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Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Netherlands & Belgium

We have been back on our bikes for less than two weeks, but it has flown by. So far we have visited the Netherlands and Belgium and have really enjoyed the history, people, food, beer and of course the cycling.

We left London on May 11th, and it was a full-on day....a 15km ride across London at 5am, a train trip to Harwich, a 7hr ferry across the channel and then a 25km ride north to Den Haag (the Hague). We have never received a better reception on public transport and the staff couldn't have been more helpful. In Den Haag we stayed with the lovely Jasper, who we met through our Scottish friends Alex and Lauren. On our arrival Jasper had dinner prepared and we later shared a few drinks at his local pub to celebrate Kate's birthday.

We had been anticipating the excellent set up for bikes in the Netherlands....and were not disappointed. Cycle lanes were everywhere with excellent sign posting. The lanes are not just painted strips on the road but completely separate main roads. They even have specific traffic lights... Our first impression of the Dutch was that they extrememly active people - within an hour we had seen people surfing, kite-surfing, running, walking, wind-surfing and of course riding their bikes. And there are bikes EVERYWHERE! They are truely replacing cars. People of all ages ride with excellent carriers, trailers and baskets, perfect to load up with groceries or up to three children! There are estimated to be 16 million bikes in Holland!! Europeans tend to ride old fashioned style bikes and we look quite out of place with our mountain bikes.

A typical parking lot...
Jasper has a wealth of knowledge about cycle touring in Europe, so we spent some time pouring over maps and picking his brains. We spent a very relaxing day in Den Haag visiting the International Peace Court and enjoying the cities beautiful parks. The following day we set off north for Amsterdam. We followed a long-distance cycle route that rambled its way through the Dutch provinces. It was all just as I had imagined- canals, windmills, green fields, dykes and lots of small villages.

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with 17 million people living in about the equivalent area of Otago! The houses are narrow and tall and squashed together- perhaps stemming from an historic tax system based on the width of your house! We arrived in Amsterdam late in the evening and eventually found Marije and her Mongolian Ger. We had a arranged to stay with Marije- a woman we had made contact with through Warm-showers, a cycle touring website. Marije is also a keen cyclist who recently spent two months riding in Mongolia. Following her experience there she decided she would like to spend some time living in a traditional Mongolian Ger. The Ger was lovely- very spacious and warm inside with four inches of woollen felt for insulation. (One night we got back wet and cold, got the fire roaring, and within 5 minutes we were stripping down to was like a sauna!!) Marije lives about 2km north of Amsterdam in the countryside and it was cool staying outside the city amongst the farmland. We spent a few days exploring the beautiful narrow, tree-lined streets of Amsterdam, criss-crossing the extensive canal system. We visited the Anne Frank museum, set in the house where she was in hiding during WWII. It was well done and a very moving experience. The centre of the city was somewhat overwhelming with millions of tourists, marijuana smoke wafting from the many coffee-shops and lots of sex-shops. We unknowingly wandered into the red-light district which is located in the central city. It was kind of bizarre seeing all the semi-clad women in booths behind glass-windows trying to attract customers.
From Amsterdam we headed south along the North Sea coast and two days later were in Belgium. We visited a beautiful city called Brugge and cycled around the cobbled streets, ate waffles and had a few beers. There are over 500 types of beer in Belgium and so far we have found them pretty good!! We stayed in a place called Gent for 2 nights with Nele and Jakob (also from Warm showers). They live in a gypsy caravan and have recently cycled through Poland. We got on really well with them and enjoyed sitting around a camp fire at night talking and sharing stories.

At my Mum's suggestion we decided to take a side trip to Flanders Field where many New Zealand soldiers fought during World War I. Belgium was a neutral country at the beginning of the war, but Germany ignored this and invaded Belgium lands in order to reach France, thus drawing England and subsequently New Zealand into the war. Belgium territory served as a strategic point along the Western Front and many thousands of lives were needlessly lost in gruesome trench warfare. The town of Ieper was almost completely destroyed during the war but was rebuilt in an identical fashion after 1918. We took the train from Gent south to Ieper and spent many hours at the fascinating 'In Flanders Field Museum'. The museum was the probably the best we had ever visited. In the afternoon we cycled out into the countryside where there are many cemeteries and old battlefields. We visited the Polygon Woods Cemetery and the New Zealand Memorial. There are both known and unmarked graves in these perfectly maintained cemeteries. It was a very moving experience to see the hundreds of grave-stones of Kiwi boys who died so young in this foreign land.

That evening we had a night out in Gent with our hosts Nele and Jakob. We rode across the city to their favourite pub to meet with a group of their friends and sample some of the many delicious Belgium beers. It is great to meet locals, hangout with people our age and really see what their lives are like. The night ended with a 3am cycle tour of the beautiful city with its canals and castles.

The next morning, a little hung-over, we set off for Antwerp (or was it afternoon?) The ride was mainly along canals and we were once again blown away by just how many people were out on their bikes. We rode into the city late and were lucky to once again have accommodation with some locals through a friend of a friend. After a whirlwind look around Antwerp we began our two day ride to Koln (Cologne, Germany).

