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Now what?

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Now what?

At the end of August I was in a random little village in the Lika district in Middle Croatia. I meant to just pass through, but it was raining and my sleeping bag was already wet from the previous night's massive thunderstorm, so I checked Warmshowers for help. There happened to be a host just around the corner.

That moment - checking my phone while sheltering from the rain outside a closed post office - seems to have become quite a fork in my journey.

The massive cave in the same village I later got a tour of.

Within minutes I met with a young girl called Lana and stayed at her home with her wonderfully warm and welcoming family. She had her own little hut and garden, and taught me about this concept called permaculture. Some people have summed it up by calling it Applied Ecology. The words come from “permanent agriculture”. As in agriculture that doesn’t destroy topsoil at an alarming rate, nor require constant watering, fertilising, fossil fuels and pesticides. Working with nature instead of fighting against it.

But it goes beyond growing food, encompassing rainwater collecting, renewable energy sources, natural building materials, even approaching a zero waste lifestyle and off-grid living, among other things. In essence, it’s an answer to the elephant in the room question: Yes, climate change is coming, but what to do about it?

There’s a storm in the horizon. A lot of them, in fact.

I think about that question a lot. I’ve even written (and soon deleted) long blog rants about the issue. Sometimes I’m almost depressed about the world’s obsession with consumption and destruction. In too many places I’ve witnessed the effects of mass tourism and the way it ravages the original underlying beauty it seeks. Yet no single drop of water feels responsible for the flood. Even my own rationale for what I do has been a naive and vague hope that my photos might somehow inspire people to protect the nature they portray. That’s probably not true, however. Honestly, the real consequence is likely to be merely an increase in wanderlust and yet more tourism.

So as I learned about permaculture, everything just clicked. My blurry idea of maybe some day retiring by a lake and a forest in a little hut, perhaps growing some vegetables, suddenly turned into a clear picture and a plan. Something I could start creating now instead of decades later. It all seemed to fall in place. It may not be THE answer to the world’s problems, but it feels like the answer for me. I did a lot of research on the topic while making my way south through Croatia.

The lights of Split from a campsite with a view.
Miumiu was orphaned and rescued from the road as a kitten.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina I had a chance to visit another permaculture farm, run by a guy called Bambi. He, too, was on Warmshowers, happily hosting any bicycle tourer who happened to be passing through. I stayed for a week, sometimes alone with his cute kitten, sometimes with up to ten other bike travellers camping in the yard. When I wasn’t doing research, I was sharing stories of life on the saddle. Most other visitors were in the earlier stages of their journeys, happy and excited. I was the only one who didn’t feel like continuing.

15 people from all over Europe, with a couple from South America and Asia came and went. I watched as each of them rode away after a night or two. Usually it’s me who's pedalling away and disappearing behind a corner. The briefness of these meetings is much easier to deal with when I’m the one on the bike heading towards new experiences. This time I felt a pang of sadness while watching people leave.

Ivan, Eric, Bambi and Amir sitting down for breakfast.
One day a lot of people arrived suddenly. There was a sixth tent but they left before the sun rose enough for the photo.

Still, the thought of joining them never occurred. It was at Bambi's farm where I published my last blog post. Only a couple days later coming to a realisation that there was no need to wait around a few weeks to see if my feelings would change. I booked a ticket home.

I carry a notebook where I jot down ideas and thoughts about permaculture. On its cover is conveniently printed “Stop dreaming, start doing”.

That’s the principle to follow. I need a break from the bike trip, and now I know exactly what to do during that break.

The road didn’t take me where I thought it would.

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The Many Faces of Slovenia

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The Many Faces of Slovenia

Slovenia is a country of green hills, thick forests, rugged mountains, emerald rivers and turquoise lakes. I spent a week in Triglav, the country’s only national park. All of Triglav was an extra detour off my route towards Bled, so I did plenty of hitchhiking when faced with long ascents. (It’s not cheating if it’s a bonus detour!) Otherwise I doubt I would’ve bothered to climb to 1600m three times and 2000m once, in +30C August weather.

I expected Triglav's wild nature to be the focus of this update. The nature and landscapes were indeed beautiful, but the people I met there left even more of an impression. The young easy-going Dutch couple on their first day of a van trip who gave me a ride up the mountain, the camping ground owner who let me shower for free, and an unkempt local guy tending to a traditional coal-making fire pit for two months:

“9000 kilometres? Do you want a beer?” Besides those two questions he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, despite looking like he’d already had a dozen of those beers himself by 11am. Tending to a fire that lasts all summer must be a boring job.

This random small waterfall on the way to a much bigger waterfall turned out to be more photogenic.

