The European Cyclists’ Federation interviewed me a few weeks after my return to the UK and published a slightly shorter version of the interview below on their Eurovelo website. Here is the full version…
ECF: Hi Andrew, the last time we caught up, you were getting ready for your EuroVelo 8 adventure. How did the preparations go in the end? Did you take a different approach to when you were preparing for the EuroVelo 5 trip? For example, did you take more or less equipment? Was your itinerary more or less detailed?
- APS: I suppose planning for this trip was easier than my first trans-European cycle back in 2010 as I was reusing much of the equipment and also I was aware of what I would actually need (and perhaps more importantly, what I wouldn’t). I was using the same bike – faithful Reggie – who had had a good service about a month before I left and I would say about half of the rest of the kit had also travelled with me along the Eurovelo 5. I did have a new tent as I found that the one-person tent I had used in 2010 was just far too small. For the sake of an extra couple of kilos of weight I was much happier with a tent designed for two people that allowed me room to store my panniers as well as room for me to sleep. I’ve never been a big route planner so I didn’t do much of that prior to setting off. I much prefer waking up in the morning, looking at the map and saying to myself, ‘OK, where am I going today and how can I get there?’. However I did make sure I had a few contacts to meet during those first couple of weeks of the trip through the unfamiliar territories of Greece, Albania and Croatia. Having taken an extra three weeks off work in addition to the normal six-week summer holiday I get as a teacher, I flew to Athens on the 30th June with the aim of cycling down to the very south-eastern corner of Greece on the same day. It didn’t quite work out like that however as I had an issue with rebuilding the bike at Athens airport. I did eventually set off cycling on the 1st July from the beautiful iconic location of the Temple of Poseidon, destination Portugal!
On your first trip you were impressed by the kindness of strangers. Did you have similar encounters this time around?
- Absolutely. I’m not a great believer is saying that people from particular countries are more or less friendly than those of other countries; it’s simply human nature than some people are and some people aren’t wherever they may happen to live and so it proved all the way through the journey. One particular example that stands out was the owner of a hotel where I was staying in the beautiful city of Ubeda in southern Spain. He insisted on taking me on a private guided tour of the town hall that was close by & I was rewarded with some stunning views of the old town and the rolling hills of Andalusia beyond, presented to the local tourist chief and even given a book about the history of the area. It was all very touching.
Compared to the EuroVelo 5 trip, your itinerary took you to some destinations that are not that well known for cycling, at least not in Western Europe. Places such as Albania and Montenegro. How did you find the conditions there?
- I was apprehensive to say the least about cycling through Albania. I had heard very positive stories from other cyclists who had travelled through the country but in the back of my mind was also the stereotype image of Albania being one of the less savoury parts of Europe. I crossed the border from Greece at a point someway inland and contrast was stark between deeply wooded forests on the Greek side of the border and bare hills on the Albanian side. I can only assume that the trees had been cut down to provide fuel during times of shortage of oil. First impressions were of a country that was still struggling to shake off its communist past and this wasn’t helped by meeting two young guys who ran a petrol station not far from the border who painted a very negative picture of their country. However, by the time I had arrived back on the coast at Saranda it was quite difficult to spot any differences from the towns of northern Greece. It was a busy, prosperous seaside resort with everything that you would expect to find in any other Mediterranean resort. The same could be said for the capital Tirana; it was a fascinating city. However the rural areas were very poor and the roads were dreadful, at times comically so. It made cycling very difficult, as did the quality of the driving which left much to be desired. The mountainous areas of the country were beautiful and made for some wonderful if at times strenuous cycling. It’s a country that I would gladly return to if I had the opportunity of doing so.
I believe that you only found one example of EuroVelo signposting on your trip but were there signed national/regional routes that you could follow? If so, where and what were they like?
- I jumped for joy when I spotted my first Eurovelo 8 sign. It was just outside a small town in the middle of the Catalonian countryside in Spain. One part of a circular route around the region had also been signposted for the Eurovelo route. Also in Spain I was able to make use of the ‘Vias Verdes’ cycling routes that are former train lines which have been converted for use by cyclists and walkers. It was good fun cycling through long dark tunnels and over beautiful railway viaducts well away from the noise of the traffic. That said the surfaces of the ‘Vias Verdes’ were not ideal for long-distance touring; most other cyclists using the routes were on mountain bikes. In France there was a wonderful section of segregated cycling all the way from Palavas (just south of Montpellier) to Agde. I was in my own little nirvana as I made my way along the path next to the beach in the sunshine of southern France. Wonderful! Elsewhere I occasionally used cycle routes if I saw them but most of the time it was a case of following the ordinary, and alas at times very busy, roads.
What were the highlights?
