Europa United is following Chiara Ginestra and Alexander Colling who have decided to embark on an amazing journey across Europe on bicycle to discover the wonderful right of freedom of movement within the European Union. Part three sees the guys setting foot on the continent with a landing point at Bristol and ending with a swim across the channel and finishing the week in Belgium. Chiara give us the run down on this leg.
We had been on the road two weeks – still felt like a holiday, with days blending all into one and faint memories of work. Still waiting for the moment of realisation that we are not going back home, at least not for the next 5.5 months and 25 countries.
Anyway, the week went pretty much like this.
Disturbances in the saddle zone and concurrent resurrection of an old injury (because one problem is not enough) meant that we were mostly off the bikes for a few days. A couple of trains and a wagon of pills later, I can dare to say I’m now OK and cycling.
At the start of the week, despite feeling like I was straddling a nettle plantation, we did cycle from Bristol to Bath with our friends and hosts Davva & Robyn. It was a scorching day even by Italian standards, and the path was beautiful. Can’t blame Sustrans for having chosen it as their first cycle route. Along the path, we saw a good number of cyclists with physical disabilities riding bikes adapted to their needs. On top of the momentary saddle disability, I don’t have a disability, however I am on long-term prescription for a chronic condition. It’s not going to kill me, at least not in the immediate, but it’s a right faff, especially when you are away for 6 months and have to take with you 4 different medications. One of my front panniers is all taken up by them. Good news is: every day I take them, I gain a little bit more space in the pannier and lose some weight off the rack. On the way to Bath it felt good to see that also other people don’t stop at their limitations and do whatever they want anyway. Their willpower has no physical borders, just like our trip.
On the train from Bath to London, we had loads of space for our bikes but no understanding from the train manager who booted us out of the bike compartment before we could fasten them safely. At least, the lift at St Pancras was like a spaceship to heaven.
We had a super great time in London. First of all, it was Caribbean hot. After a few hours roaming around Hyde Park, Alex’s hands started looking like he had a terrible infectious disease. It’s called the Geordie Cyclist Sunburn. To be fair, I wasn’t doing any better myself. Totally forgetting that after years of Scotland the shade of my skin is proper “buffalo mozzarella”, I didn’t apply any cream. This usually means that I keep my general mozzarella shade, but my nose takes up bright cherry tomato nuances. I was not disappointed also this time round.
In London, it was great to see our old friends and make new ones. Sadly we didn’t manage to meet with Phil Jones, the man who stands at roundabouts with a European flag in solidarity with all EU citizens in the UK after Brexit. One of the best things we did manage to do was joining the daily SODEM protest at Westminster. Steve from SODEM took some videos of us wheeling round in circles, and interviewed us! This is really when everything kicked off. Thanks to Steve now many more people know about our tour, we received so many kind offers of hospitality from all around Europe, and we now have a Twitter page @Fomtour (special thanks to Helen who has set this up and manages it).
We lodged a bit in the outskirts and the cycle to and fro along the canal was as fantastic during the day as it was terrifying at night. That’s because I’m a bit of a wimp. I should have actually been more scared of the amount of crap we humans produce, use and then dump in soil, water and air. The canal and its banks were manky. I really hope David Attenborough will be taken seriously. We have been through only three countries so far and I know for sure that my country (Italy) is worse in this respect, but among those three we cycled through (UK, Ireland and Belgium) the UK is where we saw the largest amount of fly-tipped rubbish.
In London, a special place in our heart was taken up by Baldrick, the blind cat of our host Eugenio. If my front pannier hadn’t been full of medicines already, I would have probably kidnapped Baldrick in it and taken him with us on the train to Dover.
Except from the breathtaking cliffs, Dover is basically like a slightly sunnier West Lothian. The only good bit of it was the mural from Banksy:
We were pleased that the huge ferry had for once appropriate bike storage!
However, on arrival to Dunkirk it ejected us straight out on a motorway with no bike path, which we first tried to avoid ending up in a cul-de-sac field. We then resigned to cycle on the motorway, but we took the wrong direction. I then understood why all the people who offered us a place to stay in France kept giving us random code numbers instead of addresses. What is it with the French road direction system?! Anyway, to get out of that mess we had to double back on ourselves cycling on the wrong side of the road, as a Great Wall of China of cement was running along the middle of it and we couldn’t cross it. When we then managed to cross, we ended up in another cul-de-sac field. After dragging ourselves through bramble, a cycle path magically appeared – like cycle paths usually do. Only, this time it didn’t magically disappear – like cycle paths usually do. Instead it didn’t stop basically till Belgium.
In Belgium, bell towers blast out full symphonies rather than cacophonic ding dongs. People you cycle past emanate divine fragrances as if they were gigantic Arbre Magic on legs. And – hear this – cars stop to give way to cyclists, not even that begrudgingly. At some point, we stopped at a public toilet. On entering, I dropped my Buff in a puddle on the floor. After the first nanoseconds of horror, I decided to pick it up and found out with much relief that it smelt better than before I dropped it – the puddle wasn’t piss, somebody had just washed the floor.
This at least until Bruges. As soon as we entered Ghent I spotted some guy lighting up two cigarettes in one go, so I understood the music was going to change. In Ghent, bell towers still blast out symphonies and cars must give way to cyclists, but I almost got run over a couple of times. Despite this minor inconvenience, we liked Ghent very much.
Cycling in Belgium is beautiful and it’s also so incredibly easy, as the country is so incredibly small and as incredibly flat as a pizza margherita.
Somewhere at the start of this post, I mentioned weight. When you cycle around carrying your life with you, you want it to be light, right? Well, it’s never as light as you want it, and stripping down to the essential of what your life is, is remarkably difficult. When you hit a hill, you also wish you were lighter. You curse your muffin tops and charcuterie thighs, regret all the fish & chips and digestive biscuits you wolfed down in your life and swear from then on to only graze on grass just like the fellow sheep you’re slowly, very slowly, cycling past. Thing is, after the hill there’s always a downhill, and that’s when you start feeling a bit peckish. We thought (and hoped) that we were going to lose some weight on this trip, but so far we feel we’ve actually put some weight on! And that’s not just down to our own human greed, but actually mostly thanks to the human kindness of all those who have not only hosted us, but also abundantly fed us along the way. So, for that week our very special thanks go to: Davva and Robyn, Dino, Cristina, Eugenio (and Baldrick), Florence, Hendrik and Inge.
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