We’re awfully sorry for writing less and less; this affliction comes naturally with having just too much to cycle and to look at and too many people to talk to and drinks to down.
You people keep asking us about precisely the spots we haven’t covered in detail, so here’s a quick recap of what we’ve been up to lately and what not. We’d wait for the end of the year with the review, but by then we won’t be cycling and you won’t be reading, for hopefully we’ll all be too busy clinging the glasses and marvelling at the fireworks.
Nantes: Nelson and Jorge with their early holidays dive headlong into the sea of castles. In one of them they even find a host. Someone else hosts them during her birthday party, and the Château in Chambord is pretty boring on the inside. This is what they usually tell from there. Alright: Most of the time it’s only about being hosted in a castle.
I get somewhat close to that, at least, after Paris, where I join them. I had got my bike ready in the last minute, quite literally – the entire day before taking the midnight bus from Münster I had been trying to put the new rack onto my bike with totally inadequate tools and knowledge, convinced that it would break within a few hours. After lots of paranoia (“Guys, wait for a moment, I think I’m hearing a noise!”), relief sets in (“Dammit, Nelson, it’s only those useless carabiners of yours hitting each other!”). As of today, it’s still holding my bags, though the fix should make any bike person cringe who risks a closer look.
While in Paris we delight in Juanjo’s Andalusian hospitality, the evening in Provins couldn’t possibly be more French. Vin, fromage, pastis, pétanque, and a nice cup of sleep in the garden of the castle’s orangerie. Never have we stayed in a place with more chapels. The metaphorical one beneath the willow tree is the most idyllic breakfast place to date, the real one in the vaulted souterrain provides an ancient instrument whose sound would have suited Vlad Țepeș.
The next day we start to get lost: Every time we cycle in a new country, navigation has to slightly adapted. The same dotted blue line in the map can indicate smooth asphalt in the Münsterland, a sea of sinkholes in Sachsen, a gravel path in Poland, lava streams in Sicilia and the absence of any path in that corner of France. Stranded near Nogent-sur-Seine we wade through radioactive mud and cycle along the malaria-infested rainforest along miasmatic channels, only to eventually land on one of the smoothest and straightest bike lines the world has ever seen, occasionally doubling our usual average speed.
Beyond Troyes, there is a vast nothingness. Still, in all that loneliness, 80 km (!) from the next town, we still manage to find a host, in the loneliest and most isolated place of all, a small farm between nowhere and never. Beautiful it was.
Dijon sees us camping for the first time. Ironically, just during the days we’re passing through there is a National Week of Cyclotourism, and every single bed or couch is occupied. We find a stay for one night, the second has us searching for a quiet forest. After a bit of hesitation, of all people it’s Jorge, not exactly the most adventurous of us, who gets excited enough about the prospect to pull us along.
A note on French roads: If only they exist, they are the best. Even small countryside paths are suited for the thinnest, unsuspended racing tyres. Truly, they should perhaps stage some France-wide bike race or so. Should get a patent before anyone else gets the idea.
The mountains start around Besançon, probably the most beautiful place we get to see since my start in Paris. Soon we take up endeavours like climbing 900 meters in one day from there to Pontarlier, and, what’s most surprising, we survive it. Still Jorge leaves us in Pontarlier, just in front of the Swiss border, not in fear of the mountains but for his overfull calendar, in which he managed to cram not just the move to California and all the packing and preparation associated with it, but also a hasty ten-day trip through Italy. On the one hand, way too much programme (if you ask me) for too little time; on the other hand, though, the poor sod is going to leave Europe for five years, and bloody sure in such a situation I’d try to take as much of it along with me as I could.
The two remaining warriors, Nelson and I, covertly climb into Switzerland. In the most expensive country we manage to keep our wallets surprisingly heavy, for there is almost no need to search for hosts. Nelson has friends of friends in almost every place there, through straightforward connexions and profoundly obscure ones. That small dent in the route you see in the map felt pretty substantial to us, probably just because we stayed for days almost everywhere after having rushed through France so quickly. We have already written about crossing the Jura, let’s jump right ahead to Bern. The sister of the friend of the uncle of my companion (not even close to being the weirdest and wordiest relation we had to a host) hosted us there, but saw preciously little of us – sorry once more! –, for we were too busy flirting with Patrycja Łódzka, the most beautifully platonic evenings you could imagine – sorry, boyfriend in Canada!, but don’t worry too much! When not busy with mischief like that, we swam in the River Aare, or rather: let us be jetted away by its screaming torrent, hoping to get out before the next waterfall. To a Westphalian, there is little worse than to have your body dragged out of the water in Köln, but that prospect did of course just add the spice to the dare.
After Fribourg and the Lac Léman, we subject ourselves to that torture that is the Grand St. Bernhard pass. So far, you know only Nelson’s account, which, while accurately describing the high of standing on top and the mad frenzy of zooming down the 2000 metres to Aosta, somewhat neglects the terrors of climbing the same amount on the Swiss side, where the phrase of nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat can be taken very, very literally. Fortunately, the screaming downhill winds wash it all away.