All Quiet on the Western Front (a post from Mic’s mum)

Having experienced a 40 hour journey from when we left Sydney to going to bed in Amsterdam, AND then a 5 train traverse across Netherlands, Belgium and into France, we finally met up with Michael, Shoshanna and Amaya at Dunkerque.  It was amazing to see the long stretch of flat beach that formed the backdrop to Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the 340,000 British and French forces over a 9 day period in May 1940.

On our way to find Mic, Shosh and Amaya

On our way to find Mic, Shosh and Amaya

Found them!

Found them!

Amaya playing with her new friend, Lola.

Amaya playing with her new friend, Lola.

As we rode from Dunkerque the next day, on our first day of riding, the presence of war experiences, whether World War 1or 2 was very close. The senselessness of war is brought home so acutely when you ride through the Western Front of World War 1.

After 2 nights in the beautiful medieval village of Veurne, with its towering church tower and cobbled central square; a taste of the world’s best beer, brewed by monks at St Sixtus Abbey; and battling some cold winds we finally bumped our way into Ypres (Ieper).  Amaya really does not like the cobblestone streets that are a feature of so  many European villages, and calls out to Papa to stop the bumps!!

Mic enjoying a beer brewed by monks - 10.5%!!!

Mic enjoying a beer brewed by monks – 10.5%!!!

We were so confronted with the horrors of World War 1 when we visited the IN THE FLANDERS FIELDS MUSEUM at Ypres.  One has to wonder why in Australia, so much emphasis is placed on the 8 month campaign in Gallipoli, where eight and a half thousand ANZACs lost their lives, yet here on the Western Front 8,020 Australians were killed in one day! Personal stories were related in moving accounts.  The one that particularly impacted on me was the story told by a Scottish, Belgium, French and German soldiers of Christmas Eve when they were all singing Silent Night in their separate muddy, rat infested hell holes. The Scottish soldier told how, when he met up with the Germans, he had a photo taken of the two ‘enemies’ arm in arm. The photo was in the glass cabinet. The stories of a doctor and 2 nurses were just beyond comprehension…death, amputation, blood and gore, and the overwhelming stupidity of the conflict.

Ypres after WWI.

Ypres after WWI

We rode out to Hill 60.  This was a German outpost that had been tunnelled under by Australian coal miners from the Hunter Valley.  The blast was so loud that the explosion was heard in London. We walked around the crater and bunkers and had a delightful picnic lunch on soil that had 17,000 bodies of German and Allied soldiers lying beneath – Bizarre!

Australian miners placed bombs under German positions to create this crater.

Australian miners placed bombs under German positions to create this crater.

As we returned to Ypres, we stopped at another deceptively peaceful site – 4 interlinking pools with a quaint little bridge. Again these were a remnant of past horrors. In the grounds of a mock Tudor style B&B there are genuine WW1 trenches,  spent artillery, canisters used in chemical warfare and the craters from WW1 explosions now forming the serene pools of our distant time.

On two of the evenings we were in Ypres, I went down to the Menin Gate.  At 8pm and every night since the end of WW1 (except for the years of WW2) the Last Post is played and wreaths laid to honour the 54,896 soldiers who were killed in WW1 and whose bodies were never found.

Menin Gate

The Last Post is played ever night here!

The Last Post is played ever night here!

The enormity of the carnage was really brought home when we stopped at the Tyne Cot cemetery at Passchendale. 11,965 graves are located here, making it the biggest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.  A further 34,857 names that could not fit on the Menin Gate are inscribed on huge semi circular walls.

Entrance to the commonwealth cemetery.

Entrance to the commonwealth cemetery.

Rows of Graves

‘The thought that Jock died for his country is no comfort to me, his memory is all I have left to love’, Lieutenant John Low’s fiancée wrote on 18 January, 1918.

The next two days of riding have been along back lanes through Belgium farms until again arriving at another typical medieval town of Gent.

We are gradually getting stronger although it is hard to keep up with Michael and Shoshanna’s pace. They are carrying heavier loads than us and we are amazed at their tenacity in all kinds of weather. Fortunately Sumer has arrived and the Belgium’s are embracing the warm weather with a vengeance….and sunburn!

Typical campground in Belgium

Typical campground in Belgium

Amaya and Shosh

Rain

Having the time of my life!

Having the time of my life!

