“How About This For A Ride To Paris?” (The Full Story…)

With the Coronavirus continuing to hit hard, lockdown looking as though it will stretch well into May – perhaps even June – and with the consequences of ‘social distancing’ likely to impact upon our lives for many months to come, there are silver linings. The principal one from my perspective is time. The time to do things that ordinarily we would have put on the back burner; the time to finish old things, to start new things, to plan, to think, to dream… These latter three activities are particularly useful if, in the back of your mind, you have another long cycle tour in fermentation. And it is what lead me yesterday to tweet the following:

That’s quite a response! Followers on Facebook and Instagram were equally effusive. But the origins of this Tweet pre-date the Coronavirus by a significant margin. I will take you back to May 2013. At the time I was looking forward to my cycle in southern Europe from Greece to Portugal as subsequently described in my book Along The Med… I was contacted by a chap in America by the name of Angelo who was planning his own cycle tour in Europe. He had read my first book – Crossing Europe… – and wanted to tell me about his own favourite cycling book. This is what he said:

โ€œMy strongest inspiration is a favorite old book, copyright 1922.  The title is Traveling Light or Cycling Europe on Fifty Cents a Day.  The author, Maximilian J. St. George, was a young American, recently graduated from Law School at Notre Dame, in Indiana. Before embarking on his career, he went off on a 16 month cycling tour of Europe.  This was around 1920.  Total mileage was 16,300 miles (25,920 km).  He traveled with little kit โ€“ a blanket; a rain cape; a change of clothes; shaving kit; tire/tube repair.  The cape and blanket were strapped to a rear carrier and the rest in a 288 [cubic inches] knapsack hung on his handlebars. Far less than what kit that you or I carry on tour!  The condition he placed upon himself was that he would not stay in any hotels, rather that he would ask locals if he [could] stay in a barn or some form of shelter.  He wanted to meet the people of Europe vis-a-vis. Often he was invited to stay in their home.  He worked his passage from Boston to London aboard the Anglican, a cattle ship.  From there, he cycled to Dover, crossed the Channel to Ostend, Belgium and northward to Scandinavia; Southwest to Austria; west through Switzerland, Alsace-Lorrain, on to Bonn, then France and Spain, then the Riviera, Italy. St. George then rode an arc north and west back to England.  Quite a tour, I say!  He passed through every European capital except Lisbon and Petrograd [St. Petersburg].โ€

At the time I attempted to find a copy of Maximilian J. St. George’s book but it appeared to be long out of print and unobtainable. After all, it was nearly a century old.

The story now moves forward 18 months to December 2014. I had decided to leave my full-time job as a teacher in southern England to head off once again across the continent by bike. In the subsequent book, Spain to Norway… I made reference to Maximilian J. St. George after an encounter with a rather ridiculous man I met whilst cycling along the Swedish coast near Norway:

What had I done to have this man inflicted upon me? His oratory then took a surreal twist: โ€˜Cycle touring only became possible after 1990 when the technology allowed for proper gears to be used.โ€™

โ€˜Did you say 1990? One, nine, nine, zero?โ€™ I questioned, checking he hadnโ€™t confused his numbers.

โ€˜Yes, 1990. Eins, neun, neun, null.โ€™ I sensed he was annoyed by me questioning his facts.

I was tempted to cite the case of an American, Maximilian J. St George, who, in the years following World War One embarked upon a 26,000 km bicycle tour of Europe. He ventured to most parts of the Continent and upon his return to the US wrote a book entitled Traveling Light or Cycling Europe on Fifty Cents a Day. I had tried but failed to find a copy, but mentioned Maximilian, his adventure and his book on my website shortly before setting off to cycle from Greece to Portugal in 2013. Then, on the day I left my job as a teacher in Henley-on-Thames, my colleagues presented me with a package wrapped in tissue paper. Carefully unfolding the wrapping, I found a copy of the book. It was a touching moment.

Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie

And here it is, freshly unwrapped on the day I left my job in 2014:

I read the book in early 2015 and have always thought how wonderful it might be to do what Maximilian did back in 1920. With the time afforded by the current Coronavirus situation I am now reading the book for a second time and, using the detailed itinerary that Maximilian included in his appendix, I decided to map his route.

That’s quite a convoluted tour of Europe to say the least. He started in London before heading to the continent and in the direction of Scandinavia. From Stockholm he caught the boat to Germany and continued through Bohemia, Austria and Switzerland. He then spent another long period in Germany before heading further west through France to Spain and back towards Italy along the Mediterranean coast. Once in Italy he cycled south as far as Sorrento before turning round and travelling north once again through Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland and, for a final time, Germany. He returned to London via Belgium but once in England he headed off on a long tour of the British Isles taking in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and most of the length of England before finally completing his journey in London.

Europe has changed quite a bit in the last 100 years especially when it comes to the political geography of the eastern side of the continent but Maximilian managed to cycle through the following 19 (current) capital cities:

  • London
  • Brussels
  • Amsterdam
  • Copenhagen
  • Oslo (called Christiania at the time)
  • Stockholm
  • Berlin
  • Prague
  • Vienna
  • Bern
  • Luxembourg
  • Paris
  • Madrid
  • Rome
  • Ljubljana (although not a national capital at the time)
  • Budapest
  • Dublin
  • Belfast and
  • Edinburgh

(If you are interested, you can consult the detailed online map I created which contains almost all of the nearly 600 places he lists in his appendix by following this link.)

West of the borders with Russia and Turkey, Europe now has 44 mainland capital cities (if you include those of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). For the record, the three non-continental capitals are those of Cyprus (Nicosia), Malta (Valletta) and Iceland (Reykjavik). All the 44 capitals existed in 1920 although several were not capitals at the time, especially those in the now defunct Yugoslavia. I don’t think Maximilian ever set out with the intention of cycling through all the capitals of his day; he seems to have made no effort to cycle through any of the Baltic states or go as far east as Warsaw. In the west he stayed well clear of Lisbon in Portugal. Yet, perhaps inadvertently, he did include a good many on his itinerary. Perhaps he was dissuaded by political instabilities in the east. That said, as an American citizen, he has few qualms about travelling through Germany – the country of his birth – despite the fact that his adoptive nation had been at war with Germany only two years prior to his visit. (He is suspected of being a spy on his first foray into Germany and spends the night in jail but after a quick affable chat with the local judge, he is let free to go on his way.)

We are now in 2020 and it will soon be exactly 100 years since Maximilian set of from his home in Chicago to catch the boat to London. That was June 15th 1920. He travelled at a time of post-war political upheaval in Europe in a world that was only just starting to recover from the effects of a global flu pandemic. Plus รงa change…

Perhaps it is now the time – a very appropriate time – for someone to set out to emulate the travels of Maximilian J. St. George in a quest to visit all 44 of those European capitals. Watch this space… Or at least this one:

Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Travel

6 replies »

  1. That was a great leaving present and it looks a really interesting read. I love these type of stories from any age that wasn’t in daily communication with everyone else. Must search out a copy somewhere….maybe easier said than done.

    • I looked on Amazon when writing the post and itโ€™s now more easily available. Delivery from the US isnโ€™t cheap however…

  2. Great material for a book Andrew with lots to compare from the historical, cultural and political perspective. You might need more than one volume?

What do you think?