- Having never visited any of the countries on the eastern coast of the Adriatic prior to the cycle my eyes were wide open to what they had to offer. I loved Athens with its low-level buildings and the towering presence of the Acropolis. Dubrovnik was both beautiful and fascinating despite the hoards of tourists that descend upon the place every day (I did what my guidebook suggested and walked around the city walls at the crack of dawn. It’s a top tip I would recommend.) I was slightly disappointed with Venice. Having visited the city a few years ago it seemed to have become a bit drab and dirty in the intervening period. It didn’t help that my day off in the city was a very grey one. Nearby Verona however was the antidote and I regretted not having the time to spend an entire day in the town. It also had a wonderfully intimate campsite on the hill overlooking the town with a walled garden set aside just for cycling tourists. Very civilised! I also had the opportunity to meet up with a friend near Mont Ventoux and we climbed the iconic mountain just a few weeks after Chris Froome’s triumph during the Tour de France. I am proud to say that from the bottom to the top I didn’t once stop to put my feet on the ground. Memorable if exhausting!
Was there anything that you would like to have done differently?
- I would have loved to spend more time completing the trip. Towards the end of the cycle it did become a bit of a mad dash to finish in time and I was really pushing myself on some days to pack in the kilometres. I also regret not having taken a slight detour into Bosnia to visit the town of Mostar. I would have loved to see the bridge that was bombed during the conflict of the 1990s but which has now been rebuilt. Unfortunately I just didn’t have the time.
How did Reggie fare this time out? No broken spokes I hope?
- It was amazing. After the spoke incidents of 2010 I was expecting at least another one to break at some point especially after the cycling conditions that we had experienced in Albania but by the time we arrived at the very end of the trip at Cape St. Vincent in Portugal not one had broken. What’s more, I didn’t have one single puncture in the entire 5,700km of cycling. Reggie was a star!
One of your reasons for choosing EuroVelo 8 was that you hoped you might have better weather. Was it an improvement this time around?
- Yes, much better. I had not been lucky with the weather along the Eurovelo 5. Indeed I subsequently found out that August 2010, the month I had chosen to cycle through France and Switzerland, had been the wettest month in northern Europe on record. I got very wet and I think this comes across very clearly in the book. The contrast with the Eurovelo 8 cycle along the coast of the Mediterranean was, unsurprisingly, marked. In fact there were times when I just wanted a little bit of rain to help cool everything down. The only rainfall that I experienced during this year’s trip was either when I wasn’t cycling (in Olympia for example where there was a wonderful torrential downpour for about twenty minutes) or during the night when I was able to cower in my tent.
Overall, how did this experience compare with last time?
- I have never considered myself to be an experienced touring cyclist. I don’t do it with sufficient frequency to be given that particular accolade and anyway, I do like coming at things from a position of naivety. It forces you to be curious and that’s one of the most useful traits that any traveller can have. If you aren’t curious you may as well stay at home and watch TV. So it was in that frame of mind that I set off in 2013 just as I had set off in 2010. The two trips were fundamentally different in many respects but both were enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure. If I had to choose between them I would have to end up tossing a coin!
Any advice for people wanting to follow in your footsteps?
- Don’t plan too much! Very often the best decisions you make are the ones that are made at the time of travel. If you prefer to be guided along your route choose one of the Eurovelos that does just that (for example the Eurovelo 6 or the newly-renamed Eurovelo 15 otherwise known as the Rhine Cycle Route). If you prefer just to make things up as you go along, adopt one of the ‘Cinderella’ routes such as the 5 or the 8. And don’t be put off by the length of some of the routes; 5,700km does sound impressive but when you divide it up between fifty, sixty, seventy days it is very manageable indeed.
Will you be turning your experiences into another book?
- Yes. That’s the next main job. I’ve got a working title of ‘Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie’ (if anyone can suggest a better one then please let me know!) and I will start writing at the start of November. It’s useful in having a short break between experiencing the journey and writing about it. There is an element of rose-coloured spectacles about the travel writing process that only comes with time. I am looking forward to getting started however. I remember writing about the 2010 trip; it was very addictive and I felt as though I was reliving the whole journey for free! The book should be out in the late spring of 2014.
What’s next? Is there another EuroVelo route on your radar?
- Only this morning I was looking at the Eurovelo network of routes. I am a Europhile at heart and although it would be tempting to head across a different continent (North America perhaps?) I still think there is scope for one more long-distance crossing of Europe, probably from Santiago de Compostela heading north. Eurovelo 3 looks interesting and would take me through a region of Europe that I have never visited: Scandinavia. Or perhaps Eurovelo 1 which would see me return to Cape St. Vincent in Portugal, head north through Spain, France, Britain & Ireland before taking me along the Norwegian coast to North Cape. That would be a real continental crossing. You heard it here first!
A more interesting variation on Eurovelo 3 would be to miss out Britain and Ireland and go along the coast of Belgium, Netherlands and Germany and then via Denmark and Sweden to reach Norway.