“Here we are!” we said to Amaya as we pulled into the courtyard of our apartment block. “Come on lets get out and have a look!” “NO!” came the reply, and we spent the next 5 minutes trying to coax her out. We had been telling her that we were finishing, and I think she also knew that this was the completion of something great. Her nomadic, outdoor life had ended and she was staying put in her ‘magic buggy’ hoping that there would be more.
Alas our journey had come to an end. We took the iconic photos in front of the Brandenburg Gate just as we had taken them in front of the Sagrada Familia five months earlier. We feel privileged to have had this time as a family, to see a Europe that few people see and to expose our daughter to so many wonderful things.
“Amaya lick Mamá’s tongue?” Amaya asked me using her super sweet voice thats reserved for requests. “Ummm… noooo,” I reply, “that’s gross.” We are eating in a rather nice fish restaurant and Amaya has just dropped some rice on the floor “oh, a little bird can eat that bit” she announces. Hmm, yes. Its said that two year olds are little barbarians and ours maybe a slightly more barbaric than most. Camping for so long has made us all a bit rough around the edges. We eat out of the pot we cook in for goodness sake.
As any honest camper will attest, part of the beauty of camping is you get to chill out and relax your standards. Waltz around in the same clothes, shower if you feel like it, brush your hair – whats a brush?! Its a time to get away from fast paced city living and societal pressures. One afternoon all three of us managed to get cherry stains on our t-shirts, our care factor – about zero.
From your position sitting in a comfortable office chair and breathing in air conditioned air this may seem disgusting to you, so judge us as negligent parents if you must, but it is said that a bit of dirt is good for immunity. From our position it is brilliantly refreshing to have dropped parenting standards, what does it really matter if our kid has less baths and is running around in slightly grubby clothes. She’s happy and healthy. Camping it seems is the perfect environment for a two year old. They seem to be made for fresh air. Shriek and yell, play rough, throw sand, run around naked, whatever it is the outdoors can take it. The large environment readily absorbs noise and activity, even a full blown tantrum while it may be in public is certainly less out of place than in your local supermarket.
Please don’t misunderstand me, Amaya is not a wild and crazy kid. She’s a sweet girl who has benefitted greatly from living predominately outdoors. Before our trip she was greatly concerned about getting dirty, touching sand, and didn’t really like the feeling of different textures under her bare feet. Now she will pick up a snail and with a wicked grin say “Mama eat it?!”
For a mini person what tops regular camping is being a camping nomad. Simply because you never know what kind of entertainment or delights the day is going to present.
Lunch may turn out to be at a lake – so we enjoy an unscheduled swim.
Another day its raining so we eat breakfast in the campground family room where Amaya’s breakfast chair of choice is a toy tractor (exciting for a 2 year old).
Or its the day of the campground bowling competition (on manually run equipment from GDR times). Amaya won (no one is sure how – but it happened).
We play in a fountain, dance to live music in the town square, stumble upon a local fair, have breakfast on a wharf, the world is her playground with every day providing delights.
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.
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.
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.
More recently our Baltic sea experience was significantly brightened by fellow campers, Bjorn, Kirsten and Simon (aged 2).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
We now have the small matter of cycling 400km or so down to Berlin.
At risk of going on about it, there has to be something to be said about a culture where bikes are a natural extension of everyday life. Admittedly we are biased about just how much of a good thing this is given our passion for peddling, but the advantages of a cycling culture run deeper than the pure enjoyment of having fresh air rush through your hair while zooming, carbon-free, through the countryside.
Cycling solves social issues.
The elderly: They keep their fitness, their balance, and most importantly their independence. We met a couple in their late 60’s who said they would cycle 30km without hesitation to to have dinner with their friends, and then at 9pm they would cycle home again. The average Australian would find these distances formidable regardless of age! But it gets even better. They told us that his mother (so I’m guessing she would be in her late 80’s) always makes the choice to ride her bike everywhere because she finds it to difficult to walk to the bus stop! Heroine!
