It’s the People not the Place

We are on our homeward stretch.  The Baltic Sea is behind us and we only have a bit over a week before we will find ourselves back in Berlin.  Close to 5 months of riding and over 3800km later we have enjoyed our share of adventures and met some fantastic people.

Most of the time the people we connect with are kind strangers who offer us help.  Take for instance….

A 36 degree day near Hengelo, Holland. We stopped at a random house to ask for some water.  We were given ice water, home grown berries, coffee and an hour or two of enjoyable conversation.

It was so much fun chatting with Herbert! If you are ever riding through Holland and are in need of water he is your man!!

It was so much fun chatting with Herbert! If you are ever riding through Holland and are in need of water he is your man!!

In Bremen while watching the reenactment of “The Bremen Town Musicians” an elderly German tourist slipped me 10 euros to spend on Amaya – evidently overwhelmed by her charm.  We used the 10 euros to buy a lovely picture book of the Grimm Brother’s fable.

The Grimm Brother's fable is acted out every Sunday in the town square.

The Grimm Brother’s fable is acted out every Sunday in the town square.

The donkey, the dog, the cat and the rooster.  Amaya loves the story!

The donkey, the dog, the cat and the rooster. Amaya loves the story!

Then there was Astrid, Andreas and Felix.  Resting in their driveway after an exhausting day crossing Hamburg, Astrid pulls up in her bright red porsche and asks us if we would like a coffee in her garden.  We obviously agreed and were once again treated to an enjoyable afternoon with some unexpected surprises thrown in.  There were rabbits, chickens and macaws much to Amaya’s delight.  Most random of all was the large warehouse jammed full of antique horse drawn carts, gypsy caravans and even a 100 year old hearse.

Amaya loving life!

Amaya loving life!

Chickens Rabbits

A child size gypsy caravan!

A child size gypsy caravan!

Wow - very random but very cool

Wow – very random but very cool – the place was like a museum!

We were so fortunate to meet these wonderful people!

We were so fortunate to meet these wonderful people!

More recently our Baltic sea experience was significantly brightened by fellow campers, Bjorn, Kirsten and Simon (aged 2).

Kirsten, Bjorn and Simon

Kirsten, Bjorn and Simon.  They had been to Australia on numerous occasions and had probably seen more of it than us!  A visit to the Butterfly house, a swim in the sea and a BBQ made for a memorable day!

There are countless other examples of these chance encounters, however two families we stayed with during our last week in the Netherlands was not based solely on chance – our meeting was some 30 years in the making and the connections span 3 continents.

About 30 years ago a young Israeli called Naim was struggling to fund his travels through Europe by selling paintings in a plaza in a Dutch town called Hengelo.  A young couple, Henk and Annie, took pity on him and invited him to stay with them for the night.  He stayed for a year.  A connection was established with Naim’s family in Israel and Henk and Annie’s family that saw many visits between the two countries.

Fast forward to a rainy night in Israel, about 20 years on.  Stephen (my brother), Shoshanna and I were looking for somewhere to pitch our tent in front of the Ancient Ruins of Beit She’an.  The lady in the ticket office took pity on us and offered for us to stay with her.  Her name is Etti and she is Naim’s sister.  We stayed with her for a few wonderful days and again in 2008 for a week.

Earlier this year Stephen and Jess (my sister in law) were staying with Etti who happened to also have guests from the Netherlands.  They were Rosanna and Mariette, the 2 daughters of Henk and Annie, along with their families. Upon arriving in the Netherlands Stephen and Jess stayed with Rossanna and Henk (the younger).

We also had the privilege of Henk and Rosanna’s hospitality in Hengelo, along with a few wonderful days with Mariette and Robert and their children Leor, Micha and Yair.

Henk and Rosanna

So great to meet Henk and Rosanna

Mariette, Robert and Yair

Mariette, Robert and Yair in front of the old farm house they renovated

Amaya and Yair whom she affectionately called "Mr Dude"

Amaya and Yair whom she affectionately called “Mr Dude”

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Mic chilling with Yair and Leor

Mic chilling with Yair and Leor

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These are the moments that make traveling so enjoyable.  The stunning scenery and quaint villages are just a nice backdrop to the relationships and connections we have made on this journey.

