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food

Single Frames - France

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Single Frames - France

Sometimes the journey is so eventful that it’s impossible to recount even a fraction of it. Especially with my attempt to make each blog post about one specific subject. And due to skipping ahead in the last post, there are many untold tales from France. So to return back a little, here’s another edition of single frame stories.

On a side note, this update is probably the only one so far without any nature photos.

In the quaint little town of Cluny, we stayed several days at the home of a lovely madame called Elisabeth. She was in her sixties and enjoyed traveling, so was happy to host a couple of exotic nomads. After all, meeting people from faraway lands is the next best thing to being on the road. Her home was one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever seen, with very zen-like decor. She practiced Tai Chi and meditation with calm music in the background.

Outside was less relaxing, because we happened to be there during the Festival of Light:

Blessings be upon thee!

On our third day in France we were desperate about finding a place to sleep. We were stranded in the city of Metz after sunset, and cycling in the dark without bicycle paths wasn't an option. We even called some hotels, without any luck. By the Metz cathedral we discovered a Christmas market with a huge Ferris wheel, and forgot about our homelessness for an hour to drink mulled wine and take some photos.

As is sometimes the case, you find what you need only when you stop searching for it. Because soon we met Nora, a Moroccan girl with a constant smile on her face. She was working as security for the market, and didn't speak English, but used Google Translate to talk to us. Explaining that she liked to help travellers, she invited us to stay in her home nearby after her shift. We ended up having long conversations with the help of the app, and it really opened up a whole new world of communication. English isn't widely spoken in France, so this tip has saved us many times since then, and will be priceless in the future.

Metz.jpg

When Swedish people travel the world, they have an advantage that the rest of us don’t. It’s called Ikea. Apparently there’s a grocery store in every Ikea store selling genuine Swedish food. Isabelle nearly fainted from sheer joy when she saw one near Metz in France. Then spent what felt like three hours shopping for delicacies from back home while I guarded the bicycles.

Later we stopped so Isabelle could cook some of her new-found treasures for lunch. It’s nice to have some special food every now and then. But I do like traveling with someone who doesn’t require things like fancy restaurants and swimming pools. With bicycle touring the surroundings can get rather unluxurious. If you can be happy cooking Swedish meatballs with frozen fingers in an abandoned warehouse, life is pretty easy.

Kira is also happy wherever she is.

Then again, it's mostly not dirt floors and spray-painted walls when we stop. Along the Voie Verte bike path we had lunch with a nice view of the fortress of Berze. The sky was mostly overcast, but I noticed a sliver of light passing through the hill and got a picture just in time. In the second photo I took only ten seconds later the light on the castle was again flat and boring.

In hindsight, we should've asked if we could stay there for the night.

Earlier I wrote about Dutch hospitality, but I must say the French are no less generous. We've spent almost every night in warm beds after eating three-course dinners (with cheese and wine) with the family we just met. Even when I was cycling without two cute girls for a week people still opened their doors and welcomed me inside when I asked for help. And in the mornings they offer breakfast and even pack us lunch. If there's one thing the French consider important to share, it's food. Below we're eating lunch baguettes prepared for us by a cheerful old lady who hosted us in Chainens.

One of the challenges we’ve had while traveling together is our different speeds. I’ve been much faster with my lighter bike, which sometimes results in me being bored or cold while waiting. Or Isabelle can be stressed about feeling too slow. To balance out the weight and our speeds, we finally came up with a decent solution. All it took was a little rearranging:

The main reason I wanted the trailer is because now the colours match so much better.

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Hurricane Isabelle

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Hurricane Isabelle

After a number of bike trips almost entirely done solo, I have become accustomed to doing things my way. When traveling alone, there’s no need to wait for anyone or to make compromises. The more this has become a habit, the more hesitant I’ve been to allow others to join me. I would never commit to a long trip with someone without trying it out first. Sharing the road temporarily with a tourer I meet along the way is much easier, because we both have our own gear and can separate again at any time.

I met Isabelle towards the end of my stay in Germany. She's a freckle-faced blue-eyed adventurer who rarely stops talking. Kira is the quieter one, usually sitting behind in her trailer smelling the world go past. Although I had many doubts about whether it would work, we’re getting along quite nicely. We complement each other well. She is fearless in all the ways that I am not, asking people for help and knocking on doors when campsites are unavailable, whereas I’m more at ease with dark forests and some other aspects of touring life.