The first day went smoothly- more canals, strawberries and ice-cream, small pubs, beautiful countryside and easy to follow routes using specific cyclist numbering systems. We rode until nine in the evening and managed to find a sweet wee camp spot in the forest. Day two was not so straight forward. As we crossed the border into Germany the sign-posting we had been relying on became unreliable and erratic. We were planning to buy a map at the first town that we came to, but all the shops had been closed. With no map and after realising we had just done a big circle, Ken reappeared for the first time in weeks. Just when things were looking quite grim a group of four cycle tourists went whizzing by. We set off in pursuit hoping to look at their map and get some instructions. They were at the end of a ten day journey and were generous enough to give us their German Map. Even with the map the day was pretty difficult and navigation was trying to say the many roads, crucial sign-posts missing, big motorways, complex villages. We realised navigation had never really been as issue in South America as there was usually only one road! Finally at nine in the evening and after covering 290km in two days we were stoked to arrive at our destination- a small village north of Köln on the Rhine River- where we were greeted by our lovely hosts Heidrun and Martin.

We have really enjoyed our first two weeks in Europe. It is so very different to South America. Although in many ways things are more easy, cycle touring in Europe presents a whole new set of challenges. We are excited about our plans for Germany and will probably be heading south down the Rhine as you read this update.

A few more photos:

With our big appetites back, we were pleased to discover that European bakeries are goooood...
After misplacing our spare tube, Matilda finds the puncture leak in the canal water...
Kate trying out Marije's recumbent bike...a few seconds later she crashed...

One of the many beautiful little villages...

Ciau for now...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

England, Scotland, Ireland

Wow, what a hectic three weeks we have had since leaving South America! After overcoming some of the initial culture and price shock of arriving in London we have had a great time in the UK. It has been very social time catching up with lots of Kiwi friends and people we had met on our travels.

After landing at Heathrow and being in awe of the cleanliness and organisation we set about hauling ourselves, our bike bags and heavy beach bags full of panniers onto the tube and through London. As we had so much gear we had to do shuttle runs through the stations, dragging our bags up flights of stairs and down long corridors. We immediately noticed the difference in London attitudes compared to South America.... only one of the hundreds of people who walked past offered a hand. We spent a busy week in London catching up with friends, getting our bikes to the bike shop and making the most of the selection at the supermarket. The cost of life in London came as a bit of a shock- with things costing up to twenty times more than in South America - we watched our savings decline quite rapidly!
Kate and I were both pretty shocked by how cold London was and we stuck out in our jandals and oil stained clothes. Our Mum's had posted us a few clothes (thanks), but we both agreed shoes and jeans were essential. After a spot of shopping on Oxford Street we thought we looked quite smart and fitted in with the London scene, only to have these ideas shattered by Kate Percy who greeted us with- 'Who looks fresh off the boat from South America!'We made several day trips from London. We had a fun rowdy night in Brighton with Ruth, a doctor friend from Whakatane. Cool to experince our first English 'house party'. The following day we set off for Cambridge. It was great to catch up with Tyrone and Meredith. We had a fantastic day punting on the Cam, basking in the sun and drinking Pimms. We explored the colleges and even spotted a few naked swimmers at the nudest beach on the banks of the Cam. Great to hear about T and M's many adventures. We both feel inspired to travel more through central Asia, especially Iran.
From London we caught the train north to Edinburgh. It was incredible to cover the 550km between the two cities in only four hours. To think Bolivia only has one operational train service that runs three times a week and travels at a painfully slow pace, the same distance would have taken over 24 hours! We both loved Edinburgh. It is a relatively small city with beautiful old buildings, a centrally located castle and so much history. Thanks heaps to Emma for having us to stay and taking us out for a delicious mexican meal and free margaritas.

