Cycling France, and falling in love with travel

How travel changed my life

This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.

My friend Sean and I

A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such.  We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.

Putting a rack on the mountain bike
Day 1, Paris

Remember Mapbooks?

This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome.  Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild.  We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.

Into the wild

Survival Food

We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.  We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami.  I can still taste it…

Too much equipment!

No bike, no problem

Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking.  We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.

Sleeping outdoors on the French Riviera

After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help.  He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so.  We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.

Hitching after the bike was stolen.

Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.

Sleeping in a train station

Discover Life

That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.

Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.

It’s about you.

Get out there and discover yourself.


 

Cycling India: Kerala

Continued from: Cycling India: Tamil Nadu

Day 8: How high can Munnar be?!

After the madness of yesterdays intense climbing, I passed out early and slept until 8 am – about 10 hours straight!  Then I had a proper big sit down breakfast for once involving some kind of Indian curry and rice rolled into a tube shape that cost about £1, which is a bit over my budget but I felt like spoiling myself.


The hotel owner explained that the “closed road” I took yesterday IS actually closed, but only just before Munnar! Guess I should have listened to it after all, as now I had to backtrack quite far. With this new information and after examining the incredibly complex route out of Munnar to the coast I decided I would get a bus from there to Kochi, otherwise, it’s going to take days and I was already behind schedule.

Bison Valley

Along the way, I realised that I had accidentally taken the key to my hotel room with me, but by that point, I was way down in the valley and there was no way I was cycling back up. Fortunately, they had my number so after about an hour they called asking about it. I offered to post it back but they told me just to leave it at a local shop and they will collect it – they were very nice and understanding about it.

I continued along some really beautiful roads flanking a river for a few kilometres and then the uphills started again. For some reason, the elevation lines on Google Maps are not accurate because it indicated a lot of downhill to Munnar but it was basically uphill all the way.  I stopped about five times for tea or coffee and about twenty times to take photos of the endless beautiful tea plantations, so by the time I got to Munnar it was already 3 pm.

Bus to Kochi

I briefly considered staying the night but it looked pretty dead except for rich French tourists, so I found a local bus that was willing to strap my bike on the roof and take me to Kochi for Rs200 (about £1.20).  The bus trip was quite nice and comfortable – they don’t have closed windows just holes you can lean out of and get a nice cooling breeze. Unfortunately, it did take about 5 hours so I only got to Kochi at 8 pm.  It also dropped me in the ass-end of nowhere miles from Kochi beach so I had to cycle 12km’s on the dark busy roads to a hostel on the beach.

I was hoping to grab a cold beer since it’s been a week since I’ve drunk anything and I’m taking the day off tomorrow, but the only places still open were super expensive hotel bars (Rs250), so I just had a coffee and called it a night. I’ll get a Rs100 beer from the wine shop tomorrow… and then, starting Wednesday, a mad race to Goa to make it for the weekend!

Cycled: 36km

Capture

 

Day 9 – Kochi Killed my Laptop

I didn’t do any cycling today just relaxed around Maritime Hostel with some of the other guests and rested my legs. Kochi has an area called Fort Kochi which is popular with tourists for some reason but in reality, there isn’t much to it. It has a quaint village feel to it which is nice but at the same time expensive compared with the rest of India. I briefly walked around exploring with an English guy looking for somewhere with decent wifi but we couldn’t find anything faster than the hostel, which was very slow.

Maritime Hostel

Strangely, on the return to the hostel, my laptop stopped working. No matter what I tried to do it wouldn’t switch on! Eventually, I decided to let it rest for a few days and went out to look for a bottle store to buy beer. Unfortunately, everything was closed due to some or other holiday, so I got some fried chicken instead to drown my sorrows and then headed back to the hostel. I was planning to meet up that evening with an Indian guy I had met on the road the previous day but he must have been busy as he didn’t end up coming, so I just wandered around the docks and beachfront on my own and bought something called a Mud Coffee, which is like a crazy chocolate ice-cream-milkshake-coffee combination thing. It was pretty awesome, to be honest.

Back at the hostel, I got chatting to an Argentinian girl who was born in Germany but now lives in Isreal. She was travelling to South East Asia, where I had recently been, and had just come from Goa, so we chatted for awhile about various travel related things before I headed off to bed.

 

India Day 10: The Kerala Coastline

I headed off about 8 am after the free hostel breakfast and cycled around the bay because the ferry wouldn’t let me take my bike on it – so that added an unnecessary 20 km’s to my trip. Then I followed some very wet and sandy roads along the beachfront for a while in an area they call the backwaters. At one point the road was literally just a beach!

