I’ve felt like a bear forced into back to back hibernation. I, like many, was sure Covid would soon be over only to have our hearts broken as it went on and on. Especially if you lived in Melbourne. Trips were cancelled, then rebooked only to be cancelled again. Dreams were shattered and an uncertainty crept into our everyday lives. Slowly slowly my travel world has reopened. I was rusty when I got to Tullamarine ready to head to Europe. How would I handle wearing a face mask for twenty eight hours. As it turns out not bad and everyone complied which kept the tension down.
No sooner was I in Frankfurt than a train sent me to Freiburg, a bustling student town full of funky shops and a throng of international students acting like the world had never stopped. My friends met me with a big smile and directed me onto another local train to Hinterzarten. A small village in the Black Forest which was a forgotten local holiday destination till Covid. Suddenly Germany like many places has rediscovered that local can be beautiful. We spent a few days cycling through the forest. Me on my all gears and no motor whilst I listened to the whirl of the e-bikes alongside. Twilight rides and outdoor meals left me feeling ready for my next destination, Norway.
I was only in Oslo long enough to choke on the price of everything before a train that Robyn and I had caught twenty five years ago dropped me in Geilo, mid point to Bergen. I’d arranged a bike hire but couldn’t find the hire shop. Three times I circled the department store till a sign in a chemist drew me in. A bloody chemist ? “Do you hire bikes” I asked sheepishly ? Yes you must be Jeff. And you must be psychic I replied. Sure enough my bike was ready. the hire business is their sons fledgling business. But best of all the bike was straight out of its wrapping. I celebrated with a beer, a A$20 beer. Never before has one beer actually sobered me up !
The following morning, having smashed the breakfast banquet, I set off to ride the famous gravel path, Rallarvegen which hugs the rail line to Flåm. Oh my god the riding was unbelievable even if my gravel/ mountain bike skills are basic. After 30 kms I almost came off and hurt my knee but pressed on intoxicated by my surrounds. I’d managed to make a sneaky sandwich at the buffet knowing I would be lucky to find anywhere for food along the way. I drifted from one fiord to another always with the railway not far away. The gravel path had been built to build the railway line one hundred years ago.
Mid afternoon another piece of magic. In the middle of nowhere overlooking another fiord was a small wooden hut serving food. I handed the guy my life savings and he gave me a soup, coffee and homemade cake. The vibe in this little alpine hut was terrific, the young student serving out his Summer job with puppy like enthusiasm. I didn’t want to leave but I still had fifty kms to finish in Flåm. Besides a strapping young Norwegian had just stepped through the door and ordered 11 slices of chocolate cake. His group waiting outside as they couldn’t all fit inside the tiny hut unless someone left. On I cycled the last two hours was all down hill.
Around 5pm I scooted down the last valley and into Flam. Elated for the ride, happy to get off the bike but concerned at the climb out of here. 105 kms of gravel riding is a long, long day. Flam only has a single camping ground but months earlier I had booked a room in the attached hostel. Most of the visitors are in transit or aboard a big cruise ship.
The camping ground receptionist supplied me with a disc which gave me a six minute shower in the communal shower block. “Be naked before you drop the disc in” was her sage advise. Clunk went the disc and then six minutes to soak my weary muscles and wash away the days grime. The best hot shower ever from a basic hose pipe.
Flam harbour is a tourism paradise with connecting trains and ferries. The sound of rolling cases being dragged by travel weary tourists is louder than the rush of water from the nearby waterfalls. I hit the town for a big meal and a few beers and tried to forget about the cost. More importantly I needed to wake up fresh to ride again tomorrow.
I woke with an idea, I could catch a ferry two hours along to Gudvangen and climb out of the valley there. So there I was with my loaded bicycle amongst the two hundred Chinese and American tourists admiring the crashing waterfalls cascading down the mountains into the fiord. It is breathtaking no doubt but I was the only one not to board a waiting bus to the next fiord. I did my own breathtaking to Voss.
