The Balkans

My heart will forever reside in Serbia and Macedonia for I left it there; as a token. It was the least I could do, for the hospitality received was simply staggering. The kindness and generosity of the people is truly beyond comprehension. Had I not had these experiences firsthand I would refuse to believe them. However, before I delve into the juicy tales of hospitality let me step back and attempt to paint a picture of this woefully underrated part of the world.

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My adventure into the Balkans began as all good adventures should…illegally. Yes, quite literally from the moment I stepped in the country. However, in my defense at the time of my offense I was totally oblivious to any wrongdoings.

As I approached the Serbian border, the beautiful paved road I’d been so much enjoying began to degrade. Rapidly. Pot holes quickly gave way to loose gravel which was accompanied by even larger pot holes which soon petered out into a single tractor rutted track. Being one who appreciates a good challenge I gleefully accepted this new reality and promptly pulled out my trusty GPS (now lost…ironic I know) and decided to navigate through this roadless farmscape towards the next village. Looking back at this mini adventure I do vividly remember dragging my bike across a particularly deep ditch, which in retrospect I presume was the border. Anyways, long story short, shortly after the ditch jumping I noticed the “H” license plates had been replaced with “SBR” plates and quickly deduced, then celebrated, that I had arrived in Serbia.

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From the moment I crossed said ditch I was in awe. Visiting Serbia is like revisiting history, stepping back into a bygone era; no time machine required, just illegally border crossings. Instantly, horse drawn carriages replaced tractors and rusty single speed bikes replaced cars. Bike paths, which had been my sole domain for the last 3000km completely disappeared. Front lawns, formerly home to manicured lawns and flower gardens had been replaced by chickens, geese and goats. It was simply awesome.

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Another thing one cannot help but notice is that time s…l…o…w…s…d…o…w…n. In fact, I suspect it is this time warp that has left so many areas stuck in the 1920’s. Not that I am saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Every village visited was an Epicurean feast for the senses: old women in traditional dress, weathered well beyond their years, standing streetside, hunched over wooden canes selling their meager wares; dogs everywhere, mostly strays, relaxing in the sunny patches and city squares; men an ever present feature of the innumerable beer kiosks giving their solemn nod of approval; the smell and veil of smoke escaping from the wood fires used for both heating and cooking; lively green markets and bazaars; roadsides littered with trash; the smell of diesel; colourful old farm homes left to ruin; tiny tractors; cigarette smoke spilling out of the cafes. But above and beyond these physical things it’s the overwhelming generosity of the people that makes this place so special.

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Indeed, if hospitality is any measure of a countries worth, than Serbia and Macedonia are hands down the wealthiest countries I’ve visited; although, in a material sense they are the poorest. At times my panniers were literally overflowing with gifts and I was forced to dangle shopping bags from my bike to accomodate. I was gifted apples and pears from roadside farmers; a glorious head of cabbage; a bottle of homemade rijeka (the local fire water), cakes from a pekara; pizza, granola bars, juice, coffee and the largest most nutella filled croissant I’ve ever seen from a group of tattooed footballers; fish and bread from a priest; coffee cakes and 10am rijeka from a fountain guarding holyman; piles of sweets and personalized art from a group of elementary school students; a prayer bracelet; dinner with a family; I slept in a church, then a barn and then a school yard; more rijeka; delicious baked sheeps cheese and beers from a brewery; and the innumerable coffees, kisses, waves, honks and smiles. For my part I signed 20+ autographs, gave an interview for the local paper of Jagodina, and posed for heaps of photos. Not a single day went by that I was not blown away by random acts of hospitality. That said, some days were more unbelievable than others and it’s in this spirit  I’d like to share with you my first few days out of Belgrade.

Even before escaping the urban sprawl of The White City the hospitality train began to roll. It began while making the mandatory stop at a market side pekara to fuel up on a traditional breakfast of burek and it’s accompanying sour yogurt. The wonderful old lady behind the counter, upon catching sight of my bike immediately filled two bags with fresh out of the oven apple & raspberry danishes before drowning me in a pile of wishes. Then, less than an hour later, as I crested Belgrade’s last hill and paused to take a breather and one last look of the city I was approached by two peasant farmers, who adamantly insisted I take each a bag of apples and a bag of pears.

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My very next stop was in the city of Smederevo, which is home to one of the largest fortresses I have ever seen. In typical Balkan fashion the fort was in a terrible state of disrepair, for it was quite literally falling apart, and lacked any signage or information whatsoever. Although, I must say a part of me appreciated this relaxed ‘approach to conservation’ and its contrast with the artificial feel of the perfectly preserved sites which are the hallmark of Western Europe. Furthermore, it was fascinating to see what 500 years of neglect looks like. Another benefit of the this lackluster approach to conservation was the forts free admission and with its prominent view over the Danube it served as the coolest of city parks. Still high on hospitality – read sugar- and with a massive fort at my disposal my inner child was set loose and I ran wild spending the better part of the afternoon joyfully exploring the ruins. Then the time had come to bid farewell to my faithful companion of the last 1000km (the Danube) and venture inland to the city square for lunch.

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Sitting on the edge of the city fountain I took a healthy lunch cracking into a bag of danishes and was soon in commanded of a legion of several new travel companions. As I happily shared my lunch with my fellow furry nomads (the city’s stray dogs)  I was approached by a living relic who greeted me with the warmest of toothless smiles and insisted I take a bottle of his home made rijeka (presented in the ever fashionable reused Coke bottle). It was at this point, after only six hours on the road, that I was sure I‘d exhausted all my karma points for the rest of the tour. How wrong was I, for the hospitality train was only beginning to roll and was quickly gaining momentum.

Rolling out of the city I took my next stop at a roadside grocer in a feeble attempt to gather provisions for dinner. Feeble because, before I had even entered the shop I was yet again attacked, or intercepted, by Serbia’s inexhaustible hospitality. This time the hospitality train came in the guise of a smiling bearded man who offered that I spend the night in his church. This offer was soon extended to include coffee, his special 30 year old rijeka and culminated in a creschendo of conviviality as I was placed at the head of the table and enjoyed a traditional dinner with his family of five. The next morning, over yet more coffee, Vladimir gave me a traditional orthodox prayer bracket and a lifetime of well wishes before showing me the way and waving me off. The hospitality was truly out of this world. Bad pun intended.

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That evening with the sun quickly falling from the sky and in desperate search of a suitable place to pitch the tent I rolled past a school where I decided to try my luck. Upon entering the schoolyard I was happily surrounded, and somewhat mauled, by a gaggle of smiling shouting wee ones. The English teacher was promptly fetched and seemed almost honoured I had asked to camp in their field. The kids (aged 9-12) were all too helpful, they immediately showed me the “best” place to pitch my tent, energetically helped me unpack my panniers and were ecstatic while helping to pitch the tent. The whole while the kids were yelling at me, politely taking turns to shout their introductions: “Hello my name is Neno; Hello my name is Dejan; Hello my name is Andjela”. Then as quickly as they had appeared they were gone, sprinting back into the school. However, just as I was beginning to adjust to the quiet the kids had returned, laden with a bag full sweets and treats, which I presumed were the leftovers gathered from their lunches and which included: chips, chocolates, gummy’s, pastries, and granola bars. Although my favourite treat did not take the form of a shiny package of refined sugar but was the handdrawn piece of art that was a heart saying “Love”. Soon the parents came to retrieve the wee ones and they each came over and introduced themselves; however, they were too grown up and mature and refrained from yelling their names. The next morning I was sure to hang around until school started so that I could bid farewell to the munchkins and after signing 20+ autographs and giving innumerable highfives I cycled out the the school and down the road  with an entire school running alongside cheering me on 🙂

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It was a windy and rainy day, but riding on the euphoria bestowed upon me by the kids I easily cycled the 60km through the mountains before I was ‘forced’ to seek refuge in Serbia’s only microbrewery. As was becoming almost an expectation at this point, I was given a complimentary lunch of baked sheeps cheese and paprika followed by the most delicious of beers. Then, as if the staff knew of my recently acquired celebratory status amongst the rural youth of Serbia I was asked to give an interview to the local paper. How could I say no? Like clockwork, after the interview the sun reappeared so I jumped back on the bike, and as my good fortune seemed inextinguishable, it was not long before I found myself tucked into a strangers barn. After the obligatory coffee I was brought fish and bread. I felt like I was dreaming. As I said Serbian hospitality is simply staggering.

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Other memories worth reliving were a crazy night out in Nis with the single other person in the hostel. Ash, who hails from Auz is in the midst of a six month Euro tour, and we got on like old friends and had the most memorable of nights at an ‘Irish pub’. We met many wonderful people that night, although the band of heavily tattooed Serbian nationalists who repeatedly told us about how much they LOVE Serbia and relished in describing the various saints who adored their arms and necks do deserve special mention.

Another memory and one that’s telling of the local sport culture came from Belgrade. Awaking Saturday morning I found city’s weathered streets awash with hundreds of riot police. I soon learned these imposing figures were stationed all across the city to make sure the ‘celebrations’ of the inner city football derby did not get out of hand. And perhaps the police were effective in quelling the fans within the city limits but they were less effective at the stadium where the match had to be put on hold as firetrucks had to enter in order to put out the numerous and massive bonfires whose smoke was choking out the players.

Another highlight came from a nameless gas station. While making a quick stop to fill my water bottles I was approached by the owner who intuitively handed me a beer and asked if there was anything he could do to help. I repeatedly refused his offers of food but did ask if he could recommend a good place to pitch the tent. No sooner had I made my humble request then my man was on his mobile and a few minutes later appeared his 8 year old who arrived atop his own two wheeled steed. Then the young boy happily escorted me (at lightening speed) to the back roads, over sandy hills and down obscure paths to the most wonderful of river/pub side campsites II have ever had. *****

It is also worth noting that the riding itself has been especially blissful with temperatures holding steady in the mid twenties was often riding in nothing more than a pair of shorts and when not singing or whistling would sometimes be overcome with such a rush of pure joy I let would let go a mighty soul shaking roar.

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However, it should be said that Serbia’s unprecedented levels of hospitality exist as a sort of paradox and is not always extended to those living closer to home. Of course there exists the not so distant memories of the Yugoslav wars and Serbia’s brutal record of war crimes and genocide. However, war is war and although these acts are unforgivable it seems that people are willing to look past them and move on. More recently however Serbia has received international criticism for its large and shockingly violent suppression of its gay pride parade and its overtly hostile attitude towards various other minority groups.

I first experienced the darker side of Serbian culture while visiting Novi Sad. As I cycled into the city lady luck led me past an amazing cafe which seemed conspicuously out of place and a full 20 years ahead of the city; this would have been a trendy cafe even by London standards. The cafe was part library, part Bike Kitchen, and also served as a venue for talks, debates, and movie screenings. Barely had I wheeled my bike in the front door before I was gifted cake and kiwis and a few minutes later I found myself chatting with the owner. The owner was not Serbian, she was English and was but one of six owners; however, she was the only one left as all her partners had recently been deported. The other owners (American, Australian, Austrian & German)  had met each other while doing volunteer work in Serbia and had decided to try their luck opening a modern cafe. By all accounts, with the best evidence being not a single unoccupied seat, the cafe has been a runaway success.  However, this same success may be their undoing. I learned the other owners had recently all been deported over minor errors on their visa applications (despite their visas being issued with these same issues and them being allowed to volunteer/work/live in Serbia for years). Apparently some high ranking officials in Serbia began to feel threatened by this liberal oriented cafe – not to mention the local cafe owners who saw it as a threat to their businesses – and have been trying to shut it down. As a result the cafe has been forced to move locations and has had numerous false allegations laid against it, many of which appearing in the national media. However, the owner remains optimistic and says the cafe has now become a symbol and rallying point for the disenfranchised youth who feel frustrated about the corruption, conservatism and nepotism that apparently run rampant in Serbia. Indeed, Ann says the media coverage has been great for business and instead of thwarting this unofficial think tank has instead acted to strengthen and has draw attention to many of the social issues facing Serbian society.