I stopped for a swim around 11 am as it was already boiling hot and I was covered in sweat – it’s definitely more humid on the coast! The beaches around this area are completely deserted and very beautiful, and I can only guess they aren’t more overrun by hotels and tourists because the area must flood a lot during monsoon season.

I stopped after about 70km for lunch of some samosas and fruit for around Rs30 (33p) and then had to catch a short ferry across a river mouth that cost Rs4 (about 5p). The locals on the ferry were very interested in my bicycle and we chatted about my trip. They all found it very odd that someone would travel by bicycle when motorbikes are so cheap, which certainly feels true after 100 km’s on a loaded bike!

I had another swim about 3 pm at a small beach and then headed inland onto the main motorway so I could cover some ground before sunset. I was planning to stop at a town called Ponanni but it turned out to be really tiny and didn’t have any accommodation, so I had to continue on in the dark for two hours! I was hoping to find a quiet dark spot to camp but there were just buildings and people everywhere!  I kept seeing signs for ‘Hotels’ but when I stopped to ask about rooms it turned out they were just restaurants, not hotels. Apparently, in this part of India, a restaurant is called a ‘hotel’!?

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Finally, at about 8:30 pm I reached a town called Tirur, which looked a bit more like it might have an actual hotel, possibly even with rooms! After looking around for a bit I finally found a dirty backstreet motel near the train station with a room for Rs650 (£7). It was a bit more than I’d usually spend but I didn’t have much choice – I had already cycled 141km and I was exhausted!


I had a quick, cheap dinner at a nearby restaurant, then got some snacks and watched a bit of Netflix before crashing out for the night.


India Day 11: Kannur

I left my rubbish hotel room early and cycled north towards Goa. I stopped a few times for food and drink and to catch another ferry but mostly just pushed on through all day to a town called Kannur, which turned out to be surprisingly big and even a bit touristy. Upon arrival, I found the train station and a nearby hotel which actually had two other travellers in it – the first I’d seen since Kochi.

That evening I walked around exploring the town and looking for beer but didn’t find any. I also priced some phones because I desperately need a new one, and almost bought a Samsung J7 for 10,000 rupees but didn’t have cash at the time. I eventually ended up just getting some snacks and watching more Netflix in the hotel room before sleeping early.

(That time is obviously for a car, not bicycle)

 

India Day 12: To Goa

For some reason, I was in a hurry to get to Goa and felt that cycling these roads would just be more of the same for days, so I went to the train station and found a train that was going to the main Goa station within the hour. I checked in my bike to the parcel carriage and then bought a ticket and got some snacks for the journey.

I only had a normal ticket so was expecting to be crushed into the carriage like before, but when I got on there were quite a few seats empty. I sat in one but within a few minutes somebody told me it was their seat, so I moved to another only to be told the same. I realised I must be in the pre-booked seating carriage, so I went and sat in the passageway against a door, trying to be as out-of-the-way as possible. However, within a few minutes, a conductor came and told me I had to move. He looked at my ticket and explained I was in the wrong carriage and either had to walk right to the back of the train to the crush area, or I could pay about Rs200 extra (about £2.30) and get a seat.  I was initially annoyed to have to pay extra but on reflection, it was way better than standing again the crush area again for 6 hours, and I was actually really lucky some seats were empty as usually the trains are fully booked.

As a result, my journey was quite comfortable and for most of the journey I had an entire sleeper bed to myself (They book some of the sleeper beds out as seats so sometimes there are four people to a bed and sometimes it’s completely empty).  I put in my headphones, ate snacks and stared out the window for most of the journey.

Upon arrival in Goa, I collected my bike and headed off on the 10km ride to the only nearby hostel called River’s Edge. On the way, I saw a bottle store so stopped and bought two big 650ml beers for an amazing Rs150 (less than £2). The hostel was amazing, more like a fancy hotel – with swimming pool and all –  and not even expensive at only Rs600 a night.  The only problem is that it’s far from the main area of Goa, so the next day I would head to the coast.

I sat by the pool and enjoyed my first beer in about 2 weeks, reminiscing on the trip and looking forward to some relaxing time in Goa…

 

Cycling to Amsterdam

 

I decided to make use of the four day Easter holiday weekend and cycle from London to Amsterdam.  However, since I was leaving directly after work on Thursday evening and didn’t want to cycle dangerous British roads in the dark, I got a train to Dover and made it just in time to catch the midnight ferry to Dunkirk.  This however, proved to be a mistake, as, due to the length of the journey and the hour time difference, I arrived in Dunkirk at 3am.  Predictably the hostel I had booked gave up waiting for me and locked up, so I had no choice but to either keep cycling and hope to find somewhere open, or sleep outdoors in the rain with the refugees.