To provide some change in his life, I let him tend to my bike instead while hiking to a nearby waterfall. I met a lovely lady out with her granddaughter, then hitchhiked back up the mountain with the help of two American pastors. The word “spreadsheet” was mentioned so often in their conversation that I figured it must be one of the most important aspects about running a church.

While looking for a suitable tent spot on the banks of the Soča river, I ran into a cute Czech cyclist called Anna with similar plans. (Also looking for a place to camp, that is - not plans to start a church.) By coincidence I had already met her briefly a week or two earlier in Austria, on her way to Italy. This time she was bound for home. I was in need of company, and it felt great to share a campsite with someone. We were out talking long after the stars came out. In the morning we went our separate ways, which is usually the sad reality of meeting other bicycle tourers. They’re always going in the other direction.

Another beautiful morning by the many rivers of Slovenia.

I needed two car rides to get up to Mangart, the highest road in Slovenia at above 2000m. First a young guy who already had another two hitchhikers with him stopped, and we just about managed to fit everything in the car by removing the front wheel and using a bit of force. Then the rest of the way was offered by a nice Austrian family with enough space in the van for several touring bicycles.

Mangart happened to be one of the checkpoints for the crazy Transcontinental Bike Race. About 300 cyclists racing to cross Europe self-supported. Some told me they were braving the challenge with so little sleep that they even hallucinated on their bikes. The race had started from Belgium on the previous Sunday. I received laughs when I said I had also come through Belgium… in November. Despite the exhaustion, the racers seemed to exude joy and life.

Sunset at Mangart.

On Mangart I realised I was starting conversations with strangers like they were already friends. This is really a huge deal for someone as previously introverted as me. Even if this were the only skill I learn from a year’s cycling, it would all be worth it.

I suggested a sunset-watching spot to another happy Dutch couple, and was rewarded by a bag of delicious liquorice candy (salmiakki), which I didn’t know existed outside Finland. In the night Jiri, a tired Czech racer arrived up the mountain and we chatted in the light of our headlamps before finding places to sleep. I saw him again in the morning, but by that time I wasn’t quite as social and talkative anymore. No amount of cycling is going to cure my morning grumpiness.

The view towards Lake Fusine and Austria from Mangart at night,

The ride down the mountain destroyed what was left of my brakes. The screws to change the pads were busted, so I needed to open the brakes to access the pads. I ran around Bovec asking people and in random shops for tools. I saw Marc, a German bicycle tourer having a snack by the side of the street. He also didn’t have a T30 Torx tool, but what he did have was decades of biking experience and a calming presence.

He didn’t use smart phones, because he preferred to live fully in the moment. And even though I agree completely that people’s need to constantly stave off the slightest suggestion of boredom by seeking for distraction on the phone is a terrible habit, I still do it myself. Honestly, I spend too much time looking at screens, even during the bike trip. Perhaps I need to learn to put the devices away more often and just.. be.

Some friendly laundromat workers offered me tools, a shelter in a garage from a deafening thunderstorm while I worked, a band-aid to fix the finger I damaged in the process, and finally a cup of coffee and conversation before I continued out of town.

These footbridges over the turquoise water were fun to cross.

Two nice Belgian hikers hadn’t been as lucky with shelter. They crossed a footbridge over the river in wet clothes as I was cooking dinner. Being outside for a lightning storm like that must’ve been scary. We had a brief chat, and later I got a surprise message from them via my website. They had gotten curious about my 5-year plans and had found my blog without me even mentioning it.

Next day on my way out of the national park, I had a tough time in the heat trying to hitchhike up the same mountain for the third time. But once again good people came to the rescue. First I took a break to talk with Darren from UK, driving with three teenagers to their holidays with a huge caravan. He seemed to consider changing his direction just to give me a ride, but the car would’ve been dangerously big for the steep and narrow hairpins of Vršič Pass.

With lifted spirits I tried to hitchhike again, but still no success. Eventually I resigned and started heading back to take a completely different road around the mountain instead. Until I came across a French couple with a toddler on a month-long van trip from Montpellier. They were on their way up and were happy to take me there. Remy and Flora seemed to be good parents, letting the baby play in the (very shallow) river without being overprotective.

Foggy river Soca.

The people I’ve met along my journey have been pretty amazing overall, but the first days in Slovenia were exceptionally friendly and social. (The above was not even close to everyone I met or spoke to during this time, but this blog might be the longest one yet, as it is.) This kind of thing will probably only increase as I had head closer to the friendly and hospitable lands of the Middle East. It made me realise how very wrong my attitude was in the Dolomites. Solitude can be nice, but when it’s unavailable, I should just talk to people and make friends instead of complaining.

Of course, I won’t just stop being an introvert entirely. And after all this, I chose to spend three days camping by the Sava river, enjoying some quiet time for a change.

Sunset before arriving in Slovenia.

