I have ridden well over three thousand kilometres between the Finnish Baltic city of Vaasa and the cobbled streets of Slovakia’s Bratislava on the Danube River. The roads have taken me through many fascinating cultural and historical cities, divided by endless agricultural fields baking in the European summer. I’ve also had my share of mountains to traverse, and despite plenty of ‘training’ in Norway, I struggled through the 800m climbs in Moravia and Bohemia. I’m now meandering along the Danube River between Linz and Budapest, enjoying the flat cycle path through a series of captivating cities and scenic countryside.
In each country I have adapted various strategies to keep the budget low. In Finland, however, I discovered how to earn money each day! Finland has extremely generous refunds for recyclable bottles and cans, and each supermarket has a machine to process the 15 to 40 cent refund for each item. As I cycled along I watched the roadside instead of the road, collecting any bottles and cans that I could spot. Cycling towards Turku over a Saturday evening and Sunday morning earned me nearly twenty euro’s, and by the time I caught the ferry to Estonia I had covered most of my expenses. So if you’re looking for an affordable way to cycle tour (as well as a way to help the environment), head to Finland with a bag!
Finland also brought a series of unexpected surprises; none more so than an interview on Radio Robin Hood in Turku. And yes the stereotype of Finns loving to get naked is quite true: as I sat in a public sauna in my typically Aussie Billabong board shorts I felt like a complete oddball. Such nakedness was contagious however, and by the time I left the public swimming centre I was happily strolling around freely. Most Finnish homes also have saunas, so when I was lucky enough to enjoy the company of hospitable Finns I was able to enjoy the warmth of the sauna while off the saddle. In the once Swedish capital of Turku I also met Franseska, who would later join me in Helsinki, Tallinn and Vilnius. After a prolonged stay in Turku with new friends I had to ride the 170km to Helsinki in one day to make my first AICR lab visit at Helsinki University. Thankfully I had begun to use the higher gears on the bike, and over the next month in the Baltic States I drastically changed my style of riding to be more efficient.
In Helsinki and Tallinn I found it extremely hard to adjust to being in cities again after so long in the countryside and wilderness of Scandinavia. Luckily Anton and Janis were fantastic hosts, and on one night in Helsinki I even camped on a private beach of an abandoned mental hospital! On the 15th July I caught the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, which proved to be the first of a series of gorgeous cities through The Baltic States.
Estonia was mainly full of tiny hamlets of houses, surrounded by rolling grain fields. Nearly everyone in the countryside owned a ferocious dog, so refilling the water bottles when outside the cities was a little tricky. I also found that not many people spoke English in the countryside of Estonia and Lithuania either, so at times it was a game of charades to find a place to camp or buy something that was edible! I soon joined the Tour de LatEst, which took me through Gauga National Park with Sigulda and Cesis Castles. It was also during this time that Peter Fitzsimons, of the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun Herald, included me in his ‘Team of the Week’ column.
In The Baltic States I began to take the initiative and approach either farmers or people outside their homes to ask to set up camp in their field or garden. These encounters led to many memorable experiences with locals, including being invited into people’s homes for dinner and breakfast, being shown how to make a traditional Latvian bread oven, enjoying shots of vodka with a family to celebrate the start of a weekend, and having my panniers filled with food from the farm. I’ve continued to ask people to stay on their property, and in most of The Czech Republic I didn’t have the need to stealth camp.
A lot of the riding in Lithuania and Estonia was reminiscent of the Spanish Plateau last summer; on many nights the slow sunsets dropped over a dry and harsh plain, with the thick taste of the harvested wheat fields mixing strangely with my sweat. By the roadside of many villages people sold their flowers or vegetables to cars that pass through. The Hill of Crosses, where over 200, 000 crosses are placed on a hill to symbolise Lithuanian identity and resistance to Soviet rule, was a moving place to visit late in the evening by myself.
I was lucky enough to visit the spectacular Traikai Castle, the only island castle in Eastern Europe. When I was on the water’s edge contemplating where to camp a local came and offered his boat for the night, free of charge! I quickly bundled Wilson and all of my gear into his rowing boat, and was able to camp overnight on my own island opposite the castle. I swam most of the night and day and even found a discarded 250g chocolate bar on the island to satisfy my sweet tooth. The mild nights were great by the campsite, especially when I returned later in the week to the island with friends and we placed bananas with dark chocolate into our fire to eat banana split under the moonshine.