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Perhaps, it is this same traditional culture and ideals that seems to give Serbia and the Balkans a certain charm but which at the same time, especially in this ever shrinking and increasingly globalized world, can lead to so much modern unrest. That said, unrest and conflict are nothing new to the Balkans, in fact in many respects this is one of its hallmarks and it’s this constant constant conflict, this collision of ideas that make the Balkans such a dynamic and fascinating place. As the gateway between Europe and Asia this area has been in flux for millenia and today exists as a living smorgasbord of the numerous peoples who have called this place home including: The Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Byzantines, Habsburgs, and Turks. Wandering through the cities you’ll casually pass beneath Baroque-styled civic buildings built atop Roman ruins which are alongside Orthodox churches that poetically coexisting next to mosques. These influences extend far beyond the buildings and manifest themselves in the area’s staggering array of cuisine, languages, dress and customs. In this way it’s difficult to define or articulate exactly what Balkan culture is and one needs to be careful in drawing any broad generalizations especially when there exists such marked differences even amongst the post Yugoslav states.

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Crossing the border into Macedonia (legally this time) I experienced yet another sharp economic transition, which in some ways was as stark as that between Hungary and Serbia. Another thing one can’t help but notice is the immediate increase in the number of mosques and the corresponding disappearance of Serbia’s ever present beer kiosks. Despite this apparent lack of beer culture my time in Macedonia was incredibly sweet yet regrettably short it.

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One of my first memories of Macedonia was being abruptly awoken to foreign, seemingly hostile voices, apparently yelling at me. Needless to say I was more than relieved upon discovering that these voices were not angry locals outside my tent but the loud speakers from the minaret and were a call to prayer. After being abruptly pulled from my sleepful bliss I decided to treat myself to a coffee and promptly made my way to the nearest fuel station. As I parked my bike behind the pumps I noticed a large group of tough looking guys who had apparently managed to find some of Macedonia’s elusive beers. Somewhat reluctantly I gave a meager wave to the guys which was returned with a boisterous welcome and numerous high fives and quickly turned into an hour of locker room chat with the lads. Before I left, and despite me adamant refusal, the guys loaded me up with two liters of juice, half of an enormous pizza, loads of granola bars, a super-sized chocolate filled croissant and two double “Tim Horton’s sized” shots of espresso. Like Serbia, my time in Macedonia was another episode of hospitality run wild.

I left the gas station with the most massive of smiles on my face and basked in the pure joy of riding through the mountains before taking my next stop at a natural spring to fill my bottles. The location of the spring was simply idyllic as it sat atop a limestone mountain and offered a commanding view over the valley and opposing monastery. At this point I made a mistake, I should have known better, for as I got off my bike I let my guard down and was instantly attacked yet again by the Balkan hospitality. From a nearby shack an older gentleman approached and promptly invited me in for some Turkish coffee. Before long we were soon joined by another man who had also stopped at the spring and the three of us spent the rest of the morning reliving tales of the good old Yugoslavian days. Our lively conversation was only interrupted for the 10am shot or rijeka and to enjoy a delicious birthday cake.

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Back on the bike I continued my descent through the mountains following the swollen Vardar through its ancient valleys adorned with endless vineyards until taking my next stop at the old Roman provincial capital of Stobi. This abandoned city, once the proud home of 16 000 ‘free’ citizens is Macedonia’s most cherished ancient site and as luck would have it I had it entirely to myself. The city, weather, guide and private tour were all outstanding. Personally I enjoyed this experience more than Pompeii, which speaks volumes as Pompeii is one my favourite sites in all of Europe.

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On reflection this visit to Stobi seemed a perfect and symbolic conclusion to this outstanding chapter of my tour. The city represents a forgotten gem, a place tragically unknown to most of the world, yet rich beyond words. The city was based on the wine trade was presumably a place of hospitality and merry making. The city had two main roads, one leading to Europe, the other to Asia. And the city also bore the painful scars of history: from the persecution of its early Christian population, to its pagan iconoclasm, to the destruction of its synagogue and finally to the building of its massive walls to keep out the marauding tribes.

In many ways I identified with the archaeologists on site who each day were peeling back the layers of time, venturing into the unknown, and were rewarded with numerous, unexpected and priceless discoveries.

As always you can see more pictures by clicking here – Serbia Part I and here Serbia & Macedonia; or under the photos tab at the top of the page.

Heaps of well wishes,

Alec

Dresden to Budapest

The last two weeks have been immense. Since Dresden I’ve visited four countries, explored four capitals and been hosted by five wonderful people. For five days I have had the privilege of cycling in the company of a good friend and due to his Germanic determination have cycled my two longest days ever…back to back.  I have cycled mountains in the pouring rain, have cruised along some of Europe’s mightiest rivers and have lounged away an afternoon in a world class spa. I have inadvertently cycled an ultra marathon, coincidentally arrived in Budapest for Hungary’s national holiday and have gorged myself on the meatest of vegan meals.

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Understandably, after so many wonderful experiences in Germany I was more than a little reluctant to leave. However, as should be a general rule for life, if one must depart they ought to do so in style. So with my head held high I descended to the banks of the Elbe and followed its sinuous vineyard and castle strewn curves south until reaching the Vltava, which opening like a red carpet was my guide through the Czech mountains and into the magical city of Prague. Not only are these rivers the smoothest way to travel when on two wheels, they are also the richest, as cycling these ancient waterways is akin to pedaling through the pages of history. These mighty waterways are the lifeblood, the arteries, of Europe and just as much as they have carved its landscape they have forged its history. It’s no coincidence that all the capitals I’ve visited straddle these mighty rivers; geography determines one’s destiny.

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Without a doubt Prague is the prettiest city I’ve ever visited, it’s an architectural gem and boasts Europe’s most varied and well preserved city center. Prague’s nickname as the “Mother of Cities” is well deserved. Unfortunately, the other mother, Mother Nature, happened to be in the foulest of moods and decided to rain, no pour, for my entire stay. Not all was lost though, for exploring the city amid the downpours turned out to be an adventure in itself and made a great excuse to seek refuge in its many (cheap) cafes and also gave me an excuse to treat myself to a hostel.

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Incredibly, after nearly two months on the road this was only the third time I had paid for accommodation. Upon arriving at the hostel I was greeted by fellow Canadian from Niagara-on-the-Lake and the next thing I knew I was accompanying a dozen other hostel goers to The Beer Museum, which turned out not to be a museum at all but a bar with over 30 Czech beers on tap. Initially, as a solo traveller, it was great to be in such extravagant company but as one of the backpackers soon boasted “this is the first ‘museum’ I have visited in my 5 months of travelling” I quickly remembered why I’m glad to be off the backpackers route. After our educational time at the ‘museum’ we returned to our hostel for our dinner, which was included in the cost of the booking and miraculously fed 50 people for a total cost of 10 euros. Mashed potatoes. Yum!

Despite deciding to take it easy and not head out with the rest of the hostel goers my hostel experience continued as a raging party forced me to change rooms at 4am and then I was forced to check myself out as the entire staff was utterly incapacitated to do so.

In retrospect I’m glad to have had such a hostel experience, yet at the time, being utterly exhausted, I was more than happy to leave this experience behind me. That afternoon I met Emily’s friend Laura, who hails from the UK and but has been working as an English teacher in Prague for the last couple of years. In sharp contrast to the previous night it  was good to have an intelligent conversation, and get an insiders perspective on the city. Then I was off to the train station to meet up with Gerfried who was about to get an introduction into cycle touring and would accompany me to Vienna. Leaving the station the sun decided to finally make an appearance and welcomed Gerfried with a massive rainbow that perfectly eclipsed the train station. We had a team name, and a very masculine at that: Team Rainbow.

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Team Rainbow stayed in Prague that night and crashed on Kucin’s couch, who is an old friend of Gerfried’s and a pretty cool guy who works as an artist making screen printed books and posters. After settling in and taking a tour of his studio I realized I’d already seen some of his work earlier that day in the cafe I visited with Laura. After dumping our bikes and gear amongst the piles of notebooks and stencils we took to the streets in search of some vegan fare and a mandatory Czech pils to ensure we had adequate reserves for the big ride ahead. Little did we know the next day would be our biggest test.

Day one started out promising enough with clear skies, a cafe and market stop, and a leisurely ride along the Vtava; however, as we witnessed an 80 year old man ominously strip down and jump into the freezing waters we should have known our fate was about to change. As if on cue heavy clouds soon moved in and brought with them brought heavy rain; then Gerfried, in an attempt to avoid a puddle caused me to crash and bang up my ‘good’ knee; then the cycle path along the river ended at a dead end which sent us backtracking and into the steep hills; then just for good measure I got my first flat tire of the trip. Did I mention it was pouring? The first day definitely tested our constitution and Gerfried was quick to remind me I had promised him that the bike tour would be “fun”.

Day 2 did not start off much more promising. Yes, the rain had gone but due to the hills and some misleading signage we were now well behind schedule and were forced to put our bikes on a series of regional trains to keep schedule. However, the train journey turned out to be a grand adventure and as we were greeted in Freistadt by a smiling Karl it became clear our fortunes had changed. Karl and Gerti are the parents of my good friend Christoph (who is currently in the middle of a 13 month stay in Antarctica) and as I had anticipated, from my experiences with Christoph, they are some of the nicest people I’ve met. Not only were we met at the train station, given a tour of Freistadt, and put up for the evening but we were treated to the most delicious of home-cooked meals including a three course dinner and a 5 star breakfast, the former accompanied by generous servings of wine and the local brew. Delicious. And, as a confirmation that our fortunes had indeed changed upon arriving in Neumarkt Christoph called from Antarctica via a satellite phone and I was able to talk to him for the first time in months.

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The next morning we were back on the bikes and after doubling back to the old walled town of Freistadt we followed the old horse highway down the hills and into the Danube basin where we were once again received by yet another host. Luise, another friend of Gerfried’s, greeted with open arms and her hospitality was truly special. We prepared (or more accurately watch Gerfried prepare) an epic vegan stew and then promptly took to the streets to see the sights and sounds of Austria’s third city. It was really interesting to be back in Linz as I had been here almost exactly three years ago on my previous bike tour with Caitlin. I really enjoyed returning to a place I had previously been and surprised myself at how vivid and alive some of my these memories still were.

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From Linz and with a strong wind at our backs – a much welcomed rarity- we began our epic two day ride of some 250+km to Vienna. The bike path along this stretch of river would be better described as a highway for cyclists, although at this time of the year our fellow cyclists were markedly absent. The river led us through beautiful gorges aglow in their finest fall colours, past picturesque villages and we ate up the fruits (and walnuts) of the Wachau while solving all the worlds problems and talking utter nonsense. After riding solo for the last 2000km it was an immense privilege to be in such fine company for these few days. As exhilarating as it can be to ride solo this tour has shown me just how important it is to share these experiences, so although I may do smaller solo tours in the future I don’t think I’ll ever travel this long alone again. And, by all accounts it appears Gerfried had a good time and I have opened his eyes to cycle touring as he hopes to do another tour sometime soon.

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Our motivation to push to Vienna in only two days was the lure of an epic vegan styled pizza party with a trio of American expats. Seth, our host in Vienna, and a living legend at that, has been calling Vienna home for some 13 years and seemed to have been anticipating our cycling hunger as he had procured vegan prawns, squid, sausage, bacon and a kilo of cheese. These toppings were then generously spread across six pizzas which the five us us nearly devoured in their entirety. The hosts of this pizza bonanza were Josh, Carmen and their crazy dog Bailey who are in Vienna working for the UN’s nuclear commission. The next day was spent digesting our unhuman proportions of pizza, finding a replacement saddle for Gerfried (as his had been stolen during the night) and cycling the gorgeous streets of this most refined of capitals. In the evening we stopped by Seth’s very cool restaurant (Rasouli) and as the sun fell, and surrounded by good company, we watched the hip side of Vienna come to life. It seemed a very fitting way to end this leg of the bike tour.

