I’ve been home for two months, half of that time was about planning to leave again. Not that I don’t like where I live, I love it. In fact the more I travel the more I realise that Australia is by far the best place to call home. Sorry those of you not living there.
My first week away was in Ireland. My uncle, Graham and his wife have sheltered me from sleeping in grungy accommodation regularly throughout my life and this trip was no different. Within an hour of arriving in Dublin we were at his local, O’Connell’s, where the same barman has been serving for 45 years, this is no trendy sports bar this is serious stuff. I sip on a couple of Beamish and like the taste and the thick moustache I’m left with.
The following night is Guinness with Sinead and Declan a couple I met some years back in Egypt. Sorry guys the night got away on all of us and how come you can drink all night without food ? I found myself in a kebab joint within five minutes of you leaving, a sure sign that I was gone ! A taxi driver straightened my directions to my uncle’s and my new-found garlic breathe and a greasy stain on my t-shirt a warning to others that I was probably drunk. A second kebab within sight of home confirmation I would have a hangover.
The drinking did not abate. I travelled to Galway where I caught up with Diane and her family. Even our days on the road were scattered with pub stops then walks along the coast of Connemara a place I have visited twice before. It is so, so beautiful in a windswept rugged way. We eventually drove up to Donegal where I caught up with her boys, now men and Benny. A great night in their home town of Moville where again Guinness played a major part and my pleas to stop were ignored till they felt I had been sufficiently sociable. I slept above their pub, yes they own the local pub and I was met early in the morning by Diane ready to drive me to Belfast airport.
As we went her boys and another opened the door to the bar and peered out they had sipped away all through the night. They breed them tough in Donegal. The Irish life has drinking at the forefront of daily life, I was not ready nor capable and was happy to be heading to Iceland.
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and is now a bustling European city. Tourism has suddenly made Iceland the flavour of the month and the whole country is in catch up mode. Why it’s so popular is easy to see, it is remote, wild and in many parts inhospitable but with unquestionable beauty. These are ingredients necessary for its new-found popularity. The one thing it is not is cheap. Everything is imported, usually by sea. All you hipsters in Melbourne, a proper coffee here is between A$7 and A$8 a cup. The air is Arctic cold, even in summer but it is free. I breathe deep. 2 bowls of lamb and veggie soup were A$55 I will leave it there for fear I will begin to sob again.
Jane Yule and I have hired a car and are wandering the country. We travelled together in India years ago and then a couple of years ago in Iran so holding the theme of countries starting with the letter I, we are giving Iceland a lick. Our car is small it is manual and needs to be driven the whole time. The roads are ok but most of the bridges are one lane wide so you need to be on your game. Remember that fiords and water are big parts of the country’s makeup so bridges are often and struggling under the tourist traffic. And then there is the tourist traffic, unfamiliar drivers in unfamiliar cars and too many beautiful vistas begging to be photographed. We find ourselves having unscheduled stops for “must have” photographs every few kms, how we drove so far is a mystery.
It’s a landscape of lunar like volcanic rock, bubbling geysers, black sandy beaches, spindly silver streamer waterfalls, big thunderous waterfalls belching spray high into the air, glaciers with blue tongues of calving ice bobbing in a lagoon. The country feels like it has yet to settle. There is unfinished business bubbling under the surface before it becomes a cowbell ringing Switzerland.
Another morning we stand mesmerised on a black sand beach littered with marooned icebergs the size of small cars glistening and melting in the sun. It’s a surreal sight. We watch pale blue icebergs, having broken free of the glacier glide out towards the open sea.
Suddenly a seal breaks the surface gets its bearings and dives again swimming hard against the strong current in pursuit of breakfast. He pushes determinedly upstream obviously hungry and oblivious to the tourists. I silently cheer him on.
The highlight has been none of the above though, it’s been my driving and Jane’s DJ skills. In the wildest weather, the fog so thick we could be on the Tullamarine freeway but instead we are on the Iceland coastal road we needed our spirits to lift. Jane came to the rescue. All together we drove some 2,200 kms that’s a lot of singing. We swayed from side to side, oblivious to the weather outside, crying out renditions of long forgotten rock anthems as the windscreen wipers slap away in time. I choose to sing straight at the windscreen as I really only know the right words for every second song but it doesn’t matter, well it doesn’t matter to me. I haven’t asked Jane, I don’t want to burst the bubble ? Golden moments.
