights there only go from Stansted, which is a real pain to get to. Our alternatives were either a 22-hour coach trip from London to Vienna, or flying from Gatwick to Prague and getting a 4-hour coach to Bratislava. We decided to go with the latter.
Flying was real fun. What with the current chaos in the UK, we had to get up at 7am to be at checkin three hours before our midday flight. The queues for security were huge, hardly surprising once you get there and have to remove your shoes, put them separately through the X-Ray scanner, undergo a body search, put your shoes back on and then have all your suspicious-looking items (laptops, baby milk, medicine, etc) scrutinised with various little machines and scanners. Our laptops turned out not to be terrorist equipment, thank goodness, so we were eventually able to board the plane, which took off about half an hour late.
Arriving late, and waiting ages for our bags to come through, resulted in the last bus leaving for Bratislava without us. Our backup option was to get the train.
If a Swiss person told you the Czech railways were a bit rubbish, you might not believe them. However, we are English, we know bad train systems when we see them, and we weren't very impressed with the Czech trains. Somehow the internet managed to lie to me and tell me that we needed to change trains at Pardubice, so we got on the Pardubice train at Prague. Our train sat outside Pardubice for about 20 minutes - we later learned this was most likely down to waiting for our connecting train to clear the platform. When we got into Pardubice, the clock said we'd missed it by 3 minutes but the info board seemed to think it was still hanging around and delayed by 10 minutes.
This station was particularly confusing in that it used two sets of numbers - as well as the platform numbers (1-4) it also had 'side' numbers (1-8) Each platform has two sides, I suppose a side is equivalent to a UK platform. It took us a while to figure that one out, it might have helped if they'd used two different numbering systems. We eventually found what might be our train on platform 4, side 1 - it had the right time and service number - but the lady on the platform told us it's going to Breclaw. In despair, we retreated to the ticket office and found out the time of the next train. We went to the platform and sat and waited. Now, the platforms have one display on each side. They tell you quite early on which platform your train will arrive (I suppose that is good) but once you're on the platform, no information is displayed until about a minute before the train gets in. That includes delays. You have to run back to the concourse for that. Our train was delayed for 20 minutes, we were on the platform so had no idea about this, and as our train's time came and went we got rather worried that it might have been and gone on another platform. Eventually, about 25 minutes after its due time, the info screen popped up to tell us that the train was arriving on this side and it was 20 minutes late. The train turned out to have come from Prague anyway. Never mind, eh?
However, to their credit, they do play charming little xylophone tunes before station announcements.
We reached Bratislava eventually at about 11pm. Not having a clue where in town we were, having no Slovak money, etc. but seeing some central-looking buildings in the distance, we headed for those. We eventually found our cash machine and a taxi and made our way to our dodgy student halls/summer hostel accommodation. Fortunately it was 24 hour check in. While waiting to be checked in, a Slovak girl waved at me and whispered the advice that "It's deessgaaahsting here". Well, we weren't expecting much for 10 quid a night and we've stayed in some pretty gross places. The room turned out to be not too bad. The bathroom and beds were clean, and those are the important bits. The bits inbetween are a bit shabby, just typical student halls stuff, and we try to avoid touching those bits - but it's only the third-skankiest place we've stayed in and at least we're not afraid to use the shower. :)
Monday, August 07, 2006
We still don't have any more games, but we do have a new Time Trial mode for SET, so even if there is no one else playing when you visit there is still something to do.
Monday, July 31, 2006
We met a German family while queueing for the ferry - loaded with brightly-coloured Ortlieb panniers, they were from Hamburg and used to make regular trips to Norfolk on the Hamburg-Harwich route, unfortunately it's now closed, so now they have to make the trip to Esbjerg first (although they had taken the train for that part).
The first thing we did on arrival in Harwich was to ride into town in search of our first curry in two months - with the help of a passer-by, we were successful and sat down to a light lunch of chicken jalfrezi and vegetable balti.
On the train home (yes, we got the train - there is a slight obstruction in between Harwich and Surrey, and it's called London) we met another cyclist, Ed, a student who was on his way back from a four-week trip from Calais to Amsterdam. He'd been camping with a mate and, as students do, they had been living off a rice-and-tuna based concoction for pretty much every meal. He'd also previously been on a cycling trip to Norway, which he said was fantastic. Norway's on our list of places-to-go, but moreso on our list of places-to-go-when-we're-rich, the tuna-and-rice lifestyle is not for us.
