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European Voices -the Freedom of Movement Tour part 9 – a Cold War pilgrimage

After playing catch up like some peloton in the Tour De Europa, our coverage of the Freedom of Movement tour with Chiara Ginestra and Alexander Colling Is finally up to date. Chiara and Alexander are travelling across Europe on bicycle to discover the wonderful right of freedom of movement within the European Union are now as far as Lativa. Don’t forget to follow them on their Facebook page , Tumblr and their Twitter handle

According to Alex it went like this (read this if you actually want to know what we did):

After realising the loss of our ukulele and the use of my left foot, we had a lovely cycle to Limbazi in Lativa where we were greeted by some amazing Couchsurfing hosts, Inese and her husband. They treated us to grilled meat and a wood-fired sauna. It was also a delight to meet their cat, Richard, named after Hyacinth’s long-suffering husband in the British comedy show Keeping Up Appearances. The next day our path took us to Sigulda, a beautiful town up a big hill. On our way we saw many nesting cranes, something neither of us had seen before. Our cycling was frequently interrupted when we spotted one of the enormous nests or a crane flew overhead.

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A day spent cycling on the motorway (perfectly legal in Latvia) led us to our 9th capital, Riga, where we stayed with our lovely host for a few days, Vita. We spent time looking around the central market and Alberta iela before leaving for the border with Lithuania where we came upon a redundant passport control checkpoint.

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The roads here were busy and fast and we had a few very close shaves with a few vehicles. Once over the border in Lithuania, we stayed in a campsite with a private lake so I had the opportunity to swim again and not cut my foot. An opportunity I didn’t allow to pass me by.

At this point we were still absent of a ukulele. It weighs virtually nothing so the only advantage was the absence of it protruding from the top of my drybag on my rear rack. We heard that Madja (a volunteer at the place we left our ukulele in Latvia) was heading for Vilnius and he kindly offered to bring said Hawaiian instrument with him. And so he did.

In Vilnius we were hosted by Jurate, who had an amazing flat and an amazing dog amongst other things. Her kindness was incredible and she cooked for us on arrival then chaperoned us to the city centre to meet Madja and our ukulele. The ukulele was my luxury (Chiara’s being a yoga mat), and one that took a certain amount of persuasion to allow me to bring it. Having sold my banjo for the trip I felt something small, light, simple and easy to play might lighten the darkest days of our pedal around Europe. It felt devastating to have left it and we were in sheer jubilation to have it returned to us again. We can’t thank Madja enough and hope to see him in Belgrade.

Warsaw bound

Our rest day (or, specifically, a frantic day of unrest taking several trains and enduring a number of delays) took us from Vilnius to Warsaw where we stayed with our friend Kasia’s brother, Marek and his family. His homemade Chlodnik soup was the best and finally I could eat the waxy potatoes I had been craving. We had a short stay in Warsaw before heading to Kraków where we stayed with our friend, Ela and her family. Their hospitality was unsurpassable. We enjoyed delicious milk bar fare and toured around the now gentrified Kazimierz before cycling west to Czechia. Since I first came to Kraków 10 years ago I’ve noticed a significant improvement in cycling provision with so many paths and contraflow roads. It was a real pleasure to cycle around.

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The next day we cycled to Oswiecim, known to most people as Auschwitz, and took the opportunity to briefly visit Birkenau. I’ve visited twice before and each time in struck by different realisations and thoughts. This time it seemed so close and my fears for the future of Europe and the world seemed very real. If nothing else, Auschwitz has always done the job of making the past feel real. When I first visited I was taken aback by the wallpaper on the walls in Auschwitz 1 and the portraits of inmates on display in one of the buildings. These two things made everything seen very recent and very real and very present. They horrified me. But at that time I didn’t fear about something like this happening again. Now I’m not that assured.

Czech mate

After Oswiecim we cycled across the border to Karvina in Czechia before moving on to Ostrava then hopping on a train to Prague where we were met by Lee (who we had hosted through Couchsurfing in Edinburgh) and her partner, Pavel. For the majority of our accommodation on our trip we have been hosted by people through Couchsurfing. We met Lee in Edinburgh and her reciprocal offer in Prague makes the circle complete. As before, she treated us to the most delicious Vietnamese food. The next day we had a frantic one-way tour around the city (thankfully we had been there before) and met a man with a wooden bike in the shape of Italy before returning the favour with some Italian cooking in the evening. It was very interesting to talk about living in Prague and Czechia and about Vietnam. Pavel also shared with us some slivovic from his own plums.