I made sure there was some forest camping too.

This became evident early on. Close to the town of Papenburg in West Germany, we were surrounded by wide open farmland with animal fences, which isn’t exactly great for camping. We were wet and cold from the rain, and the sun was setting. My strategy of dealing with the situation was to stare at my phone screen looking at Google Maps satellite images for some trees to hide our tents, while Isabelle was looking at the windows of farmhouses for any friendly people returning a smile and a wave.

I was all proud about finding a forest only two kilometres away, but she was already chatting (without a common language) to the family living in the second house we passed. They did seem suspicious at first, but eventually we were led to the empty barn, safe from the weather. We made our beds on the straw and were invited to the house for evening tea before going to sleep.

In all the years I’ve travelled, I have literally never done this kind of thing. Since starting in June I had slept in a tent for four months straight. I was quite impressed.

One squeaky mouse was running around at first, but settled down when we wanted to sleep.

And there was more. A couple days later, on October (cough)th, it happened to be my birthday. I don’t like to be the centre of attention, so rarely tell people when this occurs. But I had to explain why I was in no mood for pasta and tuna, and wanted to eat something special that day. I told my new travel companion not to make a big deal out of it. She said sure, and then proceeded to tell everyone we met.

It may look like a lot for a Cocker Spaniel to pull, but this one's pretty spicy for her size.

In the late afternoon we came to an idyllic little town called Sellingen in the Netherlands. While shopping for barbecue goodies and pancake materials, a man who looked like the owner of the store asked if we are on holiday. Paraphrasing Isabelle's usual cheerful self: “Hi! We are cyclists! We come from Scandinavia! I am so cute! I have a dog! We have no place to camp! It’s his birthday!”

The man made a couple phone calls in Dutch and explained that the camping grounds were closed, but he arranged a place for us in one of them anyway. The owners would pick us up shortly, and we could wait in their son’s bar/cafe in the meanwhile. We went there, heads spinning from the helpfulness, and the bar owner walked over to shake my hand, “First of all, happy birthday!”

Everyone continued to be super friendly and we got free drinks while we waited, and I received a heartwarming video call from my brother and niece back home. So all in all, it was an excellent day already. Then the camping ground owners showed up, a hippy-looking couple with bright eyes and that look of joyful wisdom that people have when they’ve lived right and aged well.

We were led to a quiet place in the woods, a camping ground with plenty of space. The woman explained they could fit 60 people but only took in 15 because everyone deserved their space and privacy in nature. After some of the claustrophobic caravan clusters I saw in Germany, this principle sounded just heavenly. Since we were the only ones there, they gave us the use of a cabin and showers, free of charge. It was my birthday, after all.

Kira contemplating the many duties of a dog's life.

Amazing. We spent the evening high on life, cooking pork steaks and chicken fillet with salad and cheese-stuffed grilled paprikas. We drank wine by the fireplace while sharing stories of our adventures. There were even actual beds to sleep in. Kira snuggled up next to me, then started snoring with the volume of a much larger dog.

I won’t soon forget the generosity of the people in Sellingen. And it turns out that touring with company isn’t so bad either.

Autumn leaves in the morning.
 

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Trollstigen

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Trollstigen

Trollstigen might be the most famous stretch of road in Norway. Even if you don’t recognise the name, you may have seen photos at some point. It rises steeply from the Åndalsnes valley to high up in rugged mountains. It’s a gorgeous rocky landscape, split by rivers that cascade down in high waterfalls, and a serpentine road with thrilling hairpin curves. The climb from sea level is 870 meters, but the café and popular viewpoint are at 700m.

For me, that climb required some planning. My drivetrain was already well oiled after leaving the camping ground, but I had to make some very careful decisions at the grocery store. How long would I stay up the mountain? How many calories would that require? I tried to pick the most calorie dense food and chocolate bars I could find.

It still took me about five hours to climb up. That was alternating between cycling and pushing the bike, to try to use different muscles. With a lot of stops for rest and photography, of course. A number of drivers gave me thumbs ups and other gestures of encouragement, which genuinely does help to give a little extra energy every time.