We parted ways at Liverpool Street station, and dgym and I set out upon a hot, noisy, busy and smelly trip across London. A real shock to the system after the deserted lanes of Denmark. We got on our train at Waterloo and were greeted with the typical UK grumpiness we had missed so much when the guard started frowning at dgym's trike and warning us "that area's meant for three bikes, not one, you'd better make sure you fit within the yellow line" (of course two hours later the whole train would be packed out with sweating commuter bodies and that would be just fine...)
We had a fantastic curry for dinner that evening, and since getting back, we've managed to catch up on a few of the things we've been missing...
So, what happens next?
We're off to Bratislava/Vienna in a couple of weeks, no bicycles so it's not strictly a bike hippy trip but no doubt you'll hear about it anyway. Inbetween now and then, we'll be getting the bikes ready for the next big trip, buying a tent that's big enough for dgym (we are currently arguing over the Vaude Taurus Ultralight and the Terra Nova Laserlarge) and maybe taking a short trip to test everything out.
After Bratislava, we will be spending some time in Dorset on family business, and in late September sailing off to Spain for our autumn/winter trip.
Friday, July 21, 2006
On Sunday we left Poland, a little earlier than planned as we'd got a bit tired of the mozzy swatting (a few still managed to get in despite our ingenius contraption) and the heat - although this did mean leaving behind mountains of cheap enormous juicy cherries, and piles of moist delicious cake. Our ferry left at 10pm from Swinoujscie, so we decided to leave our room in the morning and cycle into Germany for one last Eiscafe experience.
This one contained chocolate and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, topped with two truffles:
This is Eis und Heiss - vanilla ice cream separated from a layer of warm sour cherries by an insulating biscuit layer:
The ferry cabin was cheap, not particularly comfortable but we got a reasonable night's sleep until we were brutally woken at 7am by the announcement that we'd be arriving in an hour and a half, and breakfast was available in the cafe. All excited to wake up in a new place, I jumped out of bed and headed for the decks - on the left you could see the coast of Denmark, with a line of wind turbines queuing up to greet us, and on the right hand side was the huge Oresund bridge from Copenhagen to Malmo, with Sweden in the distance. We're not planning on visiting Sweden in the near future (too expensive), but it was nice to wave at it all the same.
Copenhagen seemed like a pleasant city, lots of nice watery bits and the busiest part seemed to be the cycle lanes. We only really stopped to get money, a map and some pastries but it's probably worth a longer visit at some point when we can afford Danish prices. The pastries were lovely - as well as the familiar fruity-centered wonders you get in England, there are also pastries featuring sesame seeds, poppy seeds and honey. And Danish money is awesome - when you have coins with holes in, that seems like a good enough reason not to adopt the Euro.
Our first day cycling in Denmark wasn't so good, we ended up on a cycle path along a noisy main road from Copenhagen to Roskilde. We weren't in the best of spirits by the time we reached Roskilde, so decided to stop for the night, use the tent for its intended purpose, and head for the town campsite. The campsite was very pretty, on the shores of Roskilde Fjord, you could see the town across the water. It was quite a cramped night as dgym is a bit too long for the tent, but it was lovely to wake up and look out over the water. We also got online that evening and booked our ferry home for two days later - Denmark is about as expensive as England so we can't really afford to stay for long.
On our second day we took the train from Roskilde, taking us away from the island of Sjaelland, across the island of Fyn, and to Kolding, in the east of the Jutland mainland. Getting on the train was a bit of an ordeal - we were warned beforehand that we'd have to disassemble dgym's trike so we spent 45 minutes doing this on the platform before the train arrived, during which we managed to use most of the useful bits and pieces we had with us (cable ties, duct tape, string, luggage straps). We arrived in Kolding about 4pm and spent most of the evening getting to Vejen, by means of lots of pretty little lanes winding through farmland - it was a really lovely afternoon's cycling. We arrived at the campsite in Vejen very hot and grubby and were immediately directed to a restaurant which was about to close but would feed us if we hurried. So we showed up at the restaurant hot and grubby and smelly, freshened up and then had a lovely meal. We got back to the campsite just in time to put up our tent before darkness fell.