The next day we took a train to Breclav and cycled across the Czech/Austrian border to Mistelbach. Due to an injury sustained by Chiara some weeks ago we have been limiting the distance we cycle in an attempt to allow her to recover. Our arrival in Austria was a very hot one, and one accompanied by deer and hare, and honesty cupboards full of local wine and pumpkin seeds and other delicacies. The descent into Vienna was made sweeter with numerous cherry trees along the way, and we had the first rain for about 6 weeks.

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In Vienna we were hosted by Louise and Alex. Louise had seen one of our posts on the In Limbo Facebook page and wanted to support what we were doing with comfort and warmth on our way. They supported our highlighting the benefits of freedom of movement and the unresolved problems Brexit has caused. Their generosity was unstoppable.

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We left Vienna feeling refreshed and supported and cycled to Bratislava, our 14th capital. In numerical terms this meant we were half way through our trip. However, our remaining countries and capitals are much further apart and involve logicistical difficulties in accordance with this.

After Bratislava we cycled to Györ in Hungary. This day contained one of three crossings we would make between the Slovakia/Hungary border over the next few days.

Now, according to Chiara, these weeks passed like this (read this if you don’t mind the occasional rant or two):

Airhorn travel

Miracle. I am no longer in abject pain, so we are cycling more. This has the obvious downside that we can’t write while cycling (nor do anything else but cycling, as it appears). To overcome the issue, I briefly consider purchasing a dictaphone to strap to my handlebar, but instead – on Alex’s suggestion – I decide to go for the loudest airhorn to be found on Amazon for the sole purpose of scaring shitless two categories of road users: a) truck drivers, especially Latvians and Lithuanians; b) pedestrians, especially Krakowians. The former have the tendency to overtake at light speed by totally invading the opposite lane, where we happen to be wobbling forward on two wheels, and as a result making us jump off road in an attempt to avoid our own death. The latter think it is a good idea to suddenly step backwards in pursuit of the perfect picture of whatever, while I happen to again be wobbling past on two wheels, introducing my patellas to the ground beneath us in a rather forceful way. My knees do not need that at all. The airhorn has been overused ever since, and has definitely entered the top three pleasures in the life of a miserable bastard, after chocolate and sarcasm.

The second important purchase of the month, after the airhorn, is kinesiology tape for my knees. Thanks to YouTube and our patient viennese host, Louise, I also gain an understanding on how to stick it on properly. It’s amazing. It works. I’m over a pain-free moon for about two days, and strut around Vienna with my chubby legs proudly wrapped in blue strings like proper homemade Italian salami. This till I realise I’m allergic to the tape. Diary entry on that day: “Ailment no. 5,638 – allergic reaction to kinesiology tape. Note to self: next year, avoid cycling around Europe.”

Because I always get accused of being negative (not sure why, tbh), I’m now going to list the positives of these past weeks:

– The weather: we are still getting burnt to a crisp (Alex more than me, to be fair). This except one occasion around Hungary where a downpour forces us to take shelter at a bus stop, together with a bellied local and a dead bird. At least my sandals are now clean.

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– The food: Alex is finally getting his share of potatoes and I’m getting some respite from his constant desperate hauls of potato-deprived Brit.

– The cycling facilities: in all European capitals so far with perhaps the exception of Prague, there are more sensible cycling paths than in the UK (limited to the experience we have of it). In all European capitals so far, there are cycling facilities of any kind, compared to my hometown Rome where cycling facilities are actually zero. We have cycled some bits of the Eurovelo routes 6, 10 and 13, the Iron Curtain trail, which are generally quite good but not entirely when you want to go from A to B in a mostly straight line. Cycling routes are never straight compared to equivalent car routes. Not exactly fair when your engine is just your legs and your fuel platefuls of pasta.

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– We connect on a regular basis with the amazing Europa United and New Europeans.

– The fauna: whether house pets or wildlife, dead or alive, that’s the major cause of our delays. We stop to mourne in silence for any kind of roadkill, feed grass to goats and fruit to deer, look up in awe at any crane or falcon that soars past us. Instead of sightseeing and writing blog posts (ahem…), we also spend our time harassing the pets of our hosts by following them round the house and serenading them with impromptu songs for voice and ukulele.

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– We received by post the In Limbo stickers and leaflets, which we spread along our way.

– We cross many borders with ease, and we get reminded again that, today, we are lucky.

We’d like to thank Clare, Edgars, Inese and her husband, Ieva and Maris, Vita, Jurate, Marek and family, Ela and family, Jana, Lee and Pavel, Louise and Alex for hosting us in weeks 8, 9 and 10.

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