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m a bit of a fair weathered cyclist, so when it starts to rain I tend to stop enjoying myself. Its been a personal project to over come this issue but after several years of counselling dedicated to the topic I can still only manage to keep a smile on my face for so long. Some cyclists love cycling in the rain. So they tell me. But I wonder if the weather we have been having lately would even wear down the hardiest of those rain dancing warriors. Its not so much the actual getting wet while you are on the bike (although having rain pouring off my helmet onto my face isn’t my favourite sensation in the world) its more the added level of difficulty the wet adds to every aspect of the day. Packing up a tent while its raining is difficult if you want to keep the inside dry for the next night. Then what about lunch? If we didn’t have a toddler who likes to sleep during the time France likes to eat we might consider (on a particularly miserable day) splashing out on a restaurant meal and having a few hours of dry warmth. Instead we look for anywhere that will provide us a little shelter. Like a bus shelter with resident snails. It doesn’t make for the most entertaining of breaks but it keeps you out of the rain.

We don't tend to take photos when its raining but these inky clouds paint you the picture!

We don’t tend to take photos when its raining but these inky clouds paint you the picture!

OK, it hasn’t been THAT BAD, we have had a LOT of rain (almost everyday for the month of May) but most of it has been intermittent. We have only ridden in a constant downpour for 2 of those days. But its wearing us down, it makes camping not very fun, and to top it off the temperature range has been more of less between 2 and 12 degrees. With, might I add, not only rain but also wind, AND we have been hailed on – twice. Essentially we are riding through a bad Australian winter. Yuck.

Moody sky, not exactly a perfect day for the beach but we try to enjoy these small moments despite the weather

Not exactly a perfect day for the beach but we try to enjoy small breaks despite the weather

We are told this is very unusual weather for May in this part of the world – normally it is glorious. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse. The crux of the matter is cycle touring has you completely exposed to the elements all day long. It’s an occupation that makes you vulnerable in many ways, and the bad weather has made us even more reliant on people’s kindness.

We were riding through the pine forest on an old railway track in a downpour when I was hit with excruciatingly painful stomach cramps. The sort of pain that makes you wonder if you need to go to hospital. There was nothing around so I had no choice but to ride on. Every time my legs hit the highest point of rotation the pain worsened forcing us to slow down. Now moving at 8km/hr we weren’t using enough energy to keep up the blood flow so we started to get cold. I kept looking at the ground wondering if all I could manage was to get off the bike, lie down on the grass beside the track and quietly… what? shake? shiver?… try to pass out so it would all go away? All I wanted to do was lie down so the pain would go but I had to ride on. Eventually we made it to a little town, we searched for a hotel, nothing. But it did have a very simple campground with a few sad looking caravans. I collapsed into a chair shaking, and crying, unable to bear the pain anymore. After establishing that I wasn’t about to die, the shocked camp ground owner quickly cleaned out one of her caravans and let us use it for no charge. She didn’t have to, but she did, and we will be eternally grateful. Yes, we are vulnerable, so when people are kind it means so much more.

The caravan that saved me. NOTE: A brief appearance of sunshine!

The caravan that saved me. NOTE: A brief appearance of sunshine!

We also meet the other sort of people who are unhelpful and thoughtless and then wish us a “bon voyage!” after telling us the camp ground we were relying on is closed, and the hotel no longer exists, and we have to ride to the NEXT town in the rain after a day that has already been too hard and too long with no guarantee of a place to sleep there either. Thanks, its currently a WONDERFUL journey (exasperated cheesy grin).

Thankfully this is a rarity, and as travellers discover most people are gems, with only a smattering of bad eggs in between. People are especially kind if they understand what you are doing isn’t a holiday, and the kindest of all on our trip thus far have been Bernard and Beatrice who we met in a small town in Spain. They invited us to stay with them in their small town of 26 people in a rural region of France. Their beautiful cedar home is situated amongst flower and vegetable gardens and filled with mosaics, paintings and other works of art all created by Bernard. Enthusiastic cooks and keen on us trying some of the local delicacies Bernard and Beatrice treated us to asparagus soufflé, chestnut soup, homemade Pineau (a French aperitif), and Beatrice’s homemade herbal liquor. All the vegetables came directly from the garden and we enjoyed ourselves planting potatoes, flowers and learning about the agriculture. Planing to stay only two nights, we ended up staying four – and it was tempting to establish some roots of our own and live the quiet life in this little paradise, dancing to local folk music and living off the land but alas the journey must go on.

Planting potatoes with Beatrice and Bernard

Planting potatoes

Planting flowers

Planting flowers

More planting

More planting

Amaya enjoying Bernards parents property where the Pineau grapes were picked and the wine was made

Amaya enjoying Bernards parent’s property where the Pineau grapes were picked and the wine was made

Cami the Cockatoo bit Amaya's finger. She loves telling the story!

Cami the Cockatoo bit Amaya’s finger. She loves telling the story!

Dinner party - Thanks for such a wonderful stay Bernard and Beatrice!

Dinner party – Thanks for such a wonderful stay Bernard and Beatrice!