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From the beginning I have viewed this bike tour as being broken into three distinct legs. The first was Scandinavia, which was to be characterized by the long days of summer, the beautiful nature/culture, and the excitement of realizing my dream of another big bike tour. The second leg was the time between Copenhagen and Vienna where the focus was to be less on the actual bicycle touring and much more about enjoying the company of friends and the delights of their cities. This third leg of the tour, the open road to Istanbul, is the one I have been nervous about. I am prepared for the weather to take a serious turn for the worse and will be venturing into the foreign lands of Eastern Europe where there will be a serious economic transition. Also, I anticipate that after two months on the road, and without friends (or their parents) to visit, and with an ever increasing language barrier I will start to feel very much alone. Needless to say and despite much mental preparation I was more than a little hesitant loading up the bike and rolling out of Vienna.

Despite these obstacles this section of the tour has started off very well. I am looking forward to being totally free of a schedule and am excited to visit these lesser known parts of Europe. Also, although this section promises to be mentally challenging I hope it will provide an opportunity to reflect on my experiences in Europe and to look to the future. The weather has also been a welcomed surprise and since leaving Vienna it has been freakishly warm and sunny and I have spent most days cycling in no more than shorts and a t-shirt. And this weather is predicted to stick around for at least another week with the highs in the mid-low 20’s.

Highlights between Vienna and Budapest have been cycling through a national park along the Danube where setting up my tent I was visited by a family of deer; although my mood quickly changed as gun shots rang out and I came to the uncomfortable realization it was deer season. Other highlights have been exploring the communist era housing blocks of Bratislava, being warmly greeted by many waving and smiling Hungarians, and cycling through the small villages which in many respects seem untouched by modernity. I have spent lovely afternoons in Gyro and Tata, both outstanding medium sized towns which are far removed from any guidebook. However, the biggest highlight from this part of the tour was my good fortune of being an unofficial participant in an ultra marathon. Unbeknownst to me I left Vienna on the same day as hundreds of others who were running and cycling their way to Budapest and by total coincidence we happened to by following essentially the same route. So as I aimlessly cycled along I was cheered on by crowds of people lining the streets and handing me sports drinks and snacks. By the third day as I took a break at one of the race checkpoints I met the organizer who was as excited as I was to have been an unofficial member of the race and offered me a medal and t-shirt. It was amazing.

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Likewise, my last few days have also been coincidentally amazing as I happened to arrive in Budapest for Hungary’s national holiday; a bit like being in Ottawa for Canada Day. So, although most of the shops and museums were closed the city itself was very much alive with music, parades, flag waving and general merry making. It was a perfect time to be exploring this wonderful city as many of the main roads were closed and pedestrianized and the 23C sunshine smiled down on the Maygar people. In the evening I accompanied a few guys from the hostel to Szimpla Kert, one of Budapest’s famous ruin bars and one that claims to be the “third best bar in the world”. The next day I gave my best effort to go on a city walking tour, but finding the guide difficult to follow decided to drop off the tour and continue exploring the city equipped with guidebooks I’d borrowed from the hostel. In the afternoon I decided it was time for some serious relaxing and headed to the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths (the largest in Europe) and enjoyed the steam rooms, saunas and outdoor pools and in the evening I continued the pampering seeking out a small traditional family run Hungarian restaurant. The following day, a spot opened up at the hostel and I decided to take it and extend my stay here, taking the opportunity to explore Margriet Island, prepare for the next leg of the bike tour and join the rest of the hostel crew for another dinner.

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Although it is beginning to seem like I am repeating myself on this blog, Budapest is yet another amazing city. Architecturally, the “Paris of the East” is absolutely stunning, although not nearly as ancient or varied as Prague. An unexpected yet pleasant surprise were the number of outstanding art nouveau buildings which I actively sought out from across all corners of the city. Another architectural highlight, and in sharp contrast to the elegant flamboyance of the art nouveau, was Budapest’s seemingly ubiquitous state of urban decay which I find imparts a special artistic quality of its own. Of course, and perhaps even more so than its architectural heritage, Budapest is well known for its numerous baths, some of which date back to Roman times. Budapest is also well endowed with numerous parks and with the mighty Danube flowing through its centre the city caters to, or perhaps cultivates, a laid back atmosphere. As for entertainment, museums, galleries, dining and nightlife one can hardly ask for more and I believe this makes Budapest the best value city in Europe. Personally, my stay here has been nothing short of sublime and a large reason for this has been the company. Perfectly opposed to my hostel experience in Prague exists the Budapest Bubble, which boasting only 18 beds is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. Like myself, most of the other guests here have ended up extended their stay here and we are all on a first name basis go out most nights for dinner or drinks as one big hostel family.

However, all good things must come to an end and so like my Germanic chapter I shall take to the river with my head held high and ride out in style. Next stop Belgrade!

Cheers to all of you who are still accompanying me on this tour and I hope to ride in style with you sometime soon,

As always you can see the photos by following these links

Dresden to Budapest –> click here
Budapest –> click here

Eastern Germany

East Germany is seriously cool. No, not in that East London hipster kind of “cool”, which seems to exist as a facade, characterised by expensive pretentions and imitation. In contrast, the cities here feel relaxed, authentic and organically grown. This is what makes them cool, being true to themsleves, being original. In this way Leipzig and Dresden define cool, they are truly alive. Just a short step away from the beautiful, yet painfully touristic city centres, one will quickly discover creative neighbourhoods pulsating with life. This originality and creativity is no accident, it’s a living reflection of the past. Economically these cities still lag behind their western counterparts and I believe it’s this scarcity of resources which helps breed their innovation and gives them their vibrant personalities and style. Isn’t it ironic how wealth, as seen in the touristic centres and the “well-to-do” neighbourhoods, seems to kill creativity: to remove the coulour, the music, the dance, and instead feel unoriginal and exude a stale lifelessness.

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Without a doubt the dynamic recent history of this area is a contributing factor for it’s current vibrancy. Not only does this region, like the rest of Germany, remain particularily skeptical of government contol and intervention, and thus maintain their individual identies by refusing to passively accept hirachical govenmental controls. This area aslo also has a strong sense of communal values, which is a legacy from the GDR. Today, these values manifest themselves in inspirational social initiatives such as the many community owned housing blocks which help to protect their members from extortionate rents. These community based values also seem to foster a deeper social integration where people are less individualistic and more genuinely open and caring towards each other. There are many examples of this social structure in numerous community based clubs and organizations; for example, the grocery below the community apartment I am writing this from is members run. There also appears to be a deeper sense of appreciation or value for goods and services. Of course it would be wrong to say that life was better under the GDR. However, it would be equally wrong to say that everything about the GDR was wrong and it’s in this way that one can understand why the older generation reflects on this bygone era with a certain nostalgia. Indeed, the deep sense of community, openness, and social/material values that exist here today are valuable artifacts and traits that the western world could learn from.

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However this is getting heavy quickly, so lets lighten things up a bit by stepping back into the not so distant past and reflect on my time here. I feel my adventure into former Eastern Germany started with my departure from Berlin. Indeed, much of Berlin was once part of East Germany but as the capital it  has had so much recent investment it is often difficult to identify the former eastern sections. However, as headed south from Berlin and approached  Saxony the remnants of the former GDR started to become more apparent.

The ride between Berlin and Leipzig was lovely. The area is perfectly flat and is a nice patchwork of stately farms, small towns, and calm pine forests. Despite my initial apprehenstions on leaving Berlin it felt great to be back on the bike. Sun on my face, wind at my back (well not really, the wind was actually directly into my face, but it paints a better picture to say it was at my back :). It continues to be a great time of the year to be ambling through the countryside as I am still following the harvest and am enjoying watching the fields being worked, stopping at the roadside fruit stands and rescuing apples, plums and pears from the trees. The leaves are also starting to change colour and the earth exudes that deep moist fall fragrance. In Germany, this time of the year is particularly special because it’s also the  time of Oktoberfest. Although I had considered altering my plans and jumping a train to Munich to join friends for the main Oktoberfest celebration I decided to keep riding and was thus pleasantly surprised (and rewarded) by randomly cycling  through a small village in the midst of their own Oktoberfest celebration. There was nothing I could do, I had no choice, the humanitarian in me was obliged to stop and support the economy, I had to  have a beer. The beer tent and band were amazing, although I must confess I was a little disappointed to be served by a young man instead of a robust girl in traditional Oktoberfest garb. The locals were friendly and curious and nearly made up for my initial disappointment. We chatted for some time, shared a few laughs and I told them about my trip, in the end we were all agreed I must be crazy to cycle to Istanbul.

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Leipzig was absolutely wonderful and as I was soon to learn my timing could not have been any better. The day of my arrival coincided with the national holiday commemorating the reintegration of East Germany which was a direct result of the protests that started at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas church. October 2013, also marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, otherwise known as The Battle of Nations, which was the largest battle fought in Europe prior to WWI and ultimately marked the downfall of Napoleon. As if  this was not coincidental enough, the main square had been transformed into a large Oktoberfest styled beer garden and was surrounded by a large autumn market (very similar to the famed German Christmas Markets).

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Not only was I lucky with my timing in Leipzig but I was incredibly fortunate to be in the fine company of Theresa, undoubtedly one of Leipzigs finest residents. Theresa is an architecture student and fellow Warmshowers-er who despite having just returned from a six week trip (to the Urals), starting school in a few days, and preparing for her birthday, happily offered to host me. I was not merely hosted, but I was hosted in style. Theresa introducing me to “traditional” German food by taking me to her local Turkish restaurant, taught me how to use the buildings wood/coal fired furnace system, gave me two city tours, one from atop her roof and another one via a bicycle and invited me to partake in her birthday celebrations. On my end I donated a pannier full of freshly picked pears, tried to help Theresa in making homemade jam and in building (and eating) her birthday feast. The cycle tour of the city was an obvious highlight and I quite enjoyed being on the receiving end of such a tour. She’s got potential! Highlights of the bike tour included: our visit to the cotton mill, formerly Europe’s largest, and now home to an eclectic mix of galleries, exhibitions, cafes and independent stores; the cycle through the park, along the canal and to the university; the visit to the monument to the Battle of Nations and Theresa’s insight into Leipzig’s various styles of architecture. Another highlight was the birthday feast, which included a traditional homemade onion cake accompanied with young wine, although the real highlight was the outstanding the birthday company. Theresa has surrounded herself with a stellar group of friends who all made me very much at home and were able to give me a better idea of what life was like under the GDR and what contemporary Leipzig is all about. In the end my time in Leipzig was far too short for such a great city and for the wonderful people I met there. I feel that i was only beginning to scratch the surface on a truly great city and Leipzig is a place I look forward to returning to sometime soon.

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From Leipzig I followed the Mulde river east towards Dresden where I was totally unprepared to be swept away by another great city and another outstanding host. Dresden, sometimes know as the Florence of the Elbe, initially disappointed me. On reflection I am not too sure what I was expecting, but arriving in the city centre on a Sunday afternoon I was entirely disgusted by how artificial and touristic it felt. However, this initial impression quickly faded as I crossed the river and made my way to the neighbourhood of Neustadt. Ela was waiting for me and greeted me with waves and smiles from atop the second story balcony of her community flatshare. Before I knew it I was introduced to Ela’s housemates and found myself relaxing on her sofa happily sipping homemade soup while listening to her tales from her and Tobi’s two year bicycle trip from Dresden to Australia. The next day I explored contemporary Dresden and spent most of my time in Neustadt, although I did follow Ela’s recommendation and made it to Globetrotter, which might just be the worlds most perfect outdoor store. The afternoon was spent having a lovely Skype chat with mother and cooking up a feast including another pumpkin pie (this time from a can). In the evening we were joined by Frank and made our way to a wonderfully eccentric eight piece jazz concert. The next morning the sun decided to peak out so I armed myself with the camera I headed to, and found a new love for, the old Baroque centre of Dresden. However, the afternoon promised to be far more awe inspiring as Ela ducked away from school and we went hiking in the Saxony Swiss. This experience was totally unexpected and absoultely incredible. This mountainous area of sandstone cliffs towers above the Elbe River and is home to some very most picturesque villages. In many ways Ela is the perfect embodiment of the coolness I was alluding to when I introduced eastern Germany; she is interesting, giving, and thoughtful and is a true inspiration. It’s these characteristics in combination with her general zest for life, which make me smile when I think of her working as a teacher in an alternative school for there are many lessons Ela and eastern Germany have for the world.