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Switzerland and Other Detours

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Switzerland and Other Detours

After four days on the mountain, I needed some rest and time for working. I rode down Stelvio’s hairpins to the camping ground down the valley. Before I even put up my tent I met my neighbour Ruben, a Dutch road cyclist travelling by van. His plan was to drive to some famous alpine mountains and then conquer them by bicycle. He was about to switch from a student to working life, so this was the last chance for adventures in a while.

Ruben was a very polite sweet young man, and we ended up hanging out for a couple days. It was nice to have some company after many days alone in the mountains. Afterwards he was headed towards Gavia so I got a ride in the van back up to Stelvio. I also took the below photo of him climbing the road to Stelvio, which he wanted on his wall, so I added it to my print shop at Curioos.

Which reminds me: If there’s ever a specific photo in my blog that you would like to purchase as a print, let me know and I’ll make it available.

Ruben in the clear lead on Stelvio Pass.

This time I didn’t stay on Stelvio, but descended a little bit down the western side and took the Umbrailpass exit into Switzerland. It’s a very expensive country, so I took enough food from Italy to last me a few days. It’s also not a part of the EU, so I couldn’t even use cell phone data freely for the first time in the trip. I enjoyed a break from being online. Sometimes I get too distracted by checking messages or world events, so maybe putting my phone on airplane mode should be a regular thing.

I didn’t plan to spend any money during my Swiss visit, except for a postcard to my little niece, to whom I send a card from every country I stay in. But while climbing up a mountain on the second day, I found a 20 franc note by the side of the road. With no idea of the exchange rate, I hoped it would cover the postage. Turns out it was also enough for a campsite shower (in a bathroom that looked like it belonged to a fancy hotel) and some sausages, eggs and butter. Which is presumably about 50 euros total - or $170 USD, or 2 million Lao Kip. I think.

Couldn't get a better view of the rainbow.

Switzerland has the oldest national park in the Alps, founded over 100 years ago. It was short-sightedly just called the "Swiss National Park”, which may be why they haven’t been able to add any other ones. I was there during the noon sun, so didn’t really take photos, but the views were quite nice. A pine forest left in its natural state for a very long time is a beautiful thing to experience. It reminded me of the amazing forests in North Finland where the journey began, causing a pang of homesickness.

Unfortunately camping in the national park was strictly forbidden (and any fines would probably be in the billions of Lao Kip), so I couldn’t stay. Instead I cycled for three days through Alpine villages, circling mountain ranges and following pure turquoise rivers flowing in the valleys. Everything was very clean and bike path signs were impeccable. People mostly kept to themselves, though.

I passed a customs area by a tunnel to Italy, where I stopped to ask for water. After a brief chat with the officers I noticed they had an industrial sized scale, and asked if I could weigh my bags. Everybody always asks how much my gear weighs, and I’m getting tired of answering I don’t know. So here you go, 30kg with a pretty normal amount of food. The bike with its two water bottles is probably another 10kg, and I weigh 75, so that’s 115kg total.

With the helmet, it's easily another 100g. Maybe I should stop using a helmet?

After three days I arrived at the border of Austria, facing a 400m climb up to Martinsbruck. I took hours pushing the bike up the hill in the darkness. Then I set the camera to take a time-lapse of the Milky Way, and fell asleep exhausted on a picnic table. A life of true luxury.

Someone may have noticed I mentioned the Dolomites before, and might be wondering what happened to that plan. I was still heading there, it was just that people kept recommending detours. From Riva del Garda I was going to Bolzano (2-3 days at my pace). First a man in a bar said I should go to Madonna di Campiglio. Then a fellow tourer on Facebook said I should visit Stelvio Pass. And on the way there my Warmshowers hosts said I should visit Switzerland.

So almost four weeks later, I was still 2-3 days away from Bolzano. The ability and freedom to make such route changes is a beautiful part of travelling like this.

But now, I was finally ready to see the Dolomites next.

Churches in the area were particularly pointy.
Switzerland in a nutshell.

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Inspired at Stelvio Pass

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Inspired at Stelvio Pass

When I finally came down from Gavia to Bormio, there were cyclists everywhere. Over three thousand of them, in fact. I had showed up at the date of the annual ReStelvio bike race. A fully loaded touring bicycle near the start line caused some laughter and wide-eyed looks, until I reassured everyone I would not be taking part in the race. I had been planning to hitchhike again. And again the road was closed for non-cyclists.

Should I just get in the queue?

I hung around in Bormio for most of the day and loaded up on a ton of food so I would have time for photography up the mountain again. Then I started the climb, just to realise I was too tired from lack of sleep to push the heavy bike. I’d been staying up at Gavia to take photos until midnight, and when the sun rises at 5:30, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for sleeping in. Sometimes that almost makes me miss the longer nights of winter.