I have to cycle up this road? I've made a huge mistake.
Wet and slippery hairpin curve.
The Åndalsnes valley far below.

The view from the top was well worth the effort of getting there. I was slightly late for the sunset, but what I really wanted was a night photo of car headlights painting the entire road in one long twisting streak. So I fired up a huge bowl of pasta and waited for darkness. To my surprise, no other photographers showed up, so I had the whole viewing platform to myself. Just me, the mountain, and the stars above.

Only a couple cars went up or down the road per hour during the night, so there weren’t many chances to take this photo. When I eventually figured I was finished at 3am, I found a place to camp up the road nearby.

The next day I checked the results in the café. It was disappointing. My lens at 24mm wasn’t wide enough to capture everything in one shot, so I had missed a tiny slice of the road. Also I had to split the bottom and top halves into separate photos and stitching them into one was clumsy. I scrapped the whole thing. But there would be enough time and food for another attempt the next night.

Night view of the cafe at Trollstigen.

Compared to the solitude during the night, daytime at this tourist attraction was quite a circus. Countless cars, caravans and busloads of guided tours were there at any given time. Hundreds of people were milling about the area. Twice in the men’s room I gestured to confused Chinese tourists how to operate a motion-activated water tap.

After dark I returned for the second round. This time I found a better vantage point where my lens could see everything in one shot. And instead of taking multiple 30 second exposures like the first time, I wanted to take in the whole scene with a single one hour exposure. To stop the lens from fogging up I tied a hand warmer packet underneath it.

The night was freezing and I had to dive into my sleeping bag while waiting despite several layers of warm clothing. After an hour I went to stop the exposure. The photo showed a nice view of the road, but it was dark. Not a single car had been through the whole time! There was no choice but to start over and return to the sleeping bag.

All in all, I probably went through more trouble for this photo than any I’ve taken before. While I felt a sense of achievement at the time, the more I look at it, the less I like it. The angle is wrong and causes parts of the road to not be visible. Plus even if I'll get it right, it’s just a photo that a bunch of other people have taken before me. Usually I tend to avoid “iconic” photos (ie. ones taken a million times by others already), so I’m unsure why this one felt so appealing.

Car headlights painting Trollstigen at night.

Afterwards I was looking for a time-lapse subject and saw something surprising. There was a green glow in the horizon above the lights of Åndalsnes - northern lights! I had said my goodbyes to them when leaving Inari, because I hadn’t expected to see any on this trip. After all, I had assumed I would’ve been much further south, perhaps in Denmark, by this point.

Gazing at auroras felt so good again, after several months of bright nights. And seeing them in Trollstigen, above the stupefyingly beautiful views, made it all the more special. The perfection of it made me both laugh out loud and tear up slightly.

All else aside, I'm very happy that I’ve done one at least thing right by setting off on this journey.

Northern lights over Trollstigen.
 

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Uphills Are Hard

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Uphills Are Hard

After Mo i Rana in Krogen, there was a 7km tunnel unavailable to cyclists. The only alternative route was almost twice as long and went over the mountain instead. It was the toughest climb so far, though still only 580 meters from sea level. It took me three hours of mostly walking my bike up.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve had some trouble with uphills on this trip. This is only partly due to my laziness. Especially at the end of the day, I often prefer to walk just because it’s slower and easier. I don’t need to exert as much energy, so there’s also less sweating. But now that the mountains are getting higher, it’s not just preference. It’s genuinely too difficult to cycle uphill.

The views are eventually nice though.

I was hoping and expecting to be stronger by this point. Usually after a month of cycling my legs feel better and the daily distances begin to grow. Maybe I’m getting old at mid-thirties, but that hasn’t really happened yet on this tour. So I'll need to lighten the bike somehow.

Besides brake pads, another reason I visited the bike shop Mo i Rana was actually to lighten my gear ratios. If I could just pedal more easily in the steep parts, it should do the trick. The mechanic tried to fit a much lighter rear cassette, but it wasn’t compatible with my shifter. In the end they didn’t have a wide enough selection of parts for the job, so we switched back to my old gears. I can try again in Trondheim.

Mountain at sunset in Helgeland, Norway.