The riding certainly got easier after Gudvangen, I was on bitumen and predominately back roads but every so often I was forced into a cycle permitted tunnel. They scare the hell out of me. I am wearing a fluro vest but that counts for nothing when you are in a dark dripping wet tunnel with the slow rumble build up of an approaching truck. But from where is this noise coming ? It’s impossible to guess until the headlights hit you, your front wheel wobbles and your heart misses a beat. I shall never enjoy them and where possible chase the longer road around.
My final riding day starts in Ostese, my weather to date perfect but not this morning. I could hear drains gurgling before I’d risen from my bed. I was resolved to being saturated, besides I had a room booked and paid in Bergen. I stood at the front door with the hotel receptionist beside me, both staring into the deluge. “You could try and catch the bus” she offered without turning her head. I rode off as wet as a shag before I’d left the car park. It went on for an hour or two. Head down, raincoat zipped tight and a constant river streaming off my nose. It was all up hill to start, therefore I was warm inside. It was the downhills that left you wet and cold, shivering uncontrollably.
By the afternoon I was close to Bergen, the sun came out and I joined the Friday night crowd heading into the centre of the city. Everyone here was in holiday mode. Bergen hasn’t changed much other than to get increasingly bigger. A funicular still climbs high above the town to give majestic views over the harbour. There is a big student population and it’s another cruise ship port. The highlight for me are the beautiful multicoloured timber houses clinging all the way up the steep cobbled laneways. Further out it’s modern flat roofed apartments but in the harbour it’s like a fairytale.
The last piece of my Bergen puzzle was to get my bike back to Geilo. No one would tell me if the train would take an unaccompanied bike. So early Saturday morning I waited for a train to Geilo to arrive and plead my case to the conductor. A scrum of tourists descended on the train the moment it stopped. That was my fear, that it was packed out. The conductor found me before I found him. I was helping a guy get his disabled son’s wheelchair aboard. I pleaded my case to have the hire bike taken aboard. I assured him that the owner would meet the train on arrival in Geilo four hours later. I think helping the wheelchair aboard worked in my favour. He gestured to put it aboard. I skipped away from the station and contacted the bike guy to be waiting at Geilo. A happy ending and free in a country where everything has a price.
From Norway it was a quick flight to Dublin and a few relaxing days chewing the fat and eating far too much with my uncle and others. The end of August is birthday week in my family and Graham had cooked for two days in preparation. We sat around his dining table celebrations each other and then tucked into course after course of flavour all washed down with copious quantities of wine. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the clock said 1.30am and I staggered your stairs to bed. The bottle count in the morning explained my sore head. A few more days of this and any bike fitness will have disappeared.
I set sail for Liverpool on a Ryanair plane resembling the No 94 bus more than a luxury airliner. I guess that’s what they are trying to achieve. We got there safely so all ended well. My friend Jane had met me in Ireland because we have this thing with meeting in countries starting with the letter I. Don’t ask, anyway Jane came on to Liverpool. It’s a funky city full of ancient English empire type buildings which have all been repurposed into pop up bars and food joints. The chance to sing Beatles karaoke had been strong but unfortunately it only happens on weekends.
Instead we did a Beatles walking tour. An enthusiastic Beatles tragic, Jean met a handful of us in the city centre and we wandered about as she showed us the record shop where the whole Beatles thing started. Then onto a few other bars, finally The Cavern club where they really made their name. Jean told us of her mothers ‘missed by that much’ moment. Her mum stood in the queue waiting to get in. The Beatles were playing downstairs but there was a steep set of stairs. Her mother looked down, got spooked and refused to climb down. They never played there again. Jean’s shoulders slumped at her mothers missed moment and we walked on. The Beatles were certainly a change of pace for Liverpool which was in the middle of of its demise from an industrial strength. It’s a much more vibrant city these days with many of the buildings polished up and the sun shining on the Mersey river. But I couldn’t help feel that as a once important port town it had been more often the ‘stepping off place’ for many migrants hoping for more in some place else.
My weekend in London hit a bump when my unknown to most of you, inner hooligan had their Premier league match rescheduled at the last minute. This forced my spread of activities to read as follows. Start the day with a short browse in the British museum, an afternoon of tribal chanting in the stands at the English football and finishing off with sophisticated theatre in London’s West End.