The last day is wandering the city, we both are thinking museums, space-aged new Opera house, but the drawcard is in fact the old Reykjavik, the local streets of one hundred year old timber and corrugated iron homes.
Only spitting distance from the city centre they are already under threat of being lost to the creep of the monolithic glass and steel of the 21st century. The old are both homely looking, slightly ornamental and quirky. They leave no doubt to the fact that they are also a refuge from harsh winters, chilling cold that if allowed would seep deep into your home leaving you miserable. The windows are small to keep the warmth in and the cold out. These homes, built before double glazing have a lightness within that defies the small amount of outside light entering. I was smitten by them, I have far too many photos to prove it. The other thing that draws you to these streets is the lack of people. The main shopping streets are infested with thousands of tourists shuffling from gift shop to cafe to Icelandic wool shop.
I feel for the locals almost forced from their bars and favourite cafes. I ask one guy if he doesn’t feel inundated, he shrugs his shoulders, Iceland needs the tourists to survive, what can we do ? Jane and I don’t help we drink at Kaffibarinn each night our own bit of familiarity and a beer price that allows me to drink more than one, plus there are real locals drinking there. The two guys knitting sweaters outside whilst downing large beers are surely locals who would bring wool and needles with them on the plane ?
Copenhagen, Denmark I knew little of it other than the images of healthy Danes sipping beer, eating smorgasbord and going everywhere by bicycle, their straight blonde locks flapping in the wind. They are a healthy, happy looking race, evidently one of the happiest in the world.
I met Jane’s friend, Jo at the airport. I was told to be holding a bunch of flowers (she is a gardener) but at Danish prices I could only afford a single rose. Note to others, it was still enough for her to find me… ha. Jo had found a great airBnB slap bang in the middle of town overlooking a beautiful section of the canals. We couldn’t be happier and immediately went out and had a drink to that. It was Saturday night and the town was buzzing. Early Sunday morning I went for a head clearing walk along the canals, the boisterous night had turned to solemn day. The flotsam and jetsam of last night could be seen slumped over and staring blindly out to sea. Half empty, mainly forgotten beer cans dangled limply from their hands.
A day of walking the city isn’t complete without at least a couple of hours at The Tivoli, one of the world’s original fun parks, it is a mixture of fun and old world charm. I watch as children see themselves for the first time in a distorted mirror. One minute they are as thin as a pole the next mirror has them patting an oversized belly, for a few seconds there mobile phones are forgotten. Of course it wouldn’t be a fun park without rides that scare you half to death. They have those too, machines that spin you, drop you, disorientate you and gyrate wildly till your stomach turns. If they stop screaming it’s time to move, they are about to throw up. Or you can simply do as I did and watch all of this and an old-time pantomime from the tranquility of the surrounding gardens. The pure glee, the joy on the small children’s faces as they watched intensely as the story unfolded. It was to observe the wide-eyed innocence of childhood.
I hired a bicycle the next morning and spent three glorious sunny days taking trains out into the countryside then riding back to Copenhagen. My first journey was West to Holbaek I rode on to Roskilde and a terrific Viking exhibition and watched young men craft new Viking boats using ancient skills. Another ride to the North to the Kronburg Castle then to Louisiana, a fantastic Modern art gallery. And finally South to the market town of Koge which was actually having yee old market when I visited. On the way back along the coast I stopped at another gallery Arken also Modern and for me anyway, rather thought-provoking. I have now doubled my yearly intake of galleries and yearn football matches for life balance.