The race was already over and cars allowed on the road again, so I took turns hitchhiking and pushing for an hour, making very little headway, until a nice local couple stopped and took me to the famous Stelvio. The road from Bormio was not nearly as beautiful as Gavia, so I don’t feel like I missed much. The legendary Stelvio Pass view is on the east side, with its four dozen hairpins. That’s the better direction to come from, and also looked very fun to go down.

That lone cyclist is Georg from Ukraine, who I spoke to before he returned to his hidden campsite for his luggage.

The top of the pass at an altitude of 2750m was also not what I expected. Several hotels, lots of restaurants, small shops, a ski lift, and a whole lot of motorcycles and people around. This road was so famous that everyone wanted to visit. The result was a bit of a circus.

But the views were nice. I went about my business with the camera. Soon I met a very enthusiastic German couple. Upon hearing about my cycling and camping plans up on the cold mountain, the man insisted on giving me beer money. I don’t drink beer, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I promised to pay for a hot chocolate with it in the morning after sleeping somewhere in the zero degree weather.

A lot of the hotels looked old and worn. In fact, the entire place had a strange 80’s patina to it, from the buildings to the post card design. But there was one nice restaurant called Tibet a little to the side from everything else. It had the best view as well, so I decided to take a long exposure of cars on the road from there.

It's not quite what I hoped for, but other attempts were even less successful.

I spoke to a Romanian waiter on his cigarette break, asking for tips on camping. The mountain was a national park, so restrictions were in place. To my surprise he hooked me up with an empty open garage to sleep in! Night temperatures at that altitude went down to freezing point, so it was cold, but safe from rain and wind. I slept in the garage for three nights. Every morning I had a nice warming hot chocolate at the restaurant, sending a quiet “danke schön” to the happy Germans.

After the initial shock of all the hotels and hubbub, Stelvio grew on me. There were many surrounding peaks to hike to, and an interesting history from various wars between the Swiss, Astro-Hungarians [1] and Italy. 100 barracks were built in the mountains, with an incredible amount of food rations, building materials, weapons, and all sorts of supplies that had to be carried up by sheer manpower. I pondered this fact, while being too lazy to even push up one bicycle with wheels on a paved road.

***

[1] No, that's not how you spell that, but I'm going to leave this typo in. Just because of the mental image of the Swiss and Italian armies with their 1800s technology fighting off Space Hungarians in an equal battle.

Sunset at the Stelvio mountains, with restaurant Tibet in the background.

I hadn’t been entirely satisfied with the amount or the quality of my photography work in a while. However, now that I was finally in some photogenic locations with plenty of time, I was shooting and writing again. Even taking time-lapses in a way I hadn’t attempted before. Rough ideas for the next video started popping up. So far, my time-lapse process has been far too much of “that looks pretty, so I’ll point my camera at it for half an hour”, and then editing random clips together in a way I consider pleasing. It can be nice to look at, but the end result is mostly meaningless. My next project some day might have a little more story to it.

So it appears that my creativity is making a comeback. That’s something I can feel pretty happy about.

Hotel something something on the west side. They had a Finnish flag outside, so this is my tribute to that.
Sun seeping through a narrow gap between the mountains and clouds.
Stelvio at night.

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A Few Days at Passo Gavia

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A Few Days at Passo Gavia

I knew nothing about Passo Gavia beforehands. I thought it was just another mountain pass I had to cross to get to my real destination, Stelvio Pass. That’s why I preferred to hitchhike. On the way up my driver Augustin told me it was a legendary Giro d’Italia climb. When the route goes through Gavia, it’s usually the highest point of the race.

As the van climbed the narrow road to above the treeline, I gasped at the views. Near the top the landscape was a combination of grey rock and green moss and grass. Nothing else growed there. It reminded me a lot of the mountain above Geiranger. At the top I took my bike out of the van and went to explore the foggy evening. Almost right away a mountain goat appeared, casually crossing the road.

Why did the ibex cross the road?

I didn’t know camping wasn’t allowed, so I put my tent near a mountain biking path behind the beautiful Lake Nero, 220 meters down from the top. No one else was around, I had the entire mountain to myself. For the first time in a long, long time I felt the peace and freedom that only seems available in places like these. I had almost forgotten just how important this kind of wilderness is to me. Why do I spend so little time in locations that feed my imagination? Cycling through all those densely populated areas in Europe seemed like a bad idea in retrospect.

This is the kind of place where I should've spent most of the last year.

The next morning I met an Austrian hiker called Andi. He had previously done a long bike trip in South America, and spoke highly of Patagonia. There’s another place I would love to spend a lot of time in. We shared similar views on trekking and life, and ended up talking for some time. Later after a lunch I pushed my bike back onto the road, and Andi appeared with his car. He offered to take my bags up to the bar on Gavia so I could cycle the tough last hairpins with a lighter load. I agreed gladly.