My sister Polly is currently living in Inverness (Scottish Highlands) and our next stop was to visit her. Polly is not quite as keen on bikes as us, so we decided hiring a car would be the best option for tripping around Scotland. It also gave us and our bikes a much needed break from each other! From Edinburgh we hired a car and set off for Inverness. It was lovely motoring through the beautiful Scottish countryside- so lush and green, with millions of daffodils. We spent several days in Inverness with Polly and her friend Sabrina. We were treated to an absolutely delicious garden dinner party by a group of their friends.From Inverness Polly, Kate and I headed north to the Highlands of Scotland. We absolutely loved the northern part of scotland- stark, isolated, cold with a beautiful rugged coastline. We explored castles, went for long walks, talked about swimming in the freezing North Sea and camped at a perfect wee spot by the ocean. We also spotted some fantastic road signs, including one for the small town of Brawl. And Kate's favourite.....
Our next destination was Plockton, a small village on Scotland's west coast. Plockton is the home town of Alex, Lauren, Poppy and Ash- the cycle touring family we met in South America. Despite having only spent an afternoon together near a border in Bolivia we felt a real connection with them and were buzzing to see them again. It was a pleasure to stay in their lovely recently completed, energy efficient home and share delicious food, wine and stories from South America. Their home is full of Alex's ingenious design features, including thousands of water filled milk bottles beneath the floor storing the heat captured by the sun. We used Plockton as a base to explore the stunning Isle of Skye. Joined by Polly's friend Sabrina, we spent a day climbing and walking in the ancient and awe-inspiring rock formations and clambering among castle ruins. From Plockton we continued south to Glasgow where we spent one night with Nats and Eddie from Whakatane. We had great pizza eats and fast tour of Glasgow. The following day we made our way back to Edinburgh to meet up with Matt- a mountain bike guide friend we met in La Paz. It was fantastic to see Matt. We ended up having a very boozey fun night with him. I suffered the next day as we lugged our heavy gear through the city and set off on a train and ferry journey! At one point I had to lie down in the middle of Glasgow railway station!
Next stop was Northern Ireland. Kate and I had both studied NI's turbulent history at high school, but never really got our heads around its complicated past. A Black Cab tour of the city proved a really good way to help our understanding. Belfast, to this day, is a very divided city. Northern Ireland is still politically part of England. The population is divided into Protestant unionists who consider this a good thing and Catholic republicans who believe there should be one united Irish Republic. This is not only a philosophical divide, but a real physical division. These two communities are segregated by 16m high fences! The two communities exist completely independently from each other and there is no social interaction. Although the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998 and the IRA was disarmed, there remains a small but staunch group of activists on both sides. Only weeks before our arrival in Belfast there were several assassinations. It is a very sad reality to see people continuning to live with such mistrust and deep seated hatred, but the wounds run deep. These issues stretch back hundreds of years. Each party has fought so hard for what they believe in and each experienced so much loss. On a lighter note we had a very fun night out at a traditional Irish pub with Kate and I showing off our Irish dance moves with the locals!
After deciding on another hire car we drove north around the coast and visited the famous Giant's Causeway. This geological spectacle is formed from cooling lava forming perfect hexagonal steps dropping off into the ocean. Although swarming with tourists it was still a fantastic sight. That evening we reached the walled city of Derry. Kate and Polly were treated to a tour from a local guide 'Paddy' (aka Matilda) who doned an excellent Irish accent and showed them around the walls of the city. Derry also has a history of political unrest and is still very much divided like Belfast. There are political murals everywhere and plenty of Irish flags and Union Jacks proudly displayed.After crossing the unmarked border into the republic of Ireland we set about finding a campspot for the night. This proved a little more difficult than we expected, but as the rain fell and darkness approached we eventually settled on a beach side carpark- much to Polly's disgust!! While Kate chose the car to sleep in Polly and I slept restlessly.

After a long day driving and a spectacular visit to the Slieve League cliffs (the highest in Europe) we arrived in the capital of the republic, Dublin. We were lucky to have Nariah and Scott to stay with in Temple Bar. Scott is busy assisting with the opening of Hell Pizza in Dublin and hoping to get the chain up and running in London. We had a lovely couple of days enjoying a fantastic walking tour with Nariah. We really liked Dublin despite it being the most expensive place we've ever visited (6-7 euros for a pint!) and bloody freezing. We visited the Kilmainham prison and went on an excellent tour which gave us alot of insight into Ireland's many uprisings and battle for emancipation from Britain.

After missioning back to Belfast to drop our hire-car and Polly off, Kate and I spent one more night in Dublin. We went on a mini pub crawl, eating dinner at Ireland's oldest pub (dates back to the 1100's!) The following day Kate and I ferried and trained to Oxford to catch up with Nick Douglas and Julia Matheson- both doing currently doing PhDs. It was so good to see them both, wander around the lovely town and visit the beautiful old colleges. Oxford exudes academia....everyone just looks so brainy!
Kate and I are back in London now after our whirlwind tour! Unfortunately we haven't been able to see everyone that we had hoped to, but will be back in the UK in September.
We were very excited as we had booked tickets to The Lion King musical while we were in Scotland. We arrived early at the theatre to collect our tickets, only to find that there was no record of our booking. The woman at the box office made several phone calls as Kate and I stood anxiously and began to doubt we'd even booked! It soon became apparent we had indeed booked....but for the previous day!! Absolutely gutted with ourselves the woman said 'No problem, come back at ten past seven and we'll find you a seat'. Relieved and slightly embarrased we returned an hour later to discover we were designated far better seats than we had booked! The Lion King was spectacular- incredible costumes, lighting, music and set.

Yesterday we were reunited with our bikes. We were extremely lucky to be put in touch with a bike mechanic from Cycle Surgery, London. Karl did a fantastic job. Following my bike's 'electrocution' it needed quite a bit of work including new brake levers, cables and a whole new rear brake. Karl did a great deal on parts for us with completely free labour. This kind of generosity is what makes our trip possible and we want to thank Karl and everyone in the UK who has been so super generous and welcoming.

Tomorrow we are catching the ferry to Holland where we will begin our journey across Europe. We don't really have any fixed plans....just a map, our bikes and hopefully enough New Zealand dollars to keep us going until October!