Thankfully my hotel’s everything on offer, English breakfast was to be my saviour It would be post theatre at 10.30pm that night before I wolfed down anything other than some expensive crisps and a few pints of beer.
So with an empty morning I found myself in the nearby queue for the British Museum. Once inside and with few around I’m somehow standing in front of the Rosetta Stone with not a soul in the hall. An even older/ancient guy comes and stands alongside, stooping as he peers into the glass cabinet. I ask him what he know of its history. He turns and begins explaining how this large piece of stone unlocked Ancient Egyptian with the Ancient Greek inscribed on the same stone. It’s just the two of us for a good five minutes as he points out various inscriptions including the pharaohs circled in the text.
He turns and silently move on. I too wander off before backtracking to thank him for teaching me a bit more about ancient history. Further on I overhear an already frustrated woman explaining to her over inquisitive seven year old that the Elgin Marbles were produced by “a lot of men with hammers and chisels.” For sure these are a couple of moments for the memory bank. Soon the museum is bursting with thousands of tourists and I escape back to my hotel.
Rosie was at my hotel reception at midday, full of the chat and ready to cheer and shout for her team, West Ham. They’re playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, it’s one of the famous local derby’s in London and as such promised much chat. “I’ve checked,” says Rosie “and the away supporters, West Ham are meeting in Earls Court.” So that’s where we head to start the day with a cleansing pint. Then it’s a few more tube stops before we are swept up by the throng and drawn towards the ground.
This is when things took a turn for the worse. Whilst Rosie buys a program I asked one of a swathe of fluro vested officials where our entrance was. He caught my accent asked when and where I had bought the ticket and before I had even answered he had grasped the paper tickets from my hand. I had mistaken these officials for crowd control, when in fact they were employed to seek and confiscate tickets purchased from third parties. I protested strongly which is when he informed me that these tickets had not been bought through the Chelsea football club and would be confiscated. The excitement and expectation of our day shrivelled like a punctured balloon.
I waved to Rosie, sure her chat would be able to remedy the situation but alas no. I pleaded the innocent Aussie abroad, Rosie demanded to speak with his manager. Meanwhile I watched as the officials checked and confiscated other tickets around us. We had walked into a trap. Eventually it became apparent that we were not getting in with these tickets purchased at a high markup from a third party. But I’d had long enough to think that maybe there was still hope.
Dejected and frustrated I asked if we could at least try to buy other tickets and our man waved us through the wall of officials towards the official ticket office. As we walked Rosie was already asking if I had an electronic copy. “Keep walking but send me a copy just in case anything else happens” she mumbled under her breathe.
The ground was ringed by these fluro vested officials who now appeared to us as prison guards, to be avoided at all costs. Rosie picked her mark asking an older female official which way and we were funnelled towards our entrance. We strode confidently to the turnstile. I placed my phone against the turnstile reader, unsure what would happen, it flashed green. It had read the electronic ticket and we were in ! Rosie jumped through, another tap and I was right behind her. Up the stairs we went two at a time unsure who would meet us at the seats or worse if others were already sitting there. Thankfully our seats were empty, we plonked ourselves down and let out a sigh.
“Let’s get a beer” announces an overjoyed Rosie, both of us still running on high octane adrenaline. Downstairs we make for the bar where a noisy throng of excited supporters are full of hope and expectation for the game ahead. The chat is lively, the singing has already started. We down our beers only to find officials have blocked the stair and are doing further ticket checks. We wait, pick our moment and when the guy is busy we slip back up the stairs.
I don’t want to leave my seat again and spend much of the first half expecting someone to arrive and spoil our party. Meanwhile Rosie has one ear on her noisy West Ham supporters nearby and one eye on a spirited game below. Finally a West Ham goal has us rise in our seats only to quickly settle as we are in enemy territory, surrounded by Chelsea diehards. Chelsea soon reply then they score another. West Ham make a substitution, Cornet who has immediate impact first hitting the cross bar before repenting and putting in an equaliser. The West Ham crowd erupts only to have the goal overturned by a new review system. Emotions are rising and falling so fast it’s surely the buildup to a heart attack. Chelsea win 2-1 and the papers are full of doubt for the overturned goal. It was a great contest a great spectacle and Rosie is confident for the future.