At the bar I got quite a welcome from the staff. “Finlandia! Around the world bicycle! Five years!” My new friend had told everyone I was coming. The owner took a photo of me for Facebook and even went to fetch his old mother to see me. I just laughed somewhat uncomfortably, as I tend to do when faced with too much sudden attention.

A thunderstorm engulfed the mountain as soon as I arrived, with very heavy rain that morphed into hail. Without Andi’s help I would’ve been stuck outside during the worst of it. Lucky again!

I think I'll wait a bit more.

I spent another night at Gavia, then freewheeled all the way down to restock and rest in a camping ground for a night. When I tried to come back up from Ponte di Legno, I discovered that it was the first day ever that the mountain was closed for motor traffic! So much for hitchhiking. This time I had to get up on my own. I cycled maybe 10% of the way and pushed the rest. Passing road cyclists showed a lot of respect for someone crazy enough to attempt the climb with so much luggage. Yet probably every single one of them was in better shape than me.

It took all day, but at 2620 meters there was a great sense of achievement. I learned I was capable of more than I thought. This was good to know, and useful practice for future climbs. The Pamir Highway goes up to 4500m for example, if I end up going that way.

I had time to sit and watch sunsets with the camera.

After three days on Gavia, I finally went over to the north side of the pass. I descended a few hundred meters to an Agriturismo (a kind of farmhouse B&B), where I asked for a place to camp without high hopes. But the family running the place was extremely friendly. Furthermore, they had plenty of private land that wasn’t a part of the national park, so I finally had a safe and legal place to sleep.

I stayed another two nights just enjoying the mountain views and doing a little bit of hiking.  This is another way in which I’m incredibly lucky. To have so much free time and the ability to spend it in locations like this. That is something I should never forget to be grateful for.

PS: There's a few more photos in my article about Gavia for bicycle tourers.

I wish I hadn't screwed up this photo.

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Solo Trip, From Dusk ’til Dawn

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Solo Trip, From Dusk ’til Dawn

Look, I know many of you have been curious about me and Isabelle. And I’m aware I haven’t been talking much about her or the situation between us. For many reasons. Partly because I’m shy to discuss private feelings openly, and partly because it’s been such an on/off rollercoaster at times that whatever I said one day would've changed by next week anyway. Plus some attempts to write about things were not met with grace.

For some reason this picnic spot was provided by the Sri Lankan Association.

Now I can say with certainty that I will be continuing this tour alone. Beyond that, I don’t really have very much to discuss this time either. The idea of writing about things seems kind of exhausting. Let’s just say that the good thing about having your heart broken is discovering that at least there is a heart in there.

On the plus side, touring alone has its benefits. First of all, I no longer need to slow down and constantly adjust my speed or schedule. This means I don’t have to spend much time in uninteresting areas (the landscape has been very inhabited lately) and can stay longer in the nice photogenic parts. Just like in the beginning of the trip. The next great destination: the mountains in North Italy.

Also, June has been quite hot and it's only getting worse next month. So the experience of cycling during the day varies somewhere between uncomfortable and terrible. Which is also the scale range for Italian traffic. To fix these issues, I can now choose to cycle throughout the night on nice empty roads in cool weather, then sleep during the day somewhere in the shade. This sounded like a fitting plan.

A quaint restaurant in an old castle.

So I continued north along the Via Francigena, mostly through farmland, small villages and bigger towns. From Pietrasanta I followed the sea, only to discover a ridiculous 20km stretch of straight road dedicated almost entirely to night clubs. And of course it happened to be around midnight on a weekend. The dedicated bicycle path was often entirely blocked by a horde of drunken party people. Girls in their skimpy dresses and guys with their equivalent peacock feather displays. Modern humans with their strange mating rituals. I couldn’t wait to get to the Dolomites.

I want mountains, untouched nature and solitude. A night club is my idea of hell.

Whenever there were big hills or mountains ahead, I would make sure to climb them by sunrise and camp somewhere near the top. In the late afternoon or evening I could just roll downhill to the next village for breakfast and to stock up on supplies and enjoy the non-sweaty pedalling for the rest of the night.

I still met a few people here and there. A nice cafe owner interested in my journey and bicycle. A lovely lady who let me shower in her home, when I stopped at a bar to ask for a place to swim or bathe. In another cafe a man was so impressed with my trip that he wanted to pay for the cappuccino I was drinking - I had to decline because his friend had already paid for it. Everyone had the same reaction to my plans: “You are crazy!"

Silhouette of a villa and hill against the lights of some city I forgot. Maybe Parma?
A valley of light.