Our Copenhagen dinners were a bit of a lucky dip. There was a wide choice of nearby eateries but our luck was probably more dependant on how much we were prepared to spend in an expensive country. We had two quirkier and more interesting nights out. One was our foray into the world of total anarchy or Christiana. A forty-year old commune with loose drug laws in an old military barracks. Balaclava clad youngsters were selling ready rolled joints or hash in various forms. The balaclavas and cries of “no cameras” was helping to give the rundown area a bit of edginess and a single finger up to more traditional society. I wasn’t totally convinced and further reading has told me that at various times bikies and criminal elements have had some success in controlling the drug scene in the area. We looked, we didn’t inhale and then trudged up a graffiti splattered stair to a brightly lit restaurant with polite waiters and a nice meal of veggies. Here was me half expecting to eat off the floor. Wrong Jeff, open your mind.
The next night was a disbanded newspaper warehouse on the canal. The inside had been gutted and the place filled with a vast variety of food stalls from every cuisine you’ve ever thought of, except sweet and sour pork. The place had a real vibe and the surrounding canal area was littered with hundreds and hundreds of punters enjoying the balmy night and the tasty food. For such a huge venue somehow they had managed to attain a real feel of fun and adventure. It was honest and infectious, we were all swept away, locals and tourist’s alike.
I caught the train South into Germany. A full day of gently rolling from side to side. The first train left Denmark to cross the sea. It quietly slipped inside a waiting ferry and I went up on deck leaving the guard to do what guards do, protect my bag. It was a chance to stretch my legs then back downstairs, the train looking very out-of-place in the hold. The train rolled onto German soil and in a few hours I was in Hamburg. No-one had asked to see my passport since Iceland, do they not care where I wander ?
I was in Karlsruhe for dinner, I could smell it cooking as the door was opened. I first came here a lifetime ago and have returned often. Every visit a blessing and a chance to stay with a family who have always welcomed me with open arms. Troudl cooks up a storm each evening, afterwards we sit and discuss our countries, our lives, the changes, and the future. It is a time of great change, particularly in Germany. Refugees have been pouring into the country at a rate that is difficult to assess. Everyone has a view but most are positive, only time will tell but generally their humanity towards these refugees is impressive. It is the same willpower that was used to reunite the East and West into one Germany. If it can be done anywhere and be a success it will be here, but the issues are many and most are messy.
For me my days are easier than for the refugees, I spend most days chasing Gerd and Troudl on their new e-bikes, walking in the nearby forest or catching up with their children for feast sized breakfasts. One night we ride our bikes into town to watch a light show transform the old Town hall into ten minute visual extravaganzas from local art students.
I love my time in Karlsruhe, my friends and the familiar territory.
I spent a day on trains working my way through Southern Germany. First the typical European rocket flashing past everything then the red trains of Switzerland which never go more than two hundred metres before turning because of a mountain. Finally when I had run out of enthusiasm for the picture book vistas and boredom had taken hold I was dumped in Tirano. I licked a pistachio ice cream and waited for a small bus to take me deeper into the mountains, Bormio.
The hotel staff spoke excitedly about what rides were available and how lucky we all are with the weather. I pick up my bike, find my room and go down for dinner. Already it is obvious that the other guests are rippling with good health, months of training and have never seen a road as flat as Beach Rd Melbourne. I ignore all of this and order a half bottle of wine, it goes down a treat, some pasta and a tricked up main course which remains a secret, even to the chef. Full of bravado and a now looking at an empty wine bottle I head to the counter and book tomorrow’s ride. Bravo says the receptionist, nods of approval come from all around yet inside I still ignore growing doubts.
As trumpeted by the staff, the weather is fine. I eat eagerly, keen to get out and ride. I leave the hotel with an Australian snack, a banana. Two hours of steady climbing and I don’t seem to be getting any closer to the summit, the only sounds are my rasping breathe and the occasional clang of an Alpine cow turning slowly to see who the gasper is. I stop inhale the banana, briefly admire the scenery through salty, sweat-filled eyes, no actually, I take in massive gulps of thin mountain air and with shaking legs press on.
Eventually I get to the summit of Stelvio, there is a party going on tourists are celebrating the high pass. Most have driven high-powered cars or motorbikes but still they yell and scream and take a thousand photos. I celebrate by eating a bratwurst and a chunk out of the vendors hand, I am that hungry. In a hoarse voice I ask someone to take my photo next to the summit sign.