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I felt that this trip to Germany truly gave me a new perspective on the country and highlighted the many lessons this nation has to offer the world. It is a real shame that Germany often seems to get bogged down in its history and false generalizations. I find the German people are the most politically aware and active of the EU. They are also environmental and social champions leading the way on many progressive forms of legislature, for example they have an ambitious plan to be totally carbon free by 2050 and after Fukushima have put an end to nuclear power (Canada?). The country is industrious, hardworking and charitable, even after suffering terribly from two major wars and numerous internal issues it’s still the driving force behind the EU economy and in recent years has given billions of euros in European and International aid. The number of German NGO’s and charities working internally and abroad is truly staggering. The investment in public infrasture and transportation is second to none. The social wellbeing and care for its citizens is exemplary. And perhaps the most important measure of social progress….beer, it’s cheap and delicious 🙂

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So yes, I suspect that like Denmark I have a budding love affair for Germany and its people. However, I doubt this would be so if I was not in such fine company for my entire time here. From my wonderful time in Berlin with Team Leona to my wonderful Warmshowers hosts I have been given a rich and privileged perspective on this wonderful country. What a time to be alive. When else could one visit a foreign country and to be in the company of friends the whole way through? So much has changed in two generations, I am excited to see what the future can bring.

For more pics click here

Berlin

I can hardly believe it’s already been two weeks. Time, being the fickle beast that it is, appears to be racing forward, accelerating, and gaining momentum. Ultimately, I take this as a complement.

Like Denmark, I arrived in the Deutschland via a ferryboat, arriving in the old Hanseatic city of Rostock. Originally, my plan was to only quickly enter the city, stock up on provisions and then roll out to Berlin. However, with a storm looming on the horizon accompanied by a strong south wind I decided to take refuge behind the city’s medieval walls. Cycling between the raindrops I did manage to explore the city and it was not take long before I was infected by its spell. Walled cities are always special. I find the physical barrier of the walls acts to protect the architecture, the character and that priceless intangible charm which stands in such stark contrast to our modern, efficient and sterile building methods. In this former way Rostock was particularly well endowed, especially with its rich and contrasting architectural styles ranging from Gothic, through Renaissance, to Baroque and up to Classical. Although, it should be said that as a German port city many of these buildings were reconstructed after the Allied bombings of WWII.

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As the rain continued to fall and wash the city it also seemed to dissolve my determination to cycle. I did the only sensible thing one could do in such a situation. I decided to celebrate. No I did not strip down and run amuck, welcoming the rain like our pagan ancestors. That would be crazy, although fun I’m sure. Instead I decided to celebrate by embracing the relative affordability of Germany and treated myself to a hostel. The hostel and single staff member were great but I must confess I was a little disappointed by the general lack of sociability, something I so often associate with hostels. However, at this stage in my life I should have known one must be careful what they wish for. For at 10:00, just as I was warming up to the fact that I had an entire dorm room to myself and was preparing for an early nights rest there was a knock at the door. On the other side was a tall, smiling, beer wielding Nils. Nils had just arrived in town to install the floor for the city’s newest hotel and just like that the night became late and social.

The next morning I opted to take the easy `road` to Berlin and loaded Nootka aboard the cheap train. However, I should state, for the record, I was not taking the train due to my unplanned social tendencies from the previous night, but instead was taking the train due to planned and eagerly anticipated social “obligations.” I had a deadline to be in Berlin by Friday as Natasja made the impromptu decision to meet me here and would soon arrive after a seven hour coach from Copenhagen. However, before greeting Tash I was eager to reconnect with another good friend – and true kindred spirit – Leona. I had the good fortune of meeting Leona in London and although a year had past I knew we would pick up right where we left off. And so it was, in characteristic Leona fashion, that my already high expectations of the life she had made for herself were thoroughly shattered. Upon arrival I was greeted by Fabio and was given a kings welcome by Leona and her seven housemates (including the cat). Stacy, Pasxaila, Julian, Fabio, Edou, Leona and Katze (translated to `cat`) all share a large and beautiful ground floor flat which before they arrived had existed as an office space. Not only have they transformed this space from something drab and boring into something colourful and lively, they have done something much more challenging and thats turning this place into a real home. This life and space they have created is the most perfect of arrangements, it is so much more than just a space to exist, it is truly a space to live. In fact, as I jokingly told them last night, I regret coming here as it has made me soft and makes me consider throwing in the towel, packing up the bike and heading home to recreate something similar. Instead, I did the next best thing I could think of and have since extended my stay here, not once, not twice, but three times. The house shares everything, including a weekly organic food delivery, regular Epicurian feasts, the bushels of apples Leona and Edou had foraged, the hand pressed espresso machine and their Sunday night movie tradition which is projected onto the wall and enjoyed from the comforts of hammocks and handbuilt couches. These guys have life figured out and if I had space on my bike I would take them all with me 🙂

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After my quick hello and a delicious late night feast with Leona and crew it was time for my first, and soon to be ill fated, adventure on Berlin’s public transit. First of all I should say the infrastructure of Berlin’s public transit system stands role model for all: not only is it modern, efficient, and exceptionally well connected it’s fairly priced, runs 24/7 on weekends and you can take your bike on all lines anytime. That said, my first experience, and the ticket officers sympathy towards tourists was less than ideal. As I stepped off the train at my intended station I was asked by an officer to show my ticket – ironically this was the only time I was asked such during my entire time in Berlin – which I dutifully produced totally unaware I had made the mistake of not time stamping it (there was already a date printed on the ticket).  The officer appeared to lack any sympathy and despite my pleas of innocence and ignorance gave me a €40 fine. Welcome to Berlin.

I met Tash at the coach station shortly after 1am and despite being a Friday night we decided to play it safe and head home to rest up for the rest of the weekend, this was fine by me as I had already spent enough. The next morning, Leona, being the allstar that she is, assessed the houses collection of bicycles and found one of suitable size for Tash and with that Berlin became our playground. The weekend was spent between markets, cafes, urban gardens, lounge bars, restaurants, and amid some truly unique social projects. One such project is the organically sprouted urban garden around Moritzplatz where active citizens claimed a dead space in the city centre as their own and transformed it into a space overflowing with charm and character. The concept was so beautiful and simple. Just start planting, start building, start growing and see what happens. Lay the seeds and see what sprouts; both figuratively and metaphorically. This concept has come to be known as Guerrilla Gardening and was started with portable flower boxes which have since matured into trees, an education centre, a playground (fit for both children and adults), cafes and most importantly a very cool public space built by, and bringing together, the local community. Another space that is equally noteworthy is the former Tempelhof airport, the famous airfield used by the Western Powers during the 1948 blockade and subsequent airlift. The future of this space is currently ‘up in the air’ but at the moment is being used as a massive playground where the local sport involves attaching oneself (or a skateboard) to kites and using the former runways to skate-sail. You will find others cycling, jogging, gardening (another urban garden), BBQ-ing, or admiring the outdoor art. Although everyone seems to be engaged in a different activity one thing does seem shared by everyone and that is their massive smiles due to this places general awesomeness. Both reclaimed space and people treating their city as a massive playground seem to be re-occurring themes in Berlin.

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Another great, yet not so mainstream, social project we were able to experience was Kopi, one of Berlin’s most established squats. We were able to access the squat via my friend Gerfried (who will soon be cycling Prague –>Vienna with me) and whose band Lightbearer was headlining there. In many ways Kopi reminded me of Copenhagen’s Christiania; a place established by creative types and free thinkers and which has grown into a cultural institution. The major difference between Kopi and Christiania is one would be hard pressed to find tourists in Kopi. The show and the venue were grand, but as we were soon to learn it operates on Berlin time and Lightbearer did not take stage until after 2am. At first I thought this was crazy, but after nearly two weeks here this is beginning to sound normal, if not early. For example, the other night we were discussing when to go to Sisyphos and someone suggested 6:00; however, it was entirely unclear and perfectly Berlin acceptable for this to be either 6am or 6pm as many Berlin clubs open their doors Friday and don’t close them until noon Monday. Perhaps this is why Berlin’s trademark drink is the Club Mate, a cold tea packing a whopping 100 mg of caffeine. Bring it on!

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After our late night at Kopi Tash and I decided to fully embrace the relaxed vibe of Berlin’s Sunday culture by enjoying a long drawn out brunch before headed to the MauerPark flea market where we entered a time warp, looking back through old collections of photo albums, postcards and various other seemingly forgotten objects which had been slowly accumulating dust while tucked away in attics. I loved the randomness of the vintage clothes market.  Seriously, who could have predicted that some of these styles would have ever stood a second chance? Although the highlight of the day would have to go to the nearly naked horse sipping beers and playing guitar.

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The weekend with Tash was perfect and in some odd way our desperate search for breakfast that resulted in supersized lattes and cheesecake from an unintentionally cool filled with 60 somethings seemed a fitting way to bid farewell. However, this goodbye seemed much easier than the last. Perhaps it’s because I know we’ll see each other again sometime soon. Berlin, on the other hand took Tash’s departure much harder and wept for the next three days.

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Again, I decided to use the rain as a cause for celebration…no not to do a naked dance. Come on, get that thought out of your mind. The rain was a sign and provided a great excuse to purchase the Berlin Card and do a three day ‘blitz’ of the museums. As with all great cities Berlin has its prerequisite of great museums, but then in Berlin’s characteristic unpretentious way, it takes it one step further, boasting over 170 museums and galleries. I am not too sure where I mustered the energy – perhaps the Club Mate – but I attacked the museums with a force and determination that shocked me. After frequently frequenting London’s many museums, and guiding school groups around Paris and Rome I suspected I was now immune to the wow factor of museum collections. Was I ever wrong. I started my educational bonanza at the UNESCO listed Museum Island and visited the Pergamon Museum which houses an awe inspiring collection of Islamic monuments from Turkey including the Pergamon Altar and the Gate of Miletus and has made me very excited to reach Turkey. Located next to the Pergamon is the Altes Museum which has yet another impressive collection, especially from the Ancient World as well as a great collection from the early Germanic period. It was then off to the Alte Nationalgalerie which is filled with Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Rodin and many other comparable but lesser known German artists. This momentum carried me forward the next day where I ‘accidentally’ snuck into the former Hohenzollern residence of Charlottenburg Palace (poorly guarded for a former Royal Palace) and surprised myself at how interested I became in the KPM porcelain collection. Then it was across the street to see the Museum Berggruen which has a truly impressive collection of Picasso, Matisse, Laurens, and Klee. Then onto the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg for some surrealism before turning my undivided attention to the wonderful art nouveau and art deco collection in the Bröhan-Museum. Although I was absolutely museumed out at this point I decided to swing by the Helmut Newton photography collection on my way home, which was totally worth it and very inspiring. This is also where I met Uta.

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Just as I was leaving the Newton collection and about to jump on my bike I was approached by the wonderful young artist and fellow traveller Uta. Uta had just arrived in Berlin and asked if I could help her with some basic German phrases, which to my surprise and delight I actually could. Uta had also been visiting the Newton photography museum and as we seemed to get on well decided make our way to Bauhaus Museum. After a quick tour through the Bauhaus collection we sought out a wonderful cafe where we promptly solved all the worlds problems. It turns out Uta had spent a month in London this summer where she started a travel sketchbook and to which she was adding her Berlin adventure. Uta offered to show me some of her work and I can honestly say that despite spending the last two days gleefully admiring some of the worlds most renowned art I was properly impressed with Uta’s style and attention to detail. I was especially blown away when one of her five London drawings was of Gabriel’s Wharf, the small eclectic street where I worked in London. Such a small world. In fact I was so impressed with Uta’s work that I felt compelled to finally act on that little voice which has consistently been nudging be to start a sketchbook of my own and have since procured the nessecary tools. As night began to fall and our bellies reminded us we were human we took to my bike with Polish Uta riding Dutch style and her long jacket flapping in the wind. As seems to happen in these situations, we coincidentally ended up at the Clarchen Ballhaus, which was a venue I’d been recommended by another cute girl I’d met the day before. The Ballhaus was true to its name and was a large Ballroom that kept very true to its 1913 origins. And as our good fortune seemed to be inexhaustible we happened to arrive just as the Wednesday night swing was kicking off and were thus greeted by a floor pulsating with dozens of couples, both young and old, hip and not so hip dancing the night away. The pizza and beer were pretty delicious too.