One meeting was more worrying. While resting halfway through a 1000 meter climb at 1am, I was scared by footsteps in the dark. A guy was walking on the mountain road without a headlight or backpack. He said he'd missed the bus some hours earlier. For a moment I was worried he was eyeing my bike, but it turned out he had no bad intentions. When leaving, he told me to be careful with the wild animals - he had seen two wolves following him at sunset. “But the pigs are even more dangerous.”

Wild animals and humans aside, cycling in the dark can be a relaxing cathartic experience, allowing time for thinking. Exactly what I needed. Navigating was easy when I didn’t even have to avoid the main roads.

And if I got lost, I would just let the fireflies show me the way.

It's a long exposure, so one blinking firefly makes quite a few dots, but there were still many of them.

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Mountain Monastery

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Mountain Monastery

With the newfound freedom provided by our lighter bicycles, we explored the winding mountain roads of upper Corsica. The island is heavily dependent on summer tourism, and most people move out for the winter. This left the villages half empty and the roads with little traffic. Besides cars, we encountered some possibly stray dogs, a family of cows blocking the road in a kind of Mexican standoff, and a herd of goats running in front of us for a few hundred meters.

Some say they are still running to this day.

We spent the first night next to a cemetery of a remote 12th century church San Raineru, perched alone on the hillside away from habitation. Wild pig screams echoed in the mountains around us as we lied in our sleeping bags, but none dared to come near. Next we climbed up to Sant’Antonino, a unique village on top of a mountain - or hill - above 500 meters. Most of the other villages had been founded in more sheltered areas to be less visible to passing pirate ships.

The town's narrow streets went up and down stairs and through corridors in a confusing maze. All the houses and streets were built from rock, with matching beige and brown colours. There were clearly efforts to avoid modern construction and maintain the original look of the village. Even the numerous cats probably looked like the strays that lived there a thousand years ago.

This one watched me take a time-lapse of the sunset for an hour.

So few people were around it was almost like a ghost village. Until the lady who delivers the post drove up and came to say hello during her route. She was very enthusiastic and inquisitive. Combined with English language skills, it wasn’t hard to guess that she either enjoyed travelling now, or had done in her youth. Such people tend to gravitate towards us to hear our stories and pay forward some of the many kindnesses they’ve received while on their own journeys.

When she heard we had no place to stay yet, she started making some phone calls. Camping was an option of course, but the night would be windy and rainy, plus we hadn’t showered for too long. Unfortunately only answering machines picked up her calls, and we said goodbye as she had to continue with work. Anyway, Isabelle soon found a nice local man who offered his spare apartment to us free of charge. He was even apologising for how small the place was, despite the large bedroom and kitchen.

View of the church and mountains from Sant'Antonino.

The next day we weren’t sure where we wanted to go, so we did some work on our laptops outside while waiting for the mail to be delivered. Martine the wonderful post lady might've had more tips. Around noon she returned and was happy to see us again. She’d gotten a call back from her friend Mireille who lives in a monastery and could host us. The day before she’d even taken the time to drive back up to Sant’Antonino after work to look for us, but we’d already disappeared indoors.

So did we want to stay in a 17th century monastery? Absolutely! We rode down to Cateri where a sweet little lady called Mireille was waiting for us. She was the only person living there over the winter, aside from a few guests here and there. A perfect place to relax.

The Cateri monastery at sunrise. Population: 1, plus two visiting cyclists and a dog.

Or so it sounded. On the first day there was a big feast of 40 people who were volunteers and supporters of the monastery. We ended up being briefly interviewed for the local newspaper, as well as filmed for TV while terribly underdressed for the event. Then the priest was making a speech in French, and after a few minutes I hear some familiar words I've learned during the last two months, like "bicycle" and "around the world", followed by "Finland" and "Sweden". Heads swivelled around towards our previously safe corner in the back of the room, with the priest gesturing us to stand up to receive our applause.

Isabelle doesn't mind public appearances, but my face was about as red as a sunburnt beet after a long run on a hot day.

We stayed for a week anyway, if only to recover from the surprise attention.

Storm clouds rolling in. 
 

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Coincidences

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Coincidences

Last year when I was cycling in Lofoten, Norway’s mountains wore out both of my break pads near the end of the tour. With a heavy bicycle in a hilly country, this is a big problem. I looked for a solution in a bike shop in Leknes, which didn’t have the right parts, but the nice mechanic recommended the lovely nearby Uttakleiv beach while waiting. I walked the bike there and enjoyed my stay, but had to end my trip there because I ran out of time and never got my bike fixed.

Well, on this trip back in Sommarøy I met nice a couple on holiday from South Norway. They were riding borrowed bicycles, and the man mentioned the brakes weren’t so great on his. Sympathetic to brake issues after my previous experience, I offered to tighten them. This lead to more talking, and me mentioning this blog. Later on I received an email from him, because he visited my Route page and saw the request for travel tips. The one place he said I should absolutely visit - Uttakleiv beach.