It is midday and I decide to do the back side of Stelvio, a wiser man would have said one side was enough, sadly that is not me. I had been told that the “loop” or both sides of Stelvio in a day was what it was all about. The temptation was too great and suddenly I found myself whizzing down the mountain and turning to circle the base towards Santa Maria. There was no going back. I ate a sandwich and drank some limonada. I tried to buy some snacks and extra water, Italian shopkeepers were asleep for the afternoon. I peddled and peddled, there are 48 switchback which dig into the mountain’s steepness. It is 26 kms back to the top.
I now know the mountain intimately. My legs began to seize, I took a magnesium tablet it helped slightly. The spasms came randomly but frequently I was scared that I would be unable to free my feet from the cleats and fall ungraciously to the bitumen. I stopped too frequently to get a rhythm of any kind. I found icy streams from the glacier and doused my head under, feeling the cold snap at the inferno that was my overheated skull. I slurped pale green glacial water, the quality of which I unsure of, I didn’t care. The sun which had been burning down on me eventually began to cast a shadow. I was uncertain whether to be joyous or defeated when I could finally eyeball the summit. It was five kms away, it seemed I could touch it but it was almost an hour before I reached it.
I arrived at the top, not to shouts of “well done”, “bravo”, or “good on ya” but to the sound of bratwurt stall holders scraping the last of the day’s burnt onions off their hot plates and having a well-earned fag. I bought one, a rather dried up specimen of a sausage, yes my celebration was another bratwurst and a Gatorade…. I did the Stelvio loop on a diet of bratwurst sausages and ignorance.
With no jacket or arm protection I whizz the 22kms back down into Bormio, a mixture of elation, hunger and sheer gravity drew me back to my hotel. I was shivering uncontrollably, barely lifted my bike onto its hook in the garage and went to my room. I stripped and turned on the shower, I stood there with my head against the wall and let the water strip away the day. How I managed to stay awake for dinner is a great unknown, but I did. I drank enough wine to book to do another tomorrow without once discussing it with my broken body.
I’ll keep the following alpine riding days brief. I rise and shower mainly to remove the aches. Venture down to breakfast where all are radiant and chaffing at the bit. I rode in the group rides, this means there is someone to roll/push my withered body off the narrow bumpy road should I collapse. There is also strength in numbers and best to know that others are hopefully feeling similar pain. The group are mixed nationalities, the guides predominately Italian, they ride like the wind, they cherish every mouthful of food and sip strong coffee. We celebrate at the summits, we eat pasta, grilled fish and beer at day’s end. The dinners are slick and makes you forget about the day. I enjoy one lunch free of the bike, Sunday lunch and there are 1200 locals eating and singing on one long table set up I the cobbled street, the atmosphere was contagious, I just love their passionate zest for life.
More trains this time to Milan. I leave drizzle in the mountains for the closeness of a steamy hot city. I walk the city early morning the sun yet to make an impact. The tourists are predominately Chinese but there are another group of Italian speaking Chinese here. They are the mediators, the communicators between the design houses of Milan and the Chinese factories. I’m told they have been here in large numbers for almost twenty years and are also taking the design component back to China.
I visit the Duomo Cathedral cloaked in scaffold aren’t they always ?
The other place of worship is next door, the massive shopping mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The mall is more popular but the price tags are often hidden. I hear many cries of Jesus Christ as potential buyers find the tags.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
My food in Milan is memorable, a small plate of anchovies, pasta with shrimp, a veal cutlet topped with parsley and cherry tomatoes then splashed with balsamic, a firm fish with mustard sauce and braised leeks. I finish each meal as I have been told, with an espresso and a grappa. The riding is forgotten.
My last day and I can’t stay trapped in the heat of the city. I catch a train to Varenna then a ferry across Lake Como to Bellagio. It’s tranquil and cool, the slap of waves rhythmic against the shore. There is one noise, the constant click of cameras capturing the water, the villas with back drop mountains and the bobbing boats which all epitomise Lake Como.
Tonight I climb into a tin can and get rocketed half way around the world.