WE MADE IT!!!

The journey began in Barcelona – us and our bicycles and a European continent that stretched out endlessly.  We have cycled 3600km over 4 months, inhaled at least 20 bugs, fallen off 7 times, repaired two flat tyres, endured too many cold and rainy days and we have finally made it to the Baltic!

Made it!

Made it!

Mic and Amaya arrive!

Mic and Amaya arrive!

Baby on a Bike, Barcelona to the Baltic and then down to Berlin.

Baby on a Bike, Barcelona to the Baltic and then down to Berlin.

The Baltic is not so impressive by Australian standards but that is what we get for choosing a destination based on an alliteration.  Someone smarter than me once wrote, “it is always good to have an end to journey towards but it is the journey that matters in the end.”  It has been all about the journey for us.  We have meandered through Europe on our bicycles, watching our little daughter grow up.  There have been incredibly high highs and the lowest of lows.  It has not been all dappled light and ice creams – this has been a very difficult family project.

But we are here and there are many stories to tell.

It has not all been dappled light and ice creams!

It has not all been dappled light and ice creams!

I am particularly proud of Amaya who is surely the toughest and most adaptable two year old around.  She has sat in her little buggy for every one of those 3600km and offered minimal complaints.  She has camped in appalling conditions, learnt to say hi, bye and thanks in a number of different languages, met new people every day, and has had to make do with very few toys.  Yet she is still super keen to get on the road every morning.

Amaya in the Baltic Sea - one of the toughest and most adaptable two year olds around!

Amaya in the Baltic Sea – one of the toughest and most adaptable two year olds around!

Thanks for reading our blog (please continue)! Thanks to all the kind strangers who have helped us in so many different ways!  Thanks to the people who have donated to Clinica Verde and helped change the lives of mothers and children in Nicaragua!  If you haven’t donated but would like to you can click on the link below.

CV button to donate.001

We now have the small matter of cycling 400km or so down to Berlin.

Riding Dykes and Other Dutch Pastimes

Amaya snags country number 8 while we float on fluffy clouds through a cycling paradise.  The Netherlands is simply as good as it gets for bicycle touring! It is flat, the people are warm and friendly (and speak many languages including English), the food is interesting, campgrounds are ubiquitous and the weather is good (though I am told this is not the norm).  What’s more, EVERY ROAD HAS A BICYCLE PATH NEXT TO IT!!!! Please excuse my gratuitous use of capitals but how else can I express overwhelming excitement?  It is incredible! Quite literally every road has some sort of bike path associated with it.  And there are some cool, sensible road rules to go with it.  For example, one courier driver we met told the story that his boss is accepting of the occasional accident or break down, but under no circumstance can he hit a cyclist as he will ALWAYS be in the wrong.  Additionally, bicycles are free to ride both ways on a one way street, thus recognising bikes as a hybrid vehicle and something quite apart from cars, helmets are optional.

So much bike infrastructure! The way the world should be!

So much bike infrastructure! The way the world should be!

Loving cycling!

Loving cycling!

The countryside is beautiful too!

The countryside is beautiful too!

There are a steady stream of relatively fit people riding past us – everybody says hi – they look happy, they are from a wide cross section of society and not just the lycra clad urban warriors that cars battle with on Sydney streets.