And so we continue to limp our way up France slowly, slowly inching our way north. Riding for a few days then hiding as best we can from the cold, the wet and the wind for a few more. While we are waiting for the weather to improve I am continuing on my quest to stop my mood being directly linked to the rain. If the forecast is correct at least I will be happy tomorrow!

1000km and Counting

So we completed our first thousand kilometres a couple of days ago. Pre-Amaya this wouldn’t have been as noteworthy, but 1000km with a teething toddler in tow is a definite milestone. Thank you to everyone who has supported us so far! Thanks for reading our blog, for your encouragement and a massive thanks to those who have made a donation to Clinica Verde. We have raised close to $1000  (almost $1 per kilometre). This is money that has already made a difference to the lives of mothers and children in the Boaco region of Nicaragua.

If you would like to donate please click the button below:CV button to donate.001

  • $5 Helps provide clean water at the clinic
  • $10 Buys medication for a child  in need
  • $25 Supports 2 wellness visits for a child
  • $100 Provides prenatal care for 1 mother’s full pregnancy
  • $250 Supports a nurse for a month

Since our last post we have crossed into France and enjoyed about 350km of designated bicycle path. We are following a route called La Vélodyssée which follows the coast of France from the Spanish border for 1300km to Roskoff in Brittany.  It is an amazing piece of bicycle infrastructure – a refreshing change after Spain. The other refreshing change is how ubiquitous campgrounds are in France.  We no longer have to pre-think where we are going to stay each night – there is always a friendly campground to be found.

So while the weather has not been that great, the scenery has been stunning, and the bike paths smooth and flat.

Below is a small photo blog of what has been happening (including our first interview with Amaya):

Just finished lunch at a winner of a spot!

Just finished lunch at a winner of a spot!

Leaving our campground across a cute wooden bridge.

Leaving our campground across a cute wooden bridge.

We have been really enjoying the long sandy beaches!  The weather has been a bit suspect though.

We have been enjoying the long sandy beaches! The weather has been a bit suspect though.

Amaya love chickens!

Amaya loves chickens!

Typical lunch stop

Typical lunch stop

Beach

Dunes of Pylar were quite impressive!

The Dunes of Pilat were quite impressive!

Turned a corner down a side street and came across a circus! Luck!

Turned a corner down a side street and came across a circus! Luck!

Checking out the cool ports around the Bassin d' Archachon

Checking out the cool ports around the Bassin d’ Archachon

We were given this bottle of wine by the owner of the campground who was impressed with our "courage"

We were given this bottle of wine by the owner of the campground who was impressed with our “courage”

Artés

While cycling the Danube River in 2008 we met Albert and Sandra. At the time they invited us to come and visit them in Catalonia, Spain. Four years on we took them up on their offer (which was still good). They live in Artés, a small village in the hills of Catalonia.

Luckily for us our arrival coincided with the annual fair. It is a big deal we are told in a village where not much else happens. The villages eagerly await the opportunity to check out the latest tractors and farming machinery while chugging down copious amounts of vino tinto and the odd coca de leche. There are also the obligatory tacky rides, which Amaya was very much into (and I thought she had taste!). In fact, being the little nerd that she is, she had read all about merry-go-rounds but never experienced their joys. I am not sure who enjoyed it more?

Weeeeeeeeeeeee

Weeeeeeeeeeeee

Definitely the spot for a group photo!

Definitely the spot for a group photo!

We moved through the Fair slowly, with Albert and Sandra stopping and speaking to what seemed like every second person. All wanted to see Baby Marc, Albert and Sandra’s baby boy. To the disappointment of Aunts, uncles, grandmothers, cousins once removed and friends of distant relatives, Marc slept on soundly in his baby carrier.

We were treated to some Catalonian specialties, including: Paella (not sure if it is strictly Catalonian) Pan con Tomate, Dried sausage amongst other delights, all washed down with home made wine thanks to Sandra’s father who harvests and makes over 1000 litres a year.

On our final day we were taken to two quaint villages an hours drive into the hills. The photos below barely do them justice. Gracias Albert, Sandra y Marc. Esperem veure’ls a Austràlia un dia proper. adéu.

Sandra, Marc and us with the Pyrenees in the background.

Sandra, Marc and us with the Pyrenees in the background.

Sandra and Shosh  - the entry to the town couldn't be more fun! Swinging bridge!

Sandra and Shosh – the entry to the town couldn’t be more fun! Swinging bridge!

Albert and Marc

Albert and Marc

Cobbled Streets

Amaya liked it so much she thought she would leave her mark.

Amaya liked it so much she thought she would leave her mark.

Amaya's summary: "Fun playing with Marc"

Amaya’s summary: “Fun playing with Marc”