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The next day was destined to be a heart wrenching one as it was the last day of my Museum Pass and I had been purposely delaying my visit to the: The Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror and The Palace of Tears. All brutal reminders of the atrocities of war. In keeping with the theme I also decided to cycle to The East Side Gallery which is one of the last large surviving stretches of the Berlin Wall and which now exists as the worlds largest outdoor  gallery featuring paintings from 105 artists all over the world. The colourful murals on the wall exist as a powerful reminder of a Berlin that once was and convey the hopes and dreams of what Berlin can become. However, what I found most moving was not this permanent exhibition of murals but a temporary exhibition which was tucked away on the back side and in the farthest corner and which I was lucky to stumble across. This crowd funded project which took the artist five years to win permission to show is called Wall of the Wall and highlights the walls which have been built since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 including those in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Cyprus, the West Bank, Morocco, North and South Korea and the border zone between the United States and Mexico. This is one of the most poingant exhibitions I have seen. It really upset me that so many people visit the East Side Gallery everyday but I suspect the vast majority will never see the Wall of the Wall exhibition due to its temporary status and poor location/signage. I also found it terribly ironic, especially in light of my earlier visit to the Jewish Museum, that this instilation has received much criticism from Israel. However, there is hope, and I consider myself lucky, because this project was meant to have been taken down Sept 13th. Hopefully Wall of the Wall will be allowed to stay and will one day gain permanent status.

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As I said at the beginning of this entry: “walled cities are always special” and Berlin is no exception, although I mean this in an unconventional context. In Berlin’s case the wall did not help preserve a former identity, instead it gave Berlin the impetus to forge a new identity. For 28 years the wall represented oppression, control, and conformity and I believe it’s this constant reminder that is the inspiration and motivation behind the seemingly endless creative upwellings and liberalism that today do much define this city.

Like clockwork, as my Museum Pass expired the sun came out and I gleefully spent the next few days soaking up the rays and aimlessly cycling the streets discovering contemporary Berlin. This is a city that does not instantly win your heart. It does not have the grand sweeping boulevards of Paris, nor the monumental splendor of Rome or the classical orderly veneer of London. At first Berlin appears cold with unsightly bland buildings looming over the main streets and lacking any coherent style other than an omnipresent dullness. However, as I took to the back streets this facade soon faded and I soon discovered a much more colourful and exciting city. For what Berlin lacks in architecture ascetics it more than makes up for in many other ways. Berlin is blessed with a tremendous amount of green and public space and more than any other city I’ve seen is brought to life by a tremendous amount of street art. Like London and Copenhagen the city has heaps of great cafes, restaurants and galleries; however, unlike the above they are neither expensive nor pretentious. The markets I visited in Berlin are among the best I have seen (Market Hall Neun and MauerPark). This city is defined by its artists and creativity and this shows, it’s not hard to see why Berlin is regarded as the cultural capital of Europe. A great manifestation of the impact these creative industries have on the city are in its working hours with 10-6 being standard. It’s this same creative energy which is responsible for the numerous social projects that exist in this city, such as the urban gardens, community owned housing, the reclaimed and transformed industrial sites and the overwhelming number of exhibitions, events, markets, installations, concerts, and performances.

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I’ll highlight one particularly noteworthy event which should suffice to give you a more concrete idea of what I mean when I say creative, innovative and inspiring.  In the fine company of Leona, Edou and Julian I was invited to attend Efficient City Farming’s inaugrral fish fry. ECF is an urban aquaponics farming project which aims to produce local and sustainable alternatives to the current food system. Like most great ideas the concept is simple and involves intergrating hydroponics and aquaculture into a closed system where the waste water from the fish is used to fertilize the plants and the plants provide the food for the fish to eat. They feed each other. Its all quite synergetic as the nutrient rich water from the fish produces unbelievably high yields for the plants, for example 1m2 of tomatoes will produce 80 kg of fruit annually. In practice this prototype system is constructed from two shipping containers stacked atop each other with the top serving as the greenhouse and the bottom as the fish tank. Not only where we there to support a good cause, we did it in style, sitting atop the roof of a former brewery (now a restaurant) and watching the sun go down while surrounded by good ethic good and the outstanding company. Amazing!

What at first might appear distant from urban farming but closely linked by like minded creative types is Berlin’s burgeoning club scene; a term almost synonymous with the infamous Berghain.  Berlin’s club scene is pioneering and truly special and unlike anywhere else in the world. People fly here from all over Europe just to lose themselves in a crazy 72+h alternative reality. As I mentioned earlier most clubs are continuously open from Friday through Monday and are internationally renowned not just for their progressive techno music but also for their their relaxed and liberal atmosphere and policies. Sisyphos, the club Leona and crew took me to is a Berliner’s institution, it has five different dance floors each spinning different styles of trance/techno, it has it’s own ‘restaurant’, cafe, and kiosk and a massive outdoor section equipped with bonfires, sofas, ponds and swings. Indeed, it is set up to make for a rather comfortable 72 hours. As a foreigner trying to get into these clubs you would do well to arrive with Germans and avoid speaking English. Another word of advice, unless you want to stand in line for a couple of hours you should refrain from arriving between 1-4 a.m. In the end we decided that to go to Sisyphos at 6pm, not 6am, and I was surprised to see that the club was still heaving. That’s right ‘still’ not ‘already’, as we were joining a party which had already been underway for well over a day. I had the time of my life and danced my face off, although by Berlin standards I called it “an early night” turning in at 4.

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I ‘decided’ to take the next day easy and as has been another re-occuring Berlin theme did so in outstanding company. Thanks to the wonderful interconnectedness and randomness of Facebook I’d come to learn that Michael Wexler, an old friend from uni, had just moved to Berlin and since we had not seen each other in years decided it was time we catch up. The day was spent roaming around MauerPark, soaking up the sun and market and enjoying the famous Sunday karaoke. Before departing Michael showed me a nearby memorial to the wall, it was a location where people had jumped from buildings in an attempt to flee. It was such a contrast to our day at the market and our discussions about freedom and served as a potent reminder of just how lucky we are to be born of this generation and experiencing Berlin on these terms.

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The social and relaxed Sunday vibes continued when I returned ‘home’ from the market. It seemed everyone, including the cat, had ‘decided’ to take a relaxing Sunday. We all gathered around the table and after sharing yet another Epicurean feast, and in keeping with Sunday tradition, we fell into the sofas and hammock, flicked on the projector and settled into watching Where The Wild Things Are.

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Initially I had planned on leaving Berlin the next day but after moments like Sunday night I made the easy decision to extend my stay. In contrast to the rest of my time here, I barely left the house on my last days (which has turned into two). I wanted to leave something special for the house, I wanted to create a memory, something special which they could share, a thank you for all the memories they had left me. I decided to make a traditional pumpkin pie, as it is something typically North American and somewhat novel in these parts. The experience turned out to be novel for me as well for despite being an expert in eating pumpkin pies this would be the first time I would attempt to make one. For that matter this was the first time I’d attempted to make any pie or even a dough. In the end my overzealous attitude trumped my doubts and the pie came together deliciously – indeed it was the best I’ve ever made – although the crust did leave a little something to be desired. Over the last 11 days here I have grown a special affinity for this place and more specifically for the people who call it home. Isn’t it strange how a former office space in a distant land occupied by people who only days ago were total strangers can all of a sudden become a home. And I do not say this lightly for this is the ultimate compliment. For as much as I love the excitement and adventure of travelling I certainly miss the intimacy and embrace of close friends and family. It’s in this sense that what I have experienced here is truly exceptional and the lessons learned immense. And so it is, like Copenhagen, I will leave this place with the heaviest, yet fullest, of hearts. Stay amazing. All of you: blog readers, friends and outstanding hosts 🙂

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Denmark

Denmark. What a country. In many ways it seems to remind me of the utopias I built as a child. Utopias, carefully crafted from multi coloured plastic blocks. Blocks that grew into vibrant cities and communities where anything was possible and where everyone had a permanent smile painted on their face. Perhaps it’s more than coincidence that these colourful dream actualizing blocks are a proudly Danish invention otherwise known as LEGO. So pull out your pen and paper, or better yet jump on the next flight bound for Copenhagen, because Denmark is a role model country and we should all be taking notes.

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As far as I can tell Denmark has it all, and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. According to the UN’s most recent study on happiness the Danes have once again been rated the happiest people in the world, with Denmark/Copenhagen consistently voted one of the most livable countries/cities. But what are these measures, the indicators by which such claims are made? What are Danmark’s secrets? Is it the country’s wealth? Yes, but not in the conventional sense, not in material aggrandizement. Indeed, this philosophy would be actively discouraged. The country’s wealth lies in its institutions, its services, its contribution to the arts and in the social wellbeing of its people. Denmark is one giant playground, littered with parks, squares and public spaces. It overflows with small independent shops, cafes, restaurants, and galleries. And its public services are second to none, for the Danes do not merely ”fund” their services; instead they treat them as ”investments”. The country prides itself on their numerous no expense spared libraries, state of the art public transit (the city buses even have free wifi), and what I consider to be an unparallel education system. However, these indicators, these things which I so much admire, appreciate and value, the built environment, they all speak of something much deeper. These physical manifestations are representative of a certain philosophy and speak volumes about the values of the people. In this light I find it fitting that so many people cycle here, not because I personally identify with cycling, but as a symbol. A beautiful and humble symbol that represents the freedom, liberty and equality of the world’s best Welfare State. A vehicle that provides the physical, mental and spiritual nourishment necessary to realize ones potential and live life to its fullest. Although, I guess the national symbol, which is a heart, is equally as fitting.

Yes, perhaps I am viewing this country through rose tinted lenses. But believe me, I have tried my best to be discerning and have probed and prodded for its shortcomings, yet so far I have come up more or less empty handed. However, I am getting ahead of myself, let us slow down and take a step back and allow me talk you through my time here to better understand I arrived at these conclusions.

My Danish adventure began in Hirtshals, a small village clinging to the far northwest finger of Jutland. I arrived from Norway by boat and the country seemed to greet me with open arms, quite literally rolling out the red carpet. As the ferry docked amid gale force winds, and whitecaps I watched the sun slip below the horizon and decided to immediately seek out the nearest shelter, which turned out to be a pine forest situated next to an abandoned WWII bunker. Apparently, I was not the first person to seek shelter here. OK, so in retrospect I guess I was not initially greeted with the openest of arms but that would soon change.

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The next morning I was shaken awake by the relentless winds, which against all odds, seemed to have only gained in strength. Considering myself a somewhat experienced cyclist I knew the wind would surely be against me – as it always is when cycling – and I reluctantly took my time getting up and began regretting my decision of venturing to the lowlands of Denmark to rest the legs. Given the option, I would much rather spend an entire day cycling a steep mountain than fighting the wind, at least after climbing a mountain you get to coast down the other side. However, little did I know I was about to have one of the best rides of my life. Bracing myself against the wind and stepping out of the tent I soon realized the wind was directly behind eagerly waiting to push me towards Skagen. I could not believe my good fortune, it was from this point forward that Denmark repeatedly greeted me with open arms.

The 60km ride to Skagen flew by, although in some ways this was a shame as the dunescape and coastline along this stretch was nothing less than stunning. The gently rolling dunes and soft windswept grasses were in sharp contrast to the towering mountains of Norway but in their own subtle way were equally as profound. Despite their beauty, I did not pause long for amongst the dunes, for I was caught up in the energies of the wind, lost in the moment and enjoying the pure bliss of effortlessly rolling across the country. Also, I was running late, late for a date, a date with the most beautiful of ladies…a Skype date with the Mother-Unit.