An older couple riding the bike paths of Holland

An older couple riding the bike paths of Holland

Needless to say we are loving it!  It has also been wonderful to share this experience with Mum and Dad, who have been a great help on the road.  Amaya has adored spending some quality time with them while seeing some truly amazing things.  We entered the Netherlands with no real plan (not unusual) – maybe we’d see a couple of windmills, ride on a dyke or two and drink some Heineken.  It has been so much more than that…

We crossed the “Delta Project” which is an astonishing feat of human engineering allowing the Dutch to stop the sea at will.  Windmills abound and last Saturday happened to be the annual windmill open day – so we climbed up the insides of a windmill!!!  On Sunday we stumbled upon Hollands biggest free music festival and caught up with Amaya’s friend, Lola, who we met in France – along with her parents, Alex and Elisa who are wonderful people!  In the same city – Dordricht – we also visited a 1:1 scale replica of Noah’s Ark!  It was floating in the harbour and even came equipped with hundreds of animals (some live, most sculptures).  Very random location, but quite appropriate given the generations long battle with the sea the Dutch have had and continue to have.  To top it all off it hasn’t been one or two dykes we have ridden – we are pretty much riding them all day every day.

So, as we approach 3000 km and meander towards our final destination we are in no hurry whatsoever to leave The Netherlands.

The Delta project that will hopefully protect the dutch from storm surges and rising sea levels.  In 1953 over 4000 people drowned we the dykes gave way and the sea rushed in.  This is the Dutch response.

The Delta project that will hopefully protect the dutch from storm surges and rising sea levels. In 1953 over 4000 people drowned when the dykes gave way and the sea rushed in. This is the Dutch response.

Not an unusual experience in Holland to ride past an iconic windmill.

Not an unusual experience in Holland to ride past an iconic windmill.

Windmill 2

Inside the belly of a windmill!

Inside the belly of a windmill!

Amaya was loving it!

Amaya was loving it!

Elisa, Alex and Lola at the music festival

Elisa, Alex and Lola at the music festival

Amaya has a ride with Lola in the cochecito magico.

Amaya has a ride with Lola in the cochecito magico.

Dad getting into the spirit of the festival

Dad getting into the spirit of the festival

Noah's Arc!

Noah’s Ark!

It really was a massive ship! It took us an age to explore every level.

It really was a massive ship! It took us an age to explore every level.

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

Amaya eats a dog!

I think we will look back on this trip in two parts… before London and after London.  The week and a half we spent in London was a welcome break from the dismal weather that Europe had been throwing at us.  Not that it was any less dismal in London – we just didn’t have to cycle or camp in it!

Made it to London!

Made it to London!

Amaya loves Jonny and Helen and had been busting at the seams to see them again.  She also couldn’t wait to meet her new cousin, Henry.  The other event Amaya was looking forward to was her much anticipated 2nd birthday – and it didn’t disappoint – there were presents, balloons, a trip to the London aquarium, and, best of all, a dog cake (the closest Amaya will ever come to owning a dog).

Nose kiss for Amaya's dog cake

Nose kiss for Amaya’s dog cake

Amaya and Jonny having a wow of a time at London Aquarium

Amaya and Jonny having a wow of a time at London Aquarium

It was particularly nice to be in London without feeling obliged to do anything touristy.  Our purpose was quite simply to spend time with Jonny and Helen and their little boy.

Helen summarised our stay nicely:

Becoming a mother for the first time has had it’s challenges, but having Mic, Shosh and Amaya to stay has been wonderful. Henry has changed so much over the time they have stayed with us; becoming more alert each day, sleeping for longer, feeding for longer and growing stronger. Watching Amaya interact with him is beautiful; she is inquisitive about his moods, how he moves, his expressions – especially his serious looks. At first she wasn’t sure what to make of him, but day by day she has grown more confident around him and loves to sit near him stroking his hair and talking to him. I think it is the start of a special bond between them, and even though there are many miles that separate them both when Amaya returns to Australia, I know that whenever they see each other, there will be new games and adventures to be had.

Shoshanna's brother Jonny holding Henry while Helen reads Amaya a story.

Shoshanna’s brother Jonny holding Henry while Helen reads Amaya a story.

We are now in Belgium with my parents, Garry and Helen, enjoying amazing cycle paths, beer, chocolate and touring Flanders Field, the Western Front from WWI where too many people lost their lives in senseless bloody fighting.

Hey Grandma and Grandpa!

Hey Grandma and Grandpa!