We get swept up in a human vacuum down the stairs and are drawn without effort through a wall of supporters into nearby streets. Along the way snorting police horses oversee our departure whilst sirens blare and indecipherable loud speakers crackle and blurt important information about keeping a healthy Covid distance apart. Yeah well good luck with that, as we set a new record for the number of people jammed into a London Underground carriage.
You’d have thought we’d had enough for one day but no, an hour and a bit later we find ourselves in London’s West End walking in circles before finding the beautiful old Gielgud theatre for a performance of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ Yes a late call for more refined culture and yes no one jumped from their seat mid performance to call an actor for offside. It’s a terrific play in every way and much appreciated by us and an enthusiastic audience. We all rise and applaud loudly as the actors take a final bow. That is the thing about performance whether it be sport or theatre I love how the actors or players leave everything out there and how we the punters can roar our appreciation.
Out into the street and a short stumble into a nearby Chinese smorgasbord. ‘All you can eat in an hour’ is the menu. An array of stainless bins full of vaguely recognisable Chinese food. We scoff down two plates each before racing off in into the night. Poor Rosie has another hour North on the train it’ll be midnight before she arrives in Biggleswade. Talk about a jam packed twelve hours.
I woke sluggish the next morning wondering if yesterday had been a dream it was so full on. A slow breakfast then I headed to the Natural History Museum. I read it was very busy and extremely popular. Mainly for one reason…dinosaurs. In my childhood dinosaurs barely got a look in. Long gone from the planet and almost mythical but a lot of people have been snooping around and much is now known and guessed as to how they looked and lived. I struggle with something as big as a two storey house just eating grass and plants surely not, but that’s just me. I was soon following a line of parents and overexcited children along Cromwell Rd, South Kensington. It’s free to get in which helps and on a Sunday morning it was heaving.
Inside it was no different to yesterdays football crowd except it was children excitedly screaming out names of various dinosaur species. Dippy the dinosaur is a robotic dinosaur built to tap into the scientist Disneyland combo and it works. This animal rears it’s head it’s eyes darting about as it’s mouth chews not small children but grass. The crowd went wild whilst the parents grasped their wallets because before you leave there is a shop where the sky is the limit and try telling that to a five year old.
The museums massive size enables them to exhibit some incredibly large animals. Imagine elephants, a blue whale and every other sea animal. It was mind blowing and should be on everyone’s list to see. You can also see work areas behind the glass where scientists continue to do experiments, inspecting and caring for millions of samples from all over the world. So it’s a place of ongoing investigation which is good.
Two hours was enough and I headed back to my hotel for some quiet time. By late afternoon I was hungry for some Thai food, twice yesterday Rosie and I had tried to eat some. I found a place a km or so away just far enough to extend my knowledge of the area and not get lost. And I find it easy peasy.
I plonk myself down in this small restaurant with only one other customer on the next table. The place was open to the street, warm balmy and quiet. I nodded he remarked it must be the place for lone or lonely diners. One thing led to another and he, Melvyn explains that he lives nearby and worked in this area. Turns out Melvyn preferred photography to working in a city office so quit his job to click full time. Except he has his niche. Self esteem photography, half camera half physiologist convincing people predominately women with body issues to come and have a folio of photos taken. He handed me his card and said to check it out. I don’t have a spare few hundred English pounds and as I said most of his clients are women but he has a lucrative business which featured in Forbes business magazine. Lucky Mervyn I thought as I wandered home, spending his day convincing woman to pout, pose and suggest whilst wearing their cleanest underwear as he clicks his camera. He makes a decent living and the clients evidently walk away full of new found self esteem. https://www.youatyours.com/
Walk out into the world and be surprised by who and what you see.
Tomorrow I have the Eurostar to speed me back to Europe for a few days rest before the Germany to Italy cycling begins.