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Skagen proved to be a great introduction to the country. It had been casually recommended by someone aboard the ferry and although it was a bit of a detour I decided to visit. Geographically, Skagen has one of the coolest locations going, being nestled among the dunes and straddling a narrow spit of sand that separates The North and Baltic Seas. Standing on this spit of land and you can feel the wind and see the waves come from opposing directions and it feels as if you’re gazing upon the end of the world. And for a long time Skagen was considered just that: The End of The World, remaining without a connection to the rest of the country until a rail connection in 1890 and without a paved road until 1940. Life here was tough, the dunes repeatedly buried the city, the winters were harsh, and supplies were infrequent. However, eventually this isolation in combination with its natural beauty and soft light became its attraction, with many of Denmark’s most celebrated artists moving here. Today, this legacy lives on. Besides being colourful in its own right, with all the buildings painted a ubiquitous yellow, white and orange, the city has numerous museums, galleries, and cafes. In fact, I was so taken by this town of 7000 I ended up staying for three days when I’d initially planned on staying for only one night.

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Characteristic of Danish hospitality, upon arriving in Skagen I was greeted by the queen, although ”officially” she downplayed this and claimed to be visiting in celebration of Skagen’s 600th anniversary. Margrethe II, glided into town aboard her yacht, although to be honest I found this a little cliché as I’d met her this way last summer during the Olympics. However, I must give Marg credit because on this occasion she was accompanied by cavalry and a mounted band. There could have been no better introduction to the country than to see the harbour and streets teeming with flag waving Vikings. But in all seriousness this was a sincere and heartfelt welcome for a queen whom the people truly admire. As I would soon learn, Margrethe II is incredibly popular, and with a 90% approval rating can be considered the world’s coolest monarch. And when I say cool I mean seriously cool. For starters she is highly educated, speaking five languages and having studied at La Sorbonne, The LSE and Cambridge. And if that’s not cool enough, while studying she refused her cousins (Queen Elizabeth II) offer of royal accommodation and instead opted to live in the common dorms. It was while living in these dorms that she ‘learned’ the fine art of drinking and smoking, a habit which despite being 73 she continues to practice regularly. However, despite her high level of education, or perhaps because of her high level of education, she insists on sending her children and grandchildren to regular public school. Still not convinced? She is also an accomplished artist and does her own royal self portraits in addition to the other royal paintings. And how about this fun little fact. After reading The Lord of The Rings she decided it needed to be available to the Danish people and personally translated into Danish…including the illustrations. As I said, seriously cool. Apparently the Danes love her so much because they identify with her and see her as a good ambassador of their country and values.

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Back to the story. After a few days soaking up the warmth and colours of the city, discovering the beautiful works of the Skagen Painters, and wondering the dunes and barefoot along the sea I decided it was time to turn south and chase the sun towards Copenhagen. Most Danes would agree that along this eastern stretch of Jutland time seems to slow down, perhaps getting lost amongst the rolling countryside and tiny seaside villages. I could not imagine a better time to be here, for the days, like the windswept grasses were long and the sun was still bright. The insects, presumably taking a cue from the tourists, had recently left and in their place left the fields swollen with the seasons bounty. The entire country was overflowing with apples, plumbs, and berries of all sorts and I gleefully filled my panniers with the wild delights. I often slept outdoors, tucked amongst the dunes, alternating between my tent and the free camping shelters scattered along the coast. The shelters are worth a special mention as they were nothing less than amazing, always thoughtfully located and equipped with firewood, chairs, WC’s and built in an open concept with a wall open to the world. As far as I know there is no other country that offers the same. It was blissful, and I make special mention of these moments because these are the ones I’ll need to hold onto for the last leg of the tour when I cross Serbia and Bulgaria in November. Keeping with the theme of good fortune, the following 48 hours were to define it.

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The next city stop was Åhus, Denmark’s second city, which happened to be in the middle of its weeklong arts/cultural festival often touted as one of Scandinavia’s largest. It was a long day’s cycle to Aarhus as a strong headwind had slowed me down considerably, so upon approaching the city I stopped and considered whether it was worth heading into a big city late in the afternoon. I was pretty knackered and it would be difficult to find a suitable place to camp. However, I felt as if something was pulling me into the city and decided to forgo my hesitations and instead follow my intuition. I entered Åhus along the coast following one of its many immaculate bike lanes passing hundreds of smiling cyclists returning home from work. As I was nearing the centre, using the steeple of the church as my beacon I happened to glance down and noticed my odometer had just ticked past the 1000km mark. Lady luck seemed to be close at hand for the next moment I passed a Belgian beer bar with a single empty patio seat. It was a sign. I promptly stopped and entered a smoke filled room full of eclectic people and furniture accompanied by a very respectable selection of beers. I promptly ordered a Troubadour Magma (from the tap!) and stretched my legs outside.  Again, lady luck intervened as the table of guys next to me cleared and was then taken by a beautiful girl. What else could I do but strike up a conversation? We hit it off right away and I thought things were going well until her boyfriend sat down. That said, what initially appeared to be disaster certainly was not. Thomas and their friend Nickolas turned out to be outstanding and a perfect complement to Laura. Before long I found myself at their table, taken under their wings, and learning about all things Danish, which continued until crashing on their sofa at 5 a.m. All three were rockstars, although during the day they disguised themselves as architecture students and they truly brought their city and culture to life. When we awoke Laura made us an amazing lunch and then Thomas suggesting visiting Occupy Utopia, a temporary community built around art, expression and the general principles of awesomeness. It was true to its name with music stages, gardens, art exhibitions, education centers, workshops, cafes and a skate park. However, the thing that most caught my attention was Hans Pedersen who had about 20 of his hand built bicycles on display. These were not conventional bicycles; in fact they were the farthest thing from them, with most of them defying description, although there were an assortment of children’s recumbents, various tall bikes, and some inventive trikes. All the bikes were entirely made from recycled materials such as lawn chairs, cargo boxes, and skies. Needless to say Hans is one cool dude, a living hero, and when he is not building bikes he is busy building a family, taking care of his hobby farm and working on windmills. It would have taken weeks to take in everything this temporary community had to offer, and I would happily have done such but the road beckoned me as I’d agreed to meet Ingward the following day. Although, before rolling out I needed some cycling fuel and following L&T’s recommendation (and the NY Times) to Cafe Gaya where I had the best vegetarian meal of my life.

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That evening I followed the coast out of the city and stumbled upon a magical forest of 200 year old beech trees where I felt compelled to camp. As the forest grew dark music started in the distance and I was lulled to sleep by its hypnotic rhythm. Awaking in the morning I was pleased to hear the music still going strong and as it seemed to beckon me I followed. Soon I found myself surrounded by hundreds of barefooted ravers totally engrossed and at one with the music. I kicked off my shoes and joined in. The sun broke the horizon and set the sea afire. In time the wind began to gather strength and as I was still trying to keep schedule to see Ingward I jumped back on the bike. Shortly after 9:00, and in desperate search for caffeine, I passed though the small town of Odder. Eventually I was lured by the charm of Cafe Galleriet and although the cafe did not open until 10 Charlotte insisted I come in. I was promptly given a latte, refused payment, and then given a tour of their most recent art exhibition featuring the work of Helga Exner, who at 75 is considered one of Denmarks leading jewelers. I then took a spot on the patio to rest the legs and soak up some rays when Charlotte  reappeared with oven fresh bread, cheese, jams and more coffee. She sat down for a chat and insisted I not pay for a thing. Now if this sounds too good to be true then you better stop reading because you won’t believe the rest of the day.

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My next stop was Horsens, where after battling with the wind for a few hours I was keen to seek refuge, and again was on the hunt for caffeine. It was almost like déjà vu as upon entering another charming cafe was given coffee and a deliciously baked chocolate treat and refused payment. I had to pinch myself. Leaving the café, I walked my bike down the pedestrian street with a big smile on my face and paused to watch a group of swing dance performance. Before long I had stricken up a conversation with a gentleman who turned out to be the organizer of the event and who then offered me accommodation with him and his family. Unfortunately I had to politely decline having already accepted Ingward’s. Continuing down the street I was then offered yet more coffee and cake by an organization whose aim is to integrate recently landed immigrants. Again I kindly refused. The kindness and hospitality was almost too much to handle, yet the day was still young.

Approaching Vejle I decided to stop at one of the many boxes of free apples that residents place along the bike path and filled a pannier as thank you for Ingward’s invitation. Then, out of the blue I felt a tap on my shoulder and turning around saw the man himself who had decided to cycle out of city to meet me on route. I promptly followed Ingward through town and to his place where we shared stories and a bite to eat before making our way to a nature reserve where we used the fireplace (and pre-cut wood!) to prepare the most epic of BBQ’s. Eventually we were joined by a group of 15 year old boys and Ingward decided it was time to head home. Around the fire I chatted with the young guys about politics, culture, and philosophy and I must say I was astounded at how well rounded they all were. These were just normal kids, without any lofty aspirations of higher education, but I was properly impressed with how insightful, mature, and grounded they were.

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As promised, the next morning, Ingward returned to the shelter with breakfast and his daughter and two granddaughters. As it was nature day in Denmark there was to be a guided tour of the surrounding valley and woodlands. We joined about a dozen other families and after grabbing our binoculars headed out to look or fox and badger dens. It was a lovely day and a lovely way to spend it. My highlight of the day, maybe of the tour, was when the eldest girl, who was no more than eight, grabbed my hand and held it for the duration of the hike. It was such a simple gesture that transcended the barriers of language, age and culture. Why do adults forget this? It was a very fitting conclusion to a very memorable 48 hours.

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Obviously, this sort of hospitality, openness, generosity and understanding is something very special. Like the monuments, parks and services I alluded to earlier these people are a direct reflection, a living embodiment, of their societies culture and values. It was my daily experiences like these and a chat with Katja, who works in a circus, which sparked my interest in the Danish education system.

I met Katja in a small cafe, in a small town. She was there with the local circus. She works with the horses. She was born into the circus and brought up her children while working in the circus. This is how it seems to go. Katja has a special energy. She has eyes that smile deeply into your soul. Her presence is warm, relaxed and aware. She is captivating. Katja had spent several years working for a large circus in New York. In fact Katja has spent time in many places and particularly enjoyed her time in France. Back to New York. In NY Katja was raising her two sons and decided they should be school at the circus and so founded a school which began under a tree, then moved into a tent and eventually graduated to a trailer which eventually had an enrollment of dozens of the circus kids and was equipped with computers and fulltime teachers. Long story short, her son went on to Harvard and then turned down a lucrative job in NY to work for an organization called dosomething.org that promotes activism on social projects. Katja also introduced me to the concept of Danish outdoor schools where kids, beginning in Kindergarten, do almost all their learning outside; fall, winter and spring. She also explained how Danish class sizes are kept small and it is common to be with the same class all the way until ‘high-school’. Needless to say these stories, and the quality of the Danes, sparked my interest in the structure of the school system and led to many other conversations which has left me in awe.

Teachers are considered, and more importantly, are upheld as ‘the most important of the professions’. This is just lip service, when the Danes make a statement like this they back it up. Teachers Collage here is a four year program, not one year like back home. At Teachers Collage the teachers, like the classes they will teach, are kept together and in small groups of <30 for their entire program. They have mandatory classes in philosophy, morality, religion, and pedagogy. They get into the schools and start working with kids immediately. And most importantly, and what I believe the main reasons I’ve been so impressed with the Danes is they view school as a vehicle to develop people into realizing their fullest potential; similar in principle to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They do not view school as a competitive system to merely churn out the cogs of the capital system, to create robots capable of memorization and regurgitation hardwired to excel at multiple choice tests. Maybe this is the reason that ‘gap’ years between high-school and collage are so encouraged and are in fact the norm. It is true, you won’t find the Danes atop of the global rankings in math or science but given the choice, and without the slightest doubt, this is how I would want my children educated. Oh yes, did I mention they are all fluent in English and can also get by in French and German?