On the Wednesday we woke at about 6:30am, eventually decided we weren't going back to sleep, got up, packed and left about 8:30 loaded with fresh water and peanut cookies from the campsite shop, with the aim of getting to Esbjerg for our 7pm ferry. We did pretty well, reached Esbjerg about 1pm and found a Spar and a shady spot, just as the midday heat was threatening to roast us alive, our water levels were very low and we were in need of some lunch (we went a very long way without seeing a shop or pub). We lurked in shady spots all afternoon before boarding the ferry.
We've had a lovely couple of days cycling in Denmark - we've seen hills and flats, fields of wheat, woodland, heathland, cows, horses and lots of butterflies. In many ways it's similar to the Netherlands - a good and well-used cycle network, friendly people who speak incredibly good English, quite expensive, lots of farmland - however, Denmark is hillier and the landscape is more varied, making for more interesting cycling.
Ordering the ferry tickets back to the UK was done via the internet using my phone - not a very cheap thing to do at all, which explains my panicked state at the time. This is how we ended up with tickets for the Wednesday 19:00 sailing from Esbjerg - which was only four days cycling away. It isn't possible to cycle from one port to the other anyway, you have to get the train over one of the bridges as they didn't bother with a cycle path along the motorway, we just got on the train a little earlier than we had to, and didn't get off quite as soon as we could have. The bridge is 20km across and we were on the train for 200km, but at least we were in a good position to get to our ferry on time.
There was a small problem with taking my trike on the train, the lady at the ticket desk actually came out to look at it and I explained which bits I could take apart and the final decision was that if I disassembled most of it it would probably be ok but it was up to the conductor in the end. So we went to the platform and I spent half an hour taking the front wheels and the seat off and making the trike shorter as well. When the train arrived there wasn't even a hint of a problem from the conductor, and there was plenty of room for the trike in its road going state, but never mind.
By the time the train had arrived in Kolding and I had put everything back together again it was gone four o'clock and we set out for Vejen which was another 20km away. This turned out to be one of the best bits of cycling that I can remember. The sky was perfectly blue but the sun wasn't unbearable and the terrain was varied with some challenging enough hills. The countryside was really beautiful and there were plenty of horses, sheep and cows to see along the way. In a way it was a bit of a shame as it was very similar to England, and it reminded me of how good England would be for cycling if it didn't have such a car problem.
We arrived in Vejen quite late, but one nice thing about camping is that this isn't a problem - there was still plenty of room. One problem in Vejen is that it has 5 pizza/kebab shops and no restaurants, even a friendly local didn't know where a restaurant was, and was quite sure there wern't any left. Luckily the lady at the camping ground knew of one and kindly phoned to check that they were open, which they were but only for the next 20 minutes. So it was a mad dash for food that turned out to be thouroughly worth it - I almost wept when I discovered that the vegetables were lightly curried - followed by another mad dash to get back to the campsite and put up the tent before the sun went down. We made it with about 5 minutes to spare.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Those of you who know us personally will be pleased to learn we have been souvenir shopping, and bought a number of these:
Unfortunately, they ran out so you won't all get one. Fortunately, they had plenty of these left:
so everybody should be happy one way or another. You can always swap.
Lots of love,
Hel & Dgym
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Plagued by swarms of mosquitoes, and feeling like they were imprisoning us in a hot stuffy room at night, we had been scouring the shops for a mosquito net for quite some time, without any luck.
Last night in a stroke of genius I got out the tent to see whether there was any netting on it, and if we could somehow use it. There was, but it was going to be tricky to get mosquito-tight coverage across the window, especially as we didn't have enough duct tape to go all the way around.
So Dgym got into inventive mode (you will know what I mean if you remember the Lego mousetrap), got out the tent poles, and found that they could be arranged into a rectangular frame which fit the window almost perfectly. Not wanting to destroy the tent, we sewed the netting so it stretched across the frame, then put the whole thing flush against the open window, secured in place with a few pieces of duct tape, and there we have it. Cool, fresh, mosquito-free air.
Thanks for the tent, Dad. (We're considering actually sleeping in it in Denmark)
PS. Those with an interest in pancakes may be interested / repulsed by the following picture. It is what happens when you accidentally buy yoghurt instead of milk (How was I to know - it said "Milko" and looked like a carton of milk). Take note Molly, Dgym is not the only one who makes funny-looking pancakes. It may look like scrambled pancake, but it tasted good enough.