Teenagers: In car based cultures one of the common stresses of parents with school aged children is the time it takes to transport their children around. Many mums feel like they are a taxi service. Getting one kid from daycare in time to get the rest from school, then dropping off one child to soccer, zooming through the traffic to pick up another from a music lesson – this is enough to drive anyone crazy, especially if you are battling Sydney traffic.
Explaining this to a Dutch person just gets a frown of incomprehension. EVERYONE rides EVERYWHERE. Even immigrants take bicycle lessons.
High school students can easily ride 20km to school. Not just in summer either. In fact they have no choice as school buses do not exist!
We see bands of teenagers going off to the lake together on a hot sunday afternoon. Girlfriends riding to the shops. A guy giving his mate a ride on the back of his bike. Teenagers, like the elderly, are given freedom, independence, and their own transport. It would certainly leave the parents feeling more relaxed knowing that their child is out and about on their own bike rather than worrying about them catching a ride with a rev-head lunatic who pins his masculinity on how fast he can corner his car.
Between primary and high school students are often required to sit a bicycle test and from then on they are deemed competent to use the bicycle as their mode of transport.
Parents have more time, feel more relaxed, and teens can come and go as they please.
Its a win – win, don’t you think?
Mums with small children: I’m not sure about other mothers with small children but when I was living in the suburbs with a baby I found it hard to find the time to exercise. In the Netherlands mothers put their babies on a bike seat (usually in the front of the bike) and off they go. We’ve seen several mothers sitting in a shady spot in the country side with their little one, obviously they have ridden a bit then stopped for some morning tea. To me its an ideal outing. You can get a lot further than walking, its not as hard as running with a pram, but still great exercise. You can even buy whats called a “Mama” bike with a bike seat on the front AND the back. These come with hefty stands so that loading up the kids is safe and secure. Or even better (but pretty expensive) you can buy a bike with a bucket out the front, they even have seat belts in the bucket. Imagine getting picked up from kindy in one of those!?! Pure fun!
It looks like incorporating bikes into our everyday life could help to reduce depression in old people, minimise teenage angst and conflict with parents, and maybe even help decreases the severity of postnatal depression! Or maybe I’m looking at it through heavily tinted rose glasses?
Of course you can’t grab the best bits of everyones culture. But I do love it how the Dutch are “all in” with cycling and I wonder if Australians could look at cycling as a wonderful form of transport rather than a nuisance on the road. We are, after all, the flattest, driest inhabited continent on earth so whats stopping us?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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!
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.
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.
‘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!
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!
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).
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.
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.
So we are sorry about our silence of recent date – we have been enjoying some amazing weather in Brittany and have been too busy cycling to blog. Unfortunately this all came to an end about a week ago when the heavens opened and we (with the exception of Amaya) were significantly drenched.
Since the mechanical elephant of Nantes we followed a stunning canal deep into Brittany. We passed castles built into cliff faces with witches hat turrets, enjoyed coffee in ancient town squares, camped in a forest where legends of King Arthur are told, scoffed crepes, wound our way along the flat tow path of the canal, passing river barges going up the locks, and cherishing the car free environment with the birds providing the soundtrack.
We had both been anticipating this section of our journey and it didn’t disappoint – this is France at its best. It has been one of those experiences where we wished we could somehow take away more than just our memories and a few photos. If only there was some way of capturing those moments in a more substantial way and transporting them with us…
Meanwhile there have been a few causes for celebration: Amaya’s second two-year-old molar finally poked through, her age caught up to her teeth on the 15th, it has been two months on the road, we made it to Roscoff which marked the end of our 1300km cycle path that we had been following since entering France, and we passed 2000km!
Sometimes we even find it hard to believe that we have managed all of this through simple pedal power! That we have actually transported ourselves from Barcelona to Brittany on bicycles!?!?!
We are now in St Malo where we are catching a ferry to Portsmouth and then visiting Jonny (Shoshanna’s brother) and Helen and their new baby, Henry in London. We then make our way back onto the continent and meet up with my parents and ride through Belgium and Holland for a few weeks and then up into Germany and the Baltic Sea and down to Berlin. Fortunately there is a lot of cycling ahead of us.