In this light, and totally by coincidence, I have found it only too fitting that I have been audio booking Jean Jacque Rousseau’s The Social Contract, especially with its ideas of The General Will. Also, I have been reading Warburton’s A Litte History of Philosophy which introduced me to Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher considered the father of existentialism. I believe these concepts have had a profound impact on shaping Danish thought and society; a society where everyone is treated equally, where a class system is not apparent, and in which the states aim is to help you live the most meaningful of lives. These values are clearly expressed in the tax system which taxes everyone with the lowest earners paying 38% and the highest 65%. Despite the high taxes, I have yet to hear anyone complain about them. Instead, everyone seems to be proud contributing to this system, to invest in it. There is a real sense of care, respect, and giving back that runs deep through this society. Even the highest earners such as Carlsberg, Maersk and LEGO continually go above and beyond these high taxes and endow the country with museums, opera houses and investments in education. What has Wal-Mart given back? During my walking tour of Copenhagen the guide told us before plumbing – when the sewage was still collected by hand – it was common for households to leave a shot of snaps next to their sewage bucket realizing the cleaner had a shitty job. The Danes have built a society for all, an equal society, not a society that only rewards the privileged and talented. Perhaps part of this has to do with government accountability. As the country is small and with almost 30% of Danes living in Copenhagen it is quiet easy to meet with your MP or sit in on political debates and question periods. In fact, you are entitled to the room number of your MP and can drop in for a visit anytime during the day; the queen also has a similar policy.

But back to the journey and coincidences and philosophy. On Fyn (the central island) I was awoke to the sound of wind and rain. I cannot say I was particularly upset by this as after three weeks it was the first rain I’d seen. That said, I was still reluctant to jump out of my sleeping bag and instead reached for Warburton’s philosophy book. The chapter I started on introduced Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher who I was unfamiliar with, but an important one who has influenced many others. Schopenhauer main ideas are based around The Will and Representation; however, he was also interested in the power of the arts and especially music, which he claimed be ‘the purest form of art”. So while chewing over Schopenhauer’s ideas I turned on the ipod and prepared for the wet ride to Odense where I planned to wait out the rain in a library. Like a drowned rat, carefully treading through the puddles, I rode into Odense unaware that my fortune and a beautiful coincidence awaited me in the form of Odense’s music library. Hands down this is the coolest library I have seen. It was filled with tens of thousands of albums in vinyl and CD, it had a recording studio, beautifully equipped listening stations, a heap of space and employed the friendliest staff imaginable. I spent the next seven hours here, until they booted me out, and listened to everything from Jimmy Hendricks live recording from Royal Albert Hall to Van Morrison and to Otis Redding and finished with the entirety of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Schopenhauer, you rock! This was truly one of the greatest places I’ve ever been. If you skipped the above paragraph please go back and read it.

From Odense I was only a day’s ride from København and using my bike as a clothes line, with my wet clothes flapping in the wind and I headed to the capital. And what a capital it is, totally worthy of such a grand country, the icing on the delicious Danish rye bread cake. Again good fortune was close at hand as I coincidently entered town through one of its coolest neighborhoods. Rolling down Sønder Boulevard I decided it was time for some chocolate milk (which the Danes have perfected) and stopped at a corner store called Kihoskh; however, little did I know this was so much more than your local corner store. For to what did my wondering eyes did appear but over 500 different bottles of beer. That’s right, 500. It made Cask, where I worked in London, and considered to have the cities best bottle selection look impoverished. Not only was I blown away by the selection, it turns out the owner is friends with Mikkeller who is The Beer God and who brews 5 specialty beers just for this shop…which are all named after Tin Tin cartoons. Needless to say, Snowy was very excited. After downing the milk it was time to satisfy my other craving….no not beer…it was only 11am….salad. I had been dreaming of delicious salad for days and again fate lead me 200m down the street to one of the city’s best salad bars. Absolute heaven. I was energized and check out the centre, head to the tourists information and stop by a market to gather some flowers for the Viking Princess.

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I met Natasja, otherwise known as the VP, while in London and as she had recently returned to Copenhagen she invited me to her lovely palace in Nørrebro. We immediately grabbed a coffee and headed out for a tour of her neighborhood. I would describe Nørrebro as a grown up East London with lots of independent shops, cafes and galleries, although without the dead zones created by industry and estates. It is very cool. For dinner we made our way to Grod, a local restaurant that takes localism and good food very serious. We took a table outside on what would be any other city’s most charming street and were able to see the shop where our bowls came from, the shop of the potter who made our plates, the bakery that provided the bread, and seeing as Grod did not serve alcohol I simply walked next door to the wine shop and returned with a glass of red and white in beautiful glassware. This experience turned out to be pretty representative of my entire time here.

I spent nearly a week in København but could have spent a lifetime. Seriously, I have never felt so connected with another city. It was better than perfect. The city is just so livable. At 1.5 million it’s a great size, large enough to offer the services and delights of a cosmopolitan city yet small enough to feel like home. The cities size also makes it easy to get around, especially on a bike where 37% of people cycle everyday making transportation fast, efficient, and clean. Copenhagen is well endowed with parks, museums, public spaces, art, and beautiful architecture and is surrounded by water. One of my favorite squares is the Red Square where there are swings, benches, art, and other features representing the various cultures that live here. København has the world’s largest pedestrian street and will soon open the world’s only dedicated bicycle bridge. Like Nørrebro, the rest of the city is full of great independent shops, restaurants and cafes and has many great markets. Houses are rarely more than four stories high and with the bottom levels used as retail space the streets are alive. The general demeanor of the people is cool and calm yet friendly and open, which is probably why it’s the only place in the world home to a place like Freetown Christiania.

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Christiania is a community within central Copenhagen that was founded in 1971 on the grounds of an abandoned military facility. It considers itself a ‘free state’ and is self governing with the Danish government tolerating it as and treating it as a social experiment. Christiania’s initial residents were artists, hippies, squatters and collectivists whose spirit and ideals are still very much alive among its 850 residents. The community holds over 300 concerts a year, has its own internationally acclaimed theatre group and also and has many social initiatives included providing free meals to the homeless. One of the main industries is the sale of cannabis and here you can browse from dozens of vendors who openly sell countless varieties of weed and hash which can be purchased and smoked openly. Another trademark industry is the Christiania Bike, which are large cargo bikes popular with families (the mini van) and seen all over København. Christiania owns most of the property and rents the rest from the government and is supported by many Danes who have purchased Christiania Shares. Internationally Christiania is often used as a symbol to represent the progressive and liberated Danish lifestyle.

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And it’s the lifestyle, the embodiment of the values, that I find most attractive. The Dane’s seem to have struck the perfect balance between encouraging individuality of expression as manifest in their internationally acclaimed art, architecture and design while retaining broad social values in working for the greater good. A great example of working for the greater good, and looking beyond Danish borders is The Retro Cafe, a volunteer run cafe with all proceeds going to help fund relief efforts in Sierra Leone. It is also through these values that their care for others is expressed. Denmark has many services available for immigrants to help them learn the language and culture, to help them integrate and it seems to work as the isolated ethnic communities which are so apparent in London do not seem to exist here. The first generation immigrants I met all consider themselves Danes first and foremost and where they came from secondary. I can’t blame them, who wouldn’t want to be a Dane. Another good indicator of one’s values is to see how one reacts during times of crisis. Since before the Napoleonic Wars Denmark has always taken a neutral stance during wars, even when the rest of Europe was engrossed in them. However, playing neutral can have its disadvantages and during WWII Hitler invaded. It is worth noting that there was not much of a resistance to the Nazi occupiers, although part of that is because Hitler took it easy on the Danes as he appreciated the ‘purity’ of the race. However, as we know, Hitler did not consider all races quiet so ‘pure’ and when he put forth The Final Solution he requested Denmark’s 7800 Jews be turned over to Germany. However, this is not what happened; despite risking grave consequences the Danes were able to save over 99% of Jewish population by secretly transporting them in fishing boats to Sweden. How about that for values?

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My time in Copenhagen (and Christiania) was immense. In addition to having Tash and her friends show me the city I also took a walking tour and enjoyed aimlessly cycling around the city discovering its hidden gems. I ended up spending an entire afternoon in the national art museum (SKM) as it was just so well done. I also visited the NY Carlsberg Glyptotek which gave me a new found appreciation for sculpture especially after spending time with all the Rodin’s. I took a guided tour of Christiania and returned for an evening of reggae. I climbed the spire of All Saints Church. Taking stage at 1 a.m I saw my fellow Canadian Cyril Hahn perform at Rust. I test drove an electric car. Partied with all the cool kids in The Meat Packing District. Met and explored the city with Gonzalo from Buenos Aires. I visited both Mekkeller bars, one intentionally and the other by wonderful coincidence. I wondered through amazing markets and dinned on spectacular food and just sat outside and watched the world go by.

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But best of all I was able to see Copenhagen through the eyes of a local. Natasja, was a great host, introducing me to her city and friends and was the perfect culmination to all my Danish hospitality. I was introduced to the term ‘hyggeligt’, which similar to the Dutch word ‘Gezelligheid’, does not have an English equivalent. According to the urban dictionary hyggeligt means cozy, homey, delightfully intimate, a genial moment or thing, often at home with candle lights and warm blankets. This was best experienced when we made a traditional Danish meal of frikadellers, potato salad and cabbage salad, which was beyond delicious and a very welcome meal after three weeks on the road. Another term I learned about was farewell. This is a common English word that I often use but rarely think about, often mindlessly used to mean ‘bye’ or ‘see you later’. However, to me farewell or fare well seems to say so much more, on closer reflection it is quiet profound.

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So, on that note dear blog reader, I bare you fare well. If you have made it this far congratulations. I myself have stopped reading this long ago as I am still having issues with my keyboard and thus have spent my entire day locked into one of Denmark’s swank libraries.

To see the rest of my photos you can click here or use the photo tab at the top of this page

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Norway

My apologies for a slow start to the blog, my keyboard decided it had no interest in bicycle touring and promptly keeled over and died. So, I write to you from the comfort of Skagen´s library attempting  to decipher my handwritten notes.

Already, leaving London feels like ages ago, as if it has faded into the most wonderful and colourful of dreams, which is both how it seemed to appear and disappear. Looking back, one of my clearest memories of London came from atop Muswell Hill where I was staying with Kella. From this vantage point I gazed down into the Thames valley and saw London shrouded in a misty haze. My initial thought was, ´how am I going to live here for the next ten months?´ Now, two years on I sometimes wonder how I will ever live without her. I guess I can I take consolation in the fact London truly left its mark on me and I’ll forever carry a piece of her in my back pocket. And, so it was, into this same misty haze that London disappeared as we flew over the city heading north from Gatwick bound for Norway.  The rest of the UK, basking in a glorious heat-wave, spread out below us in its patchwork of farms, rolling hills and winding roads and it was in this clarity that I watched the coastline of this lovely little island vanish into the horizon.

With the U.K. behind us we began crossing the North Sea and were soon surrounded by dark foreboding clouds and their accompanying turbulence; the weather mirrored my mood. Perhaps, I was unsettled due to a lingering sinus infection, or my head cloudy from the previous night’s farewells, or was I feeling nervous to be embarking upon this journey? Either way, I was starting to have second thoughts and some serious doubts about the upcoming tour. Isn´t it interesting how quickly a dream can become a nightmare? However, as we began our descent and broke through the clouds I felt a rush of excitement as coastal Norway opened up below. Meeting my eyes were mountains, fjords, lakes, rivers and forests all hemmed in by an island archipelago. It was a strange mixture of excitement and apprehension.

I had wanted to visit Norway and Scandinavia for as long as I can remember. It has always been the region of Europe that most captivated me. I am not sure what implanted this thought it my head but it has been there for as long as I can recall, maybe it was a National Geographic magazine or an episode of the Discovery Channel, or upon hearing that Slartibartfast won an award for creating the fjords in Norway? As an adult my interest in this area grew as I was keen to understand why this part of the world continually ranked highest in quality of life indices, in measures of happiness and in social welfare. Needless to say, I was also keen to explore the nature and to rub shoulders with the Vikings. In fact, I had planned on visiting Norway three years ago as the starting point for my first European bike tour but a combination of seasonality, terrain, and cost forced me to reconsider. Now that I was here was I ready…?

The plane landed and the tour began in Bergen, Norway´s second city, and its one time capital. Bergen is known as The City of Seven Mountains, which makes it look and sound majestic, unless of course you are crazy enough to visit these parts on a fully loaded touring bike…
Bergen, initially rose to prosperity due to its natural harbour and cod trade, eventually becoming one of the major centres of the Hanseatic League. Today it’s Bergen´s proximity to nature and its Hanseatic heritage, with its UNESCO listed wooden warehouses, that make Bergen a sought after destination.