I cycled on for the next two hours through rainy traffic and refugee camps until eventually at five am I was lucky enough to find another hostel, the lovely owner of which took me in and gave me my own private room for the night/morning.  I knew I had to make it 150km’s the next day through Belgium to Breskens in the Netherlands if I wanted to catch the last ferry to Vlissengen, so I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in late.  I grabbed five hours sleep and was up at 10am, had a quick (free) breakfast and was back on the road.

Riding along the beach in Belgium

The day went fairly smoothly for the first few hours – it was nice and sunny and I dried out my wet clothes by hanging them off my bike as I rode. Initially I felt I was making good time, but after a number of stops for photographs, lunch and exploring I realised at 5pm I was going to have to hurry to make the 9pm ferry!  I abandoned the slow moving beach roads and got onto the main road for a few hours of hard pedalling.  I whisked through Belgium fairly quickly and then just after entering the Netherlands developed a rather serious pain in my left Achilles tendon.  I tried adjusting my foot to accommodate it but I couldn’t really slow down or rest so I had to push through, despite the pain worsening.  Luckily I made it to the ferry in time, but I was seriously worried about whether I could continue the next day.

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I spent that evening in quite a nice hostel in Vlissengen, and being that it was a seemingly quiet deserted town I thought nothing of leaving my bike locked up outside on the street.  Bad idea…. but more of that later.

Anyway this hostel had been left in the care of a very young lad from somewhere or other who was travelling and needed work, and the owner was busy that night DJ’ing at a club in town.  Luckily the hostel only had one or two other guests who were already in bed, so he decided he would come with me for a few drinks at an Irish pub down the road, where we chatted about our respective travels and had a few beers.  He was a nice enough chap but clearly didn’t know anything about how the hostel worked, and forgot to take any payment from me before I left the next morning!  (the owner, luckily for him, had my email and tracked me down for payment a few days later).

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My bike with stolen seat

Upon returning to my bike I found my seat missing – the whole seat-post and saddle as well as my saddlebag with all my tools and puncture kit!  Coupled with the somewhat better but still sore pain in my Achilles tendon this was not good news.  I hummed-and-harred about what to do for awhile until eventually deciding to push on through, standing up to pedal until I found a bike shop.

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New seat and ready to go

Fortunately this was exactly what my Achilles tendon needed, as the change in foot position while standing took the pressure off it and I went along quite well and full of renewed energy for the next hour until I reached a town with a fairly big bike shop.  There a very helpful bike mechanic found me a cheap, used seat-post and saddle and I was on my way again, only €30 poorer.

dykes
The route along the dykes

I continued on along a route I’ve been wanting to cycle for many years, along the Dutch dyke system that holds back the ocean south of Rotterdam and The Hague and connects many small islands and outcropping bits of land.  It’s an incredibly interesting landscape and the huge, modern mechanical dykes are amazing to see up close.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great that day, and with the combination of a headwind, my sore Achilles tendon and the delays of buying a new seat it didn’t look like I would make it to Amsterdam that evening as planned. However I still had a good time exploring the dykes and cycling the tiny little villages on the many islands along the route.  The cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands is incredible, and is maintained equally if not better than the roads.

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A typical Dutch dyke bridge

There is a seperate, dedicated bicycle lane next to every single street, no matter where you go.  In many places it even goes under or over the road when crossing, so for the most part you need never be involved with or worry about vehicular traffic.  Despite this I still managed to accidentally cycle onto the freeway at one point, and had to get off and walk back along the grass verge to the normal road.  The truckers driving past in their massive 18-wheelers found this rather amusing.

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Rotterdam

I stopped for lunch in a great little seafood restaurant in the docks of a small village and had a well deserved beer with calamari and chips.  By the time I got to Rotterdam it was already 6pm and I was exhausted, so I had to choose to spend a night in Rotterdam and continue the next day, or get the train to Amsterdam and spend the night there.

I decided to go with the latter as I knew Amsterdam better and figured I would have a good Saturday night there.  I almost got in trouble on the train as I didn’t put my bike in the correct section, but luckily the conductors are understanding of foreigners and let me off.

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Amsterdam

So I finally arrived in Amsterdam, and although I didn’t quite cycle all the way I had a great trip and overcame many obstacles.  That night I made some friends in The Flying Pig hostel, drank an entire pitcher of beer and multiple tequila’s, explored a bit of the red light district and then we went out to a techno club until 4am.  The next afternoon, slightly hungover, I packed up my bike into a box kindly donated by a local bike shop, and headed off to the airport to fly back home to London.

I hope to do this trip again some time, however I would spread it over 3 days and go via Bruges.