Another solution is, of course, to carry less stuff. I’m sure I can still find many items in my inventory that I could easily do without. And some that could be replaced by a lighter version.

With a small amount of planning, my food and water weight could be reduced drastically. Right now I carry up to three liters of water, but that could easily be two or one by just checking ahead for places to refill at. Or perhaps I could buy a filter system that weighs an additional couple hundred grams, but means I’d need to carry hardly any water up the mountains.

Honestly, my food system is kind of ridiculous. The principle of having extra calories so I can stay camped when I want is fine, but there’s been no consideration for weight anywhere. My go-to breakfast is müsli with a banana, an apple, raisins and a nice 3dl carton of Norwegian coffee cream (10% fat for the calories). Now that’s a tasty and good meal, but the portion itself weighs quite a bit. I’d be better off eating away the water heavy fruit right after visiting a store. And in any case I’m still left with up to 700 grams of extra raisins and müsli for future breakfasts in the bottom of the pannier.

Or if I want to eat a few sandwiches during the day, I may end up carrying a huge loaf of bread, at least 150g of cheese, a cucumber, and a 475g squeeze bottle of spread. Compared to what I’m actually eating, most of it is just dead weight.

Then there’s tea. I like tea. But I need sugar in it. And you can’t buy sugar in a small package. Usually it only comes in a one kilogram sack. I try to look for the half kilo box of sugar cubes, but even that is a lot of excess to carry just for a cup of tea.

So it looks like I need to introduce some actual sense into my packing, at least as long as I’m in a mountainous area like Norway. I’m not in a hurry as such, but if I walk up every single hill from here on, it’ll be snowing before I get to south Sweden.

Fishing boat by a pier at sunset in Norway.
Bike camping spot at beach during sunset in Helgeland, Norway.

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The Importance of Food

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The Importance of Food

While visiting Kautokeino Camping for a shower (and pleasantly surprised about their exceptionally good facilities), I met two other cyclists. Running into fellow bicycle adventurers is always a happy occasion, and they were the first I’d seen, so I was eager to strike up a conversation.

Frank and Martin from Germany were cycling north from Stockholm to Nordkapp. By afternoon they had already cycled their share for the day and were setting up camp, while I had barely eaten breakfast and rolled into town from my nearby campsite to look for food and hot water. How impossible would it be to travel with such early birds, I wondered.

Oh, is it sunrise? Time to go to bed.

One of them had baby almost due back home. Getting to spend a holiday of freedom on a bike before such a life changing event is quite a nice chance to have. And for a wife to let her husband go on a bike trip for a few weeks at the late stages of a pregnancy seems like a sign of a healthy relationship.

We chatted about touring life for an hour, maybe two. Then Martin (the designated chef) started cooking - real food with actual vegetables - and I knew I had to leave to do the same. The most preparation I’d done thus far was adding crushed tomatoes and tuna onto my spaghetti, so I was due a proper meal. I wished the guys well, went to the store, had a quick snack, and cycled onwards to find a place to cook.

This'll do. A rest stop table with a view, and a convenient trash can.

Food is important on tour. And not just because of the much-needed calories. I mean sure, it’s important under any conditions, but there’s something about the simplicity of touring life that really makes you appreciate the basics of life so much more. Just the simple act of cooking and eating something even a little special can make your whole day. Especially if it’s made of fresh real ingredients.

So I chopped up some onions, zucchini and bell peppers and fried them in olive oil on my stove. Really taking my time with everything. Then I boiled some water, used the extra to make a cup of tea while waiting, and added my spaghetti to the rest. When that was done I put in some tomato and my fried veggies to the pot, plus some pre-fried chicken and seasonings.

If only I had put any effort into the photographs.

That was the best meal I’ve had in ages. Not that the food was that special, but in that moment, it was perfect. It made me so happy my eyes watered. A few passing drivers gave me waves or thumbs up at the sight of my travel kitchen. I waved back while finishing the entire huge pot of my gourmet chicken pasta.

After cleaning up it was already late at night. It wasn’t freezing cold this time, so I continued on for a few more hours, taking photographs with the midnight sun lighting the wide open landscapes of North Norway, and smiling at the beauty of everything.

I can’t believe how lucky I am to live this kind of life.

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