I spent one day in Bergen and divided my time between the fish market, the warehouses, the fort, the tourist office, provision gathering, and catching rays in a park. Then, with good weather in the forecast I decided it was time to turn south and venture into the wilds.

Coastal Norway has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, a true overload for the senses. The nature here is best described as rugged, raw, epic and unspoilt. It is a land of giants, with towering mountain ranges cut by immense fjords and filled with thundering waterfalls. It’s also a land of water where the smell and energy of the sea is infectious. In many parts boats are more numerous than cars, and colourful seaside villages are hidden within lush valleys. Forests of evergreens cover the hills and in the steep bits, great slabs of granite lay bare and exposed. On closer inspection you´ll find an explosion of colour bursting forth from the endless bouquet of wildflowers and a limitless array of forms and textures in the mosses, ferns, pebbles, sands and dunes. The landscape shimmers with pristine lakes which are bound to an endless network of rivers, streams and creeks. The cry of the seabirds, and the sight of basking seals, wondering elk and soaring eagles are majestic. The silence is overwhelming. If you are a romantic this is the place for you. In many ways the landscape reminded me places I´ve experienced before, but somehow on a grander, richer scale. The mountains and sea brought me back to the remote coast of British Columbia, the bare granite rocks reminded me of Britt, the cottages and backroads took me to the Muskokas.  That said, after travelling amidst this landscape I began to understand why the Vikings plundered. Despite its beauty, or maybe because of it, the landscape is unforgiving. There are few areas suitable to farming and settlement and with long tough winters this is surely a difficult place to make an honest living.

To transverse this immense landscape I followed the North Sea Cycle Route which hugs the coast of from Bergen to Kristiansand where it has connections with the UK and Denmark making for an unbroken 6000km trail. The route follows marked signways along old backcountry roads, rail lines, and footpaths providing a very intimate introduction to the country. However, this seemingly idyllic route can test ones constitution as the grades are often steep, and the path winding, bumpy or of gravel. Sometimes the path seems to meander aimlessly and at other times is poorly marked making it easy to get lost. That said, I believe the benefits greatly outweigh the cons; it is no accident I choose to travel this way. If I wanted to go fast I would have rented a car.

A few days into the tour I arrived in Stavanger where my nose told me it was time to take a campsite (and a shower). It was here I met Hans who was insistently raving about Preikestolen (The Pulpit Rock) and convinced me I “had“ to see it. So I did. I locked my panniers at the train station and my bike in a central location then caught a ferry and a bus to the base of the mountain. As good fortune would have it, sitting next to me on the bus was another solo travelling Canadian. Morgan, who hails from Victoria and was in Norway visiting friends before embarking on a year in Germany. We got on as all good Canadians do and chatted ourselves up and down the mountain in no time. The hike itself was absolutely amazing and the view from the top is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Spread out 600m below us and stretching on for 42 km was the shimmering waters of Lysefjorden, surrounding us were the crests of mountains and on the horizon a glacier. We were on top of the world.

Morgan is the only fellow Canuck I have yet to meet (and a solid one at that) but it seems as though I’ve met almost someone from every other corner of the world. A touring bike is a magnet and a beacon for the curious and adventurous. I have met a Dutch couple who hitchhiked clear across Canada and then on another journey purchased a rickshaw in India and decided to drive it home. I met a traveler from Israel who just hiked 1500km across his country. A pair of Jehovah Witness’ who tried to convert me, Claudia from Germany who just returned from 10 months in New Zealand, two Polish sailors who just restored a beautiful wooden schooner and sailed it from Gdnaske and Gunter from Berlin who thumbed his way to Norway to meet friends and hike the mountains. Oh yes, and Jugward, A Dane who I struck up a conversation with while  at the ferry terminal preparing to leave Norway and which ended in an offer of hospitality in Vejle, a good omen for Denmark indeed.   

 Then there are the fellow cycle tourists where a special bond exists, especially in these parts, and following a bicycle path I have met many. Andy is an Aussi and is travelling from the North Cape to Greece, I met two Swiss Kindergarden teachers who are cycling the long way home from Oslo, a Dutch sailor who was on his first tour but confessed it would not be his last, and a crazy couple from France on a tandem bicycle called “Toronto Canada.” All these people were so wonderfully alive and it was an immense pleasure to swap stories, share a few laughs and to enter their lives. Oh, and I should introduce my travelling buddy, Snowy. I have always wanted a dog and feeling inspired by Tin Tin and his adventures I decided it was time. He does not eat very much is fairly quiet and well mannered and easy to clean up after, best of all he has magnetic feet…paws!

Of course, I’ve enjoyed chatting with the locals, who have given me an insight into their country and way of life. First off, let me be clear, all Norwegians are gorgeous, they could each set a thousand ships a sailing. This is not a stereotype or a generalization. If they are not clearly beautiful then they are very clearly not Norwegian. I dare you to prove me wrong. Haha. Jokes aside, I did find a particular strength and beauty about the people. For the most part they all appear healthy, happy, confident and seem to hold themselves with a particular self assured confidence, which is a philosophy that seems to extend to their homes and property. Perhaps part of this has to do with their deep connection to the nature and the outdoors, which is something Bob Henderson introduced to me to and is known as friluftsliv. Everywhere one looks you´ll find people running, biking, swimming, paddling, climbing, fishing, or my personal favourite roller skiing. They also seem to be free of the almost ubiquitous vices of the U.K. (and the rest of the world) ie., drinking and smoking. I doubt this is so much a reflection of high ethical standards as it is with – in the words of a Frenchman I met – “Cost controlled prohibition on alcohol and tobacco”. He has a point, a 400cl beer will set you back a mind staggering $12, and cigarettes are taxed at a comparable rate. That said, despite limited access to the finer things in life the Norse seem to be fairly relaxed and well behaved. I only saw one police officer throughout my entire stay and never once felt pressured by a car eager to overtake me on the road. Also, after a few days I stopped locking my bike when going into shops and cafes. Norwegians seem to take pride in their country, or at least that’s the impression I got from the flags flying outside of almost every home. Despite the above the Vikings are not quiet perfect. In general I found them a little insular or reserved, with them rarely initiating conversation and seemingly incapable of small talk. Although, once I broke the ice they were very hospitable, although still direct and to the point. This inwardness did not bother me too much, but I could imagine it could make it a challenging place to live especially if you break the status quo and are different or alternative. Perhaps, these characteristics are a symptom or consequence of Norway’s  landscape and thus structure. The country is mostly made up of small isolated towns and villages which seem to maintain a traditional lifestyle and ideas. Maybe this is why some have accused Norway of being Xenophobic and not particularly welcome to immigration. Overall however, I had nothing but very positive experiences and would happily befriend a Viking any day.

As a country, and as I have already said, Norway is blessed with one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and is a dream come true for nature-philes and outdoor enthusiasts . The country appears to be very wealthy, with almost everyone driving beautiful new cars and livnig in large modern homes. The roads are in immaculate condition and the services, transport, community centers, tourism bureaus, parks, monuments, and public art are all of outstanding quality. Most of this wealth comes from the sea, with fishing and oil (accounting over ¼ of the GDP) being the largest industries. Everything appears new, exceptionally clean and well organized. However, this wealth does come at a cost and makes Norway one of the world’s most expensive countries, although in my opinion it´s totally worth it. And, the cost of living should not be a deterrent for visiting this country as the best attractions are free, that is the awe inspiring mountains, fjords, lakes, forests, rivers, and ocean. This lends itself particularly well to cycle touring and it is by this means of travel that Norway was financially was accessible to me, whereby many of the conventional tourists I met here were wealthy and thus old.

Travelling by bicycle and travelling solo was initially daunting and for the first few days I had some pretty serious doubts. Instead of suppressing these negative and pessimistic thoughts I welcomed them as it forced me to critically examine what I was doing. One of the great privileges of travelling this way is the amount of time is affords of time to chew things over and after a few days on the road, it became very clear that I was doing the right thing. I think the best indication of this was the spontaneous fits of laugher and the perma smile plastered to my face. Some mornings I would almost wake myself up with laughter, similarly I would catch myself laughing, singing and whistling while on (and off) the bike. I find travelling this way incredibly spiritual; it exults my soul skyward where to soar with the birds. I believe, the bicycle, and bicycle touring provides the ultimate nourishment for the mind, body and soul. For me, travelling this way is not so much about travelling as it is about being, being in the moment and at one with the world. Cycle touring also gives me plenty of time to pursue my interests, which I find were often neglected in the chaotic splendor that is London. I spend a fair amount of time reading, writing, meditating, listening to music, catching up on movies, chatting with strangers, making photos, thinking and dreaming. I often welcome the sun as it peaks above the horizon and bid it farewell as it fades into the west. I am beautifully bound by the cycle of the sun and the rhythm of the earth. I think it is fair to say that rarely do I feel more alive than when travelling this way. It´s just you, the bike and the world; your compass is your inner voice and intuition. It´s like taking the most perfect drug, riding a high which continually gathers momentum getting stronger and taking you to new heights. You may think I am exaggerating, but I assure you I am not. However, there are times, where like the mountains, you encounter tough bits, steep valleys and long climbs, but these are an important and integral ingredient of any journey for they are a time for understanding, growth and development. I find I am never truly alone, as I tent to provide myself with adequate company and, as is life, when I do feel in need of a chat someone always seems to appear. I guess it´s sort of like living in a dream. The day becomes a string of moments, whether it’s stepping outside beneath a tapestry of stars, awaking to birdsong, meandering through the countryside, pausing in a sleepy village or just watching the world go by. Like riding into the lingering late evening sun its magic is hard to describe. Yesterday, I spent several hours just watching the flight path of birds as they hunted for insects above a stream. I find this way of being unleashes a tremendous amount of creativity and as with similar moments in my life I have taken up the pen and returned to poetry, in time I’ll share some of this with you via the blog.

Reflecting on my time in Norway leaves me feeling light and slightly intoxicated. In retrospect, my initial doubts and apprehensions seem rather mysterious and ill founded. Although, I guess they were natural enough, as I was stepping out of a life I had known for two years and leaving my comfort zone. However, it is by leaving your comfort zone and facing challenges that one is most adept to grow. That said, starting in the mountains with a fully loaded touring bike on my first solo tour was a true test for the mind, body and spirit. I am happy to report that in all these respects I´ve never felt stronger. In a strange way, it almost seemed as if Norway willed me to succeed. For an area that typically receives 260 days of rain a year in my 11 days I did not see a single drop. One of my last memories of Norway is a fitting summery of my time there. Riding into Kristiansand early on a Sunday morning I had the road to myself, the sun on my face and a strong wind at my back. And so it is with this I am off to Denmark, where I hope to carry the momentum of the mountains with me.

For a more colourful glimpse at Norway you can click here or find a link under the Photos tab at the top of the page

Pre-tour Reflections

Greetings, and thanks for taking the time to visit my blog. You rock!

I will be using this site to make weekly updates during my upcoming bicycle tour from Bergen, Norway towards Istanbul. Below you’ll find a map and tentative schedule of what this journey might look like.

However, before I begin filling these pages with photos and stories of the tour I’d like to take a minute to reflect on what has led me to this point.

As most of you know I have been happily calling London home for the last two years. Over this time I have worked as a bicycle mechanic, sold outdoor gear to business types in The City, guided tourists around London atop bicycles, pulled pints at a craft beer bar and led groups of North American students around Europe on two week tours. All of which was grand. However, far more noteworthy are the truly amazing people who have entered my life. I am indebted to all of you, I learned so much and have shared countless laughs in your company. And London itself, what a gem, a rich and colourful microcosm of the world, I consider myself exceptionally privileged to have spent two truly formative years here. 

However, as is life, all good things must come to an end and with my visa due to expire I have no choice but to leave this wonderful chapter behind. However, as one door shuts another opens and I have decided to use this transition to visit some parts of Europe I’ve yet to explore.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride 🙂

All my very best,

Alec

Tenative Route

The tentative dates are as follows
Bergen, Norway – Aug 21
Copenhagen – Sept 10
Berlin – Sept 20
Prague – Oct 11
Vienna – Oct 25
Budapest – Nov 1
Belgrade – Nov 7
Sofia – Nov 15
Istanbul – Nov 25