When I featured in BikeRadar six months ago, Andrius wrote an email to offer both accommodation and a free bike service when I reached his city of Vilnius. I could not have imagined the kindness I would receive from both his lovely family and Top Dviratis bike shop. Andrius fixed my front wheel hub, replaced the rear wheel, fixed a new chain and gear set, strapped on much needed handlebar tape, replaced all the cables, attached new brake pads, and gave me ample amounts of spare parts to see me on my way. He wouldn’t hear of me paying; not even for parts! After Wilson was completely rebuilt he no longer moaned and groaned as I turned the pedals, and he silently accepted any terrain I forced him down. With this new uncomplaining ‘partner’, as well as a relaxing time in Traikia and Vilnius, I felt recharged and ready to ride the length of Poland to the mountains in the south.
The Masurian Lakes region in Poland was a beautiful place to cycle through, and when off the bike I stopped by lakes to swim or sneaked deep into the woods to camp in the evening. On a couple nights I was hidden deep in the woods, with just eloquent deer to keep me company as they skipped under the shadow of the trees. In Northern Poland I cycled to the Wolfsschanze, or The Wolf’s Lair. Hitler spent about eight hundred days there during The Second World War, and it was a fascinating visit to see the remains of the extensive wartime bunker system. I also got a close look at where Von Stauffenberg’s bomb exploded in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler.
My time in Eastern Europe was beginning to feel like I was cycling in the shadow of the harrowing experiences of wartime Europe, and while being on the bike I spent long hours reflecting on the tragic events of the past. I spent time in Warsaw, a city which was eighty-five percent destroyed during the war. The Uprising Museum was truly fascinating in Warsaw, as was the Jewish Walking Tour in Krakow. The scars of the twentieth century Europe culminated in a moving visit to Auschwitz. I camped a respectful distance from the barbed wire fence of Birkenau camp, and arrived early in the morning under a thick fog to explore the site before the tour buses arrived. Much of my trip has continued to trace the historical legacy of the past, and such historical and cultural encounters are hopefully preparing me to teach history in Secondary Schools once this journey ends.
Unfortunately many of the drivers in Poland were truly awful (and that’s putting it nicely); I avoided dozens of head-on collisions by veering off the road into the roadside foliage. My articulate gestures and imaginative screaming made the incoming drivers know exactly how I feel about their driving!
Moravia was extremely challenging to ride, with countless hills to climb in the highest temperatures the Czech’s have had all year. Two hills were well over 800 metres above sea level; my first sets of switchbacks since the mountains of Norway. With challenging climbs came exhilarating descents, full of picturesque villages to descend into, or castles up above to gaze at as I pant up the endless hills. I actually got my first puncture in Moravia on top of a tough hill (the culprit was a shard of glass); I figure one puncture every 9000km isn’t a bad ratio!
This past week I have cycled all the way from Prague to Bratislava, with a real mix between mountainous countryside in The Czech Republic, and gentle winding cycle ways along the Danube in both Austria and Slovakia. The varied countryside terrain and stopovers in Ceske Budejovice, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna and Bratislava has made this week truly memorable. I find when the scenery changes each day and there are stunning cities to explore, it’s hard not to be buzzing with each moment on the bike! Many of the beautiful castles have continued to leave me speechless (sites that Sydney somewhat lacks), especially Karlstejn and in Cesky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia. I’ve been on the Danube River for the last few days, and despite 48 hours of rain I’m still keeping my spirits by meeting interesting people on the road. I actually arrived to Vienna yesterday to the ‘Juicy Truck Street Parade’, whose techno music was a captivating sound beside the stunning architecture.
Between Finland and Slovakia I have encountered nothing but kindness from local people, both in the cities and countryside. A big thank you to Franseska and her flatmates in Turku (whose sauna and dumbster diving experience will not be forgotten); Anton in Helsinki (for introducing Cosmic Encounter, the greatest board game ever invented); Janis in Riga (for taking me and Fran in from the street for two nights- you’re a true walking tour pro!); Marika and Ineta in Riga (trout and white wine, what a combination!); Michael in Trakai (twice lending me his boat, what a champ!); Andrius, Simona, Jonas and Ruta in Vilnius (traditional food, fixing Wilson, plenty of beers, and razors to shave that disgraceful hair of mine. Thanks a million!); Olgierd in Ruska Weis (kindly replacing my bus shelter with great company, delicious food, and a fully catered cabin!); Mihal and Anna in Warsaw (showing me the real value of Polish cuisine, especially when mixed with vodka and beer); Gosia and Monika in Krakow (for my own room inside a hostel. Two days in a hostel with tourists really showed me the psychological difference of being a cycle tourer instead of a backpacker); Kristina and Jitka in Pardubice (for hosting me after waitressing despite long work hours and our language barrier); and Brano and Hanka in Prague (for five days of fantastic films and exploring the beauty of Prague. And for having an old friend from Sydney stay despite personal circumstances… you should have told me to ‘hit the road’!). There were also countless others who helped me each day with food, company or a field of grass to set up camp for an evening. I cannot thank you all enough!