The plan, as far is it went, was to cycle around Europe, starting by heading to Greece to do some volunteer work with refugee and migrant organisations. Seven weeks in, and we’re in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, having ridden from London.
I’d envisaged plentiful time on the road — in between cycling through beautiful landscapes, camping out beneath the stars, stretching and taking our time over dinner — to write an account of our journey as we went. The reality of life on the road was much different. Riding 80-100km a day, with a 12kg bike, and around 18kg of luggage, snack stops, finding a place to camp, setting up and taking down tents, cooking and eating left little time or energy to gather coherent thoughts and put them in a sensible order before falling asleep.
We settled into our own routine and rhythm, rolling through the shifting landscape. Each border crossing reopened the senses to the new road quality, driving styles and national characteristics — surprisingly easy to pick up from the first few encounters with traffic on the road. Rest days too were busy, washing clothes, route-planning for the following section, topping up on supplies and sorting bikes out.
Our route took us through northern France along the border with Belgium, across the Vosges Mountains and the river Rhine into the Black Forest mountains of southern Germany, on to Lake Constance and into Switzerland before crossing the Alps through Austria and into Italy. From there, we rode across the flat lands of northern Italy, through Slovenia and down the Croatian coast, island hopping and riding stunning coastal roads. The land became more wild and mountainous again through Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia, before we reached Greece and arrived on the coast once more.
If the daily routine didn’t permit much in the way of free time and relaxation, it certainly gave a fresh appreciation of the basics; food, shelter, warmth, security. Travelling light, with space and weight at a premium, meant we purchased enough food for the next couple of meals, stopping to top up supplies regularly. And having left London in 20 degree heat in early April, it was a rude awakening as temperatures gradually slipped across northern France before descending to sub-0 nights in the north east. Winter was not one of the two seasons that our sleeping bags are designed for, and we spent a few nights in all our clothes, before checking into our first hotel of the trip. We’ve had weird weather, strange patterns moving across Europe for much of the journey, with more rain than you might expect. But summer arrived in Croatia and Albania, and we’re becoming accustomed to afternoon thunderstorms here after hot mornings.
It’s not been easy, nor difficult, and the sense of achievement is yet to sink in. It’s hard to pick a best part, but at the moment what lingers is the sense of moving at the pace of the land, actually feeling it change around you. We had some incredible reactions to our what must be bizarre appearance, particularly in the more remote and rural parts of Albania — a beautiful country for bike touring. Friends, family and strangers showed us incredible hospitality on the way across Europe. Short-comings in our kit became quickly apparent, and good items much appreciated. There’s really not much we’ve packed that we haven’t used, though thankfully we are yet to require the spare spokes we’ve brought. The bikes are probably in need of a service, our bodies have adapted pretty well but we’re looking forward to some time off the bikes!
We’ll back fill the chapters so far in more detail over the coming days, and post on our experiences here in Thessaloniki, with me working with a construction team, building shelters, storage and other things for some of the camps, and Sarah working on a refugee education project in the city.