So I ended up in Uttakleiv because my brakes broke, which a year later made me fix the brakes of a stranger, who then ended up recommending Uttakleiv. There’s a funny symmetry to that.

A throwback to a morning in the Netherlands.

More recently in Luxembourg, we had trouble finding a place to stay after dark. In Bettendorf, Isabelle went to a flower shop with a café to ask for help. She came out with a big smile, which always means we’re in for a special treat. And we were - the two sisters who owned the place had told her we could sleep in their greenhouse. +12 degrees and dry was a huge improvement from the 0°C and raining that the outdoors had to offer that night.

We sat in their Flower Power café / pub while waiting for closing time, before we could take our bikes and sleeping bags in. By the owner’s recommendation, we tried a new local cider called Ramborn. Not only was it tasty, but also well timed, since we’d been looking for cider in the store earlier that day, but hadn’t found any.

Another earlier photo. The weather hasn't been great for the camera lately, so recent photos have been few and far between.

Two days later, after the events of the previous update, we arrived in Junglinster. It was dark again with no camping options. Isabelle had a cold, so we chose to knock on doors and ask for warmer accommodation. The first person we asked only understood French, but we got lucky with the second house. A very friendly couple let us in and ordered Chinese food while we told our stories. They lived in a beautifully furnished modern house, with a line of Dior and Chanel perfumes in the bathroom, and quality whiskeys on the living room shelf. I wasn’t surprised to hear the husband was a bank manager.

I was surprised to hear about their other side project. For a few years, they’d been getting into the cider business with their own brand. They were the makers of the very same Ramborn we’d drank by the greenhouse. Completely randomly, we had decided to ring their doorbell out of the countless others around.

I don’t search for a deeper meaning or divine guidance in these little coincidences like many other people seem to, but they are pretty cool nonetheless.

Typical view in Luxembourg: Rolling hills and forest.
From Martin's photo tour in Goesdorf, Luxembourg.
 

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Tears in Luxembourg

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Tears in Luxembourg

Back in Senja during the first month of my trip, I met a cyclist called Martin, on his way to Nordkapp. I was on my way to Andenes on the ferry he arrived on. We had less than two minutes to talk, but it was enough for him to invite me to Luxembourg if I would visit it later. He lived in Goesdorf, which was my first stop in the country. Martin and Arlette were incredibly sweet and accommodating, treating us to showers and laundry, food and guided photo tours around the area and in Luxembourg City. 

I was a little preoccupied with thoughts about my future route, and especially whether I would be continuing alone or not. If I wanted to continue via the Black Forest in Germany, I knew Isabelle wouldn’t be able to join me. There were too many mountains and the weather was too cold. Even with her new sleeping bag, she had Kira to think of. And although there is no hurry anywhere, I felt a growing frustration about our slow pace of travel. I wanted to spend more time in special nature areas and cycle faster through the more boring parts in between.

Then again, Isabelle and I had gotten very close during the previous few weeks. We had the same sense of humour, which made every day fun. We had very similar views on almost everything, plus common interests. And when you’re camping and touring with someone like this, you get to know the real person with all their gritty imperfections. As opposed to whatever shining public image people naturally try to display.

Isabelle practicing photography with her 50mm f/1.8 lens.
Sometimes the bikes need alone time.

Despite all the similarities, we were also different enough to keep things interesting. I was learning a lot from her carefree way of approaching life, and my comfort zone was expanding rapidly. Touring with her was undeniably more enjoyable than being alone. And often easier, with less need to leave the bicycle unguarded, and more opportunities to sleep in houses with beds and showers.

But did I really want to share my journey and dreams with someone? In my mind I had this idea of what my trip would look like, and it felt difficult to let go of it. It was a solo tour. Just me against the world. Alone with my camera. Sharing the road only via my photos. I wasn’t built for this kind of travel, for making compromises. The Black Forest was waiting for me.

The Ardennes on the Luxembourg side was quite beautiful.

In a small village called Dillingen, it was a particularly cold day. Only a couple degrees above zero. Our pace was so slow I wasn’t getting warm from the cycling. We needed a shower, but every place was closed for the season. My mood was grim, and it felt like I was sacrificing the very freedom that I was searching for.

We found a cafe and stopped to warm up by two mugs of hot chocolate. I told Isabelle we couldn’t continue together further than this. I had to move faster, see more places, spend more time alone, and focus on my photography. We had to separate here. She understood - she had her own doubts as well.

We hugged. We cried. We kissed.

And then we got back on the road and continued together, in the same direction.