Mic drinking what is purported to be the best beer in the world at St Sixtus Abbey.  10.1% alcohol - then we had to ride another 25km!

Mic drinking what is purported to be the best beer in the world at St Sixtus Abbey. 10.1% alcohol – then we had to ride another 25km!

Looking across Flanders Field - hill 60 is out there somewhere where miners from the Hunter Valley dug tunnels under a German munitions dump and blew it up!

Looking across Flanders Field – hill 60 is out there somewhere where miners from the Hunter Valley dug tunnels under a German munitions dump and blew it up.

How we Bicycle Tour with a Baby – some frequently asked questions.

Where are you riding?

We are riding from Barcelona, Spain to the Baltic Sea in Germany and then down to Berlin. Check out our rough route.

How long will this take?

We don’t really know but we estimate about 5 months.

How many kms in total?

5000km give or take 1000 🙂

How many kms do you do per day? 

40-60km depending on how evenly spaced towns are.  This is about 3-4 hours or riding – it is much slower with all our luggage and toddler.

It isn't always easy to manoeuvre the trailer around through the bike paths.

It isn’t always easy to manoeuvre the trailer around the bike paths.  We had to unhitch the trailer for this one – Amaya slept on!

Where do you stay?  

We mostly camp unless it is pouring with rain and then we might treat ourselves to a cheap hotel.  So we are obviously carrying sleeping bags, tent, cooker and sleeping mats.  We also use warmshowers.org, which is a fantastic hosting website for cycle tourers. Thanks to all the amazing people who have put us up!

Cool campground on el camino de Santiago in Spain

Cool campground on el camino de Santiago in Spain

She is a natural camper!

She is a natural camper!

This WAS a peaceful campground in Dinan, Brittany until we were invaded!  There were plenty of other spots they could have parked!

This WAS a peaceful campground in Dinan, Brittany until we were invaded! There were plenty of other spots they could have parked!

Where does Amaya sleep?

She sleeps on a sleeping mat next to us.

Amaya asleep

What do you do for food?  

We prepare our own.  We have a small cooker (Trangia that runs on metholayted spirits).  Our menu will adapt to whatever food is available. One of our go-to meals is pesto pasta with tuna fish, onion capsicum and zucchini (anything tastes great after a day of cycling!)

Amaya helping with the cooking!

Amaya helping with the cooking!

Sometimes supermarkets are difficult to find or worse, closed!  We rode up and down the street a few times before finding this one.

Sometimes supermarkets are difficult to find or worse, closed! We rode up and down the street a few times before finding this one.

Lunch stop

Lunch stop

Is it dangerous?  

Yes. Our biggest concern is being hit by a car or truck.  We just hope this doesn’t happen.  Accidents can happen anywhere even when one isn’t attempting something adventurous.

Do your bums get sore?

No.  We have buns of steel  – heh! No really, they don’t. We have Brooks saddles which are made of molded leather and are super comfortable. Our padded bike pants help too I’m sure. So while our legs hurt everyday – our bums are happy.

The first 400km were agony but they are a dream now!

The first 400km were agony but they are a dream now!

What kind of bikes are you riding?

We are riding custom built Surly bikes.  They are touring bikes that Michael has spent a lot of time getting just right for our journey.  The baby trailer is a Burley d”lite and is affectionally called “el cochecito magico” (magic buggy).

Shosh's Bike

Shosh’s Bike

How heavy is Mic’s bike with the trailer?

Including Amaya (but not including Mic) we estimate the whole setup to be 80kgs.  Not particularly easy up hills!

Mic's bike and el cochecito magico

Mic’s bike and el cochecito magico

Is it challenging with a 2 year old?

Yes, but it would be regardless of whether we were riding or not.  I think this question warrants an entire post.

What does Amaya do in the trailer?  

She sings songs, reads books, sleeps, plays with her toys and looks out the window.  She loves it!  Check out the clip below for a small insight…

If there are any other burning questions feel free to ask in the comments 🙂