Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Grand Tour of Europe on a bicycle

It was August 1974. I had just finished my BA degree in mathematics at Cambridge. I already knew I had a First. I had been offered a place on “Part III”, a fourth year course unique to Cambridge mathematics, designed to get people to the frontiers of research as quickly as possible. I had turned it down, because after a decade and a half in schools of one kind or another – including nine years in single sex boarding schools, and three in a university which had ten or more male students to each female – I was sick and tired of academe.

I knew already that I was a third rate mathematician. Surely, I could have made a living at the game – I’m good at making complicated things understandable, to those who want to learn. But I knew I didn’t have what it took advance the frontiers of mathematics. So, I needed to clear my head, and work out what I really wanted to do.

My parents had, in their wisdom, saved a small nest-egg for me, to be paid out when I reached the age of 21. It came to about £750. In today’s money, I estimate that would be around £10,000. It bought me two things. My grand tour of Europe on a bicycle; with an account of which, I will regale you today. And later, my first car.

Prelude completed. So: on the 7th of August 1974, at about 10 am, I stood before the Great Gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, about to embark on my journey. My bicycle was a Raleigh 3-speed, which had been mine for 2 years already. I had used it on two significant trips with a friend. One in Wales – in January! And the second in France in April; we had cycled from Dieppe to Clermont-Ferrand, via Paris, in ten days.

Now, this was before credit cards, and in the days of the “£300 limit.” You were not allowed to take out of the UK more than £300 on any visit. And in those days, I was terribly naïve. I had no idea that any “law” made by politicians could ever be ethically wrong. I had never even thought about breaking any such “law”; and still less about risk analysis, whether breaking a bad “law” would be likely to yield a positive or negative result for me. So, I had just £280 in travellers’ cheques when I left the Port of Dover.

I planned to stay in youth hostels, but I took a tent “just in case.” I kept a diary of the journey, the “little blue book,” which has unfortunately been lost. But one figure I kept in my memory was the total distance I cycled: 4,742 kilometres. (2,947 miles).

As in all endeavours worth the name, things went wrong. The first came when the youth hostel at Dunkerque was unexpectedly closed. That meant I had to camp in the pouring rain. I am no handyman, even at the best of times; and it was already dark when I found a field in which I could try to erect the tent. The result? My tent sagged and became an over-blanket. I actually slept quite well that night!

I went on to the French and Belgian Ardennes (an area I still love), then to Luxembourg. A pleasant, expensive and very hilly city. Then I cut through Germany into Alsace, where I enjoyed – among many other experiences - the funfair in Phalsbourg. Back into Germany, where I pedalled through the heart of the Black Forest. I passed through Rottweil; fortunately, I didn’t meet any of the local dogs! I spent a night in Lindau, where I heard an oom-pah band for the first time. It was only a few months later that I started to play a brass instrument myself.

Then through a corner of Austria into Liechtenstein (the rain pissed down the whole 2 hours I was there). I remember that the hills started as soon as I got into Switzerland. And then I cycled through Davos, and walked up most of my first Alpine pass, the Flüela. Later the same day, I went over the Ofenpass (Pass dal Fuorn).

On the way down from the Ofenpass, I hit a major problem. Not just one puncture, but two. Both inner tubes gone, and I only had one spare with me! No chance of reaching the youth hostel I was aiming for, so another night camping in the rain. It took me a few days to sort the problem out. I took bus and train to the nearest big town, St.Moritz. Only to find that all the cycle shops were closed, because it was Monday. Eventually, I found the tubes I needed at a place called Fuldera-Daint, just a few kilometres up the valley.

Two notes to self: (1) Plan, as far as is cost effective, for the worst. (2) Understand the local culture, and when shops will be open and closed, before you go.

Then to Italy. Where, I confess, I felt more at home than in the German speaking parts of Europe. I laughed at the sign outside the Renault car factory in Treviso: “Fattoria Automobilistica Renault Treviso. F.A.R.T.” Then I stayed a day in beautiful Venice. Not the easiest place in the world for the cyclist or walker. But the wine was good!

In sweltering heat, I pedal(l)ed on to Bologna. I passed, in the middle of the day, through many small, almost deserted villages. I had thought that only the Spanish took the siesta? But I got my reward when I arrived in Bologna. I’ve never been a pasta fan, but even so, the food there was exemplary.

Then towards Firenze. I picked a route that was a bit too ambitious; perhaps a bridge too far, or a mountain too high. Another night’s uncomfortable camping was followed by a scary moment, when on the descent towards Ponte Cucchaiola the outer tube of the front tyre split. It was probably the second closest I’ve yet been to death.

It was Saturday afternoon, and I called at a café in the village and told them, in my awful Italian, of my plight. I don’t think I have ever in my life been treated better than by those lovely people in that nondescript village in Italy. They summoned the local cycle repairer, who fixed my bike cheaply and expertly. And when he asked me “why don’t you ride a moped?” my reply was instinctive: “É troppo caro!”

I visited Firenze, and found it a bit overwhelming. I’m not a churchy person. Then to Perugia and Assisi. On the way I put a wheel down into the track at a level crossing. I came off – fortunately, no injury – but it buckled the wheel. I wobbled to Assisi – a beautiful and very hilly town – and discovered that there was no cycle shop in Assisi! St. Francis, whatever else he might have been, obviously wasn’t a cyclist.

In Foligno, the next town, I found a cycle shop; and a youth hostel. And I found that “domani” in Italian means “I’ll do it tomorrow,” not at all the same as “mañana” in Spanish. The new wheel, and fitting it, cost £2.

Next, to Rome. Again, I chose a mountain route. Spectacular, and hard work. Beautiful walled towns on the route. I stayed at a youth hostel 1,800 metres above sea level. Then, down again. I spent almost a week in Rome. It was a frenetic place, even then; but I enjoyed it. And in the hostel I re-met my best friend from ten years before.

Rome to Naples, Naples to Sorrento. And then to a place called Paestum. It had a railway station, a café, a youth hostel, a Greek temple and a beach; no more. I met there, for the third time, a Dutchman I’d met in Perugia and again in Sorrento. I hung out with him and his friends for a day or so, then decided I’d reached the end of my bungee.

There were, of course, tribulations on the homeward way.The chase by a dog pack along the beach road in Salerno. The night I had to spend in the broom cupboard of a hostel I didn’t know had closed for the season (yes, the one 1,800 metres high). More ructions due to unexpectedly closed hostels. Being stopped by the cops near Imola; I think they thought I was carrying drugs. The youth hostel in Genoa, by far the worst I stayed at. Being knocked off my bike by a right-turning lorry. Taking an afternoon nap on an easy day, and waking up in a thunderstorm. Trying to pedal northwards out of Marseille against the Mistral.

That last problem signalled the end of the trip. I took the train and ferry home from Marseille. Here’s what I wrote about that journey, a few years afterwards:

"Due to a lack of early morning buses, get a later train than I intended. Share a compartment with a load of Marseillais farmers – didn’t understand one word they said from beginning to end! On reaching Paris, pick up the bike, and … SNCF have banged it up. Quick running repairs, but it isn’t rideable. Have to push it across Paris to the Gare du Nord! This took 2 hours, and… I just saw the London train leave. Isn’t it wonderful to be in Paris, having missed the night train to London, with a banged-up bicycle and no money in your pocket? Another night roaming the streets…”

But despite the troubles on my trip, I took from it far more enjoyment than pain. And I learned much. After a decade and a half of schooling, I got some experience at last.

1974 was the year I grew up.

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