The three of us... Kind of. Leon was petrified first. Besançon. Gallery.

The 2016 bike trip

Summer 2016: Nelson had been liv­ing in Kraków for a year now. His EVS pro­ject hav­ing fin­ished and Leon’s hol­i­days lay­ing ahead again, there was anoth­er pos­sib­il­ity of trav­el­ling long and far. No ques­tion that we’d mount the bikes again! This time we were three, as Nelson’s old friend Jorge joined us for part of the trip, wav­ing good­bye to old Europe before mov­ing to California. Our path was to cross the Alps, our des­tin­a­tion Rome, our object­ive: to say hello to the Pope.

The start was sup­posed to be Paris, how­ever, the cheap flights from Madrid sent Nelson and Jorge to Nantes. Years later, Leon (whose sched­ule did­n’t per­mit the earli­er start and who rode in to Paris by bus) still has to listen to their stor­ies of how phant­ast­ic that leg of the trip was, seem­ingly full of noth­ing but castle stays and sur­prise parties.

All three, just joined. Leon hates selfies. Jorge hates Paris. Nelson hates them both. We're all happy that way.
All three, just joined. Leon hates selfies. Jorge hates Paris. Nelson hates them both. We’re all happy that way.

From Paris we raced towards Switzerland, long days on a rather straight line. The plan was to get to Lausanne, from where would Jorge leave us, send­ing his bike home by mail. We part a day and a town earli­er, how­ever, when in Pontarlier we’re receiv­ing a great num­ber of dif­fer­ent invit­a­tions by Swiss hosts in dir­ec­tions abso­lutely not lead­ing towards Lausanne.

Bikes. There we were, there we are not. Pontarlier, near The Porta. Last minutes. Gallery.
Jorge’s bike’s last meal.

Our Switzerland turns out to be a uniquely strange place even by our bound­less stand­ards. Bizarrely gen­er­ous hosts and strangers, the out­land­ish green of happy cows“ pas­tures and our mem­or­able night rides only served as pro­logue to the great big mis­sion that Nelson had insisted on, trad­ing all oth­er route decisions against this one and only: To climb the Grand Saint-Bernard, the biggest and mean­est pass of note in the entire bloody Alps. The only great pas­sage there with more than 2000 metres of alti­tude to cov­er from bot­tom to top.

The horsed bike of the Gd-St-Bernard
Jacques-Louis David: Napoléon cross­ing the Alps, oil on can­vas, 1801

Ligurian roads systematically closedMountains remained our com­pan­ions. In Italy we cross the Apennines not once, not twice, but three times, because once on the Southern side we remembered we wanted to vis­it a friend in Bologna, hav­ing to cross back and forth again. It’s all fun and games in the French-speak­ing part of Europe, but in Italy we fell on some hard times occa­sion­ally, even hav­ing two or three truly dread­ful nights after days full of get­ting lost uphill, hun­ger, argue­ing and gen­er­al hope­less­ness. Finding hosts can be quite hard, too, in a coun­try whose smal­lest vil­lage is still known world-wide and over­run with tour­ists. At least the weath­er played along – on the whole trip there was a single truly rainy day, and so on the many occa­sions we stran­ded on some ran­dom road- or sea­side we would­n’t both­er to raise the tent any­more and just drop down on the spot.

A morning bath in the Mediterranean, Liguria, region to condemn

Eventually, fun times returned. In Firenze we felt like we were back to old shape again. Finally everything was right again – but the unreal world star­ted to intrude into our thoughts again (noth­ing feels more vividly real than such a jour­ney, and I’m sure that if one life is a dream it must be the every­day one, that in which whatever unex­pec­ted thing may change everything by tomor­row, how­ever dull the small-scale events of life and work are; while our bike trips are reli­ably ruled by the steady rhythm of go-to-the-next-place, how­ever bizarre the escal­at­ing adven­tures with­in that sol­id frame may turn out). Nelson in par­tic­u­lar needed a flat and a job as soon as pos­sible after his return to Kraków – so by then he star­ted to feel he really needed to return as soon as pos­sible, too. And yet to still see Rome, of course! No time for Tuscany, bet­ter: to race and spend a few days in the cap­it­al. Leon needed a slower pace, and so we split for a short while; Nelson head­ing out via Arezzo at 150 kilo­metres a day, Leon slowly saun­ter­ing towards Siena.

And that was supposed to be an official bike lane.

Those last days sure kept us thrilled. We met again in Rome, Nelson hav­ing arrived two days before Leon, both of us hav­ing been hunted by boars and, in Nelson’s case, hav­ing col­lided with one. We did get to meet the Pope and we did get to explore the city togeth­er. Then Nelson took the soon­est train instead of the next best more than a week later, and ended up not regret­ting it, but indeed find­ing flat and job right after his return.


This trip was­n’t as unique any­more as the first – but per­haps more of a life changer for both of us, though we could­n’t have known at the time (hence excuse the sappy pathos, please). The paths we’ve taken since, Nelson’s as a pro­gram­mer and Leon’s as a paint­er and print­maker, both had their defin­it­ive begin­nings in these days between absinthe and Alps.

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