Schiessentümpel cascade with the ND1000 filter.
Sometimes the weather and landscape doesn't have much to offer beyond a few drops of water.
 

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Dutch Hospitality

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Dutch Hospitality

My stay in the Netherlands was much less focused on nature than most other places so far. Partly because the country has a pretty high population density, and partly because traveling with a Hurricane leads to a huge increase in social situations. Isabelle has a lot of friends in the Netherlands, and also makes new ones easily. Especially with the very welcoming Dutch people. So lately I’ve been doing less stealth camping and more sleeping in rural areas.

In the Weerribben-Wieden National Park further north we couldn’t find any forests or open camping grounds, so Isabelle and Ilse (when she was still cycling with us) asked for tent space in the lawn of a big farmhouse. Within minutes we were setting up camp between the barn and the horse fence. A very social black mixed-breed dog called Lola came to demand scratches and seemed in need of attention, so I took a frisbee and played fetch with her for an hour. I got tired first even though she was doing all the running. When I woke up the next morning she came to my tent with the frisbee in her mouth and tail wagging eagerly.

Country road, take me home...

In Vught we met Yvette, who has travelled with Isabelle in South America. There were extra beds for us at her parents’ place. We came in from the rain and were immediately sat down in front of a table so full of Chinese food that it could’ve fed a dozen hungry cyclists. The next day we got a tour of the local forest and nearby city Den Bosch.

Clocks were turned back an hour on that same day, so when we returned to the road in the afternoon the sun was already setting. After riding only 7km we had to stop in a small village called Esch. Isabelle asked around for accommodation, and we were given tent space at the playground of the Enchanted Forest Pancake House. The owners were awesome and even offered us free pancakes when they heard about our travel plans.

... to the place, I belong ...

In Eindhoven we stopped by an outdoor gear store called Bever. We've gotten many warnings about bicycle thieves, so the staff let us roll our bikes inside for safety while we did our shopping. There was free hot chocolate for customers. When I asked for any suggestions on where to find a camping ground for a shower (these are harder to find in the off season), they told us we could use the shower right there in the store! Not exactly a standard shopping experience.

In Neeroeteren we got to stay inside again for two nights at a couple who were Isabelle's old colleagues. That was admittedly on the Belgian side, but the woman was from the Netherlands, so I think it counts as an example of Dutch hospitality. When we left we cycled to the Hoge Kempen National Park, and stopped at Café De Statie, an old train station turned into a pub café. The very friendly owners let us sleep out back on the storage room floor. It was a cold and rainy night and there were wild boars in the park, so we were happy to be dry and safe.

By that point I wasn’t even surprised to hear they were also Dutch.

... Western Europe, forest floor ...

Near Maastricht we crossed the border again for one last stop in the Netherlands in a little village called Eckelrade. The sun was setting so we asked for a place to stay. The local pastor kindly organised a small house for us nearby. Before we even got there, a woman stopped to ask about our trips and invited us for dinner with her family. And later when we felt tired and in need of extra rest days, the nice owner of our house came to inform us we could stay another night if we wanted, free of charge.

As much as I love to look at beautiful wide open landscapes, finding sunlight falling just right on the small details is really satisfying.

Perhaps you can tell from the way I’m writing this, that I can’t really find the words to describe how appreciative I am of all this generosity. It’s all been quite overwhelming in the Netherlands since the first day in Stellingen. Without exception the Dutch people have been incredibly warm, friendly and happy to help a pair of bicycle travellers in any way they can.

All I can say is a million thanks to everyone for their kind gestures. Everything from the passing smiles and greetings, to opening their doors and offering food or a place to sleep, warms my heart and gives me faith in the humanity of strangers.

And this is why I travel.

Wake up, it's a beautiful life.
 

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Hoornaar

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Hoornaar

Remember the couple from that camping ground in Norway during a three-day downpour? They live in Holland in a small village called Hoornaar, so we paid them a visit. A replacement for my broken SSD drive was waiting for me at their address. Originally I thought we’d stay maybe a night or two, but upon arrival it turned out that various activities had been planned for us, so there’d be no hurry to leave.

Jan is a retired headmaster of a Christian school with a calm demeanour. Corrie has the kind of helpful and caring personality that you might expect from a housewife from the sixties. She conjured up amazingly delicious dinners every night we stayed there. They have been married for over 50 years, and I can see why.

I was expecting space for our tents in their garden, but instead we were given a whole summer cabin to ourselves. Later I learnt that Corrie had never allowed overnight visitors to this cabin until our visit, so it was quite an honour to stay there. It was a quaint little place by a small river lining the beautiful countryside houses. “Romantisch”, our hosts pointed out.

Hoornaar in the morning.

They had endearingly old-fashioned views, where Isabelle was expected to take care of all the cooking and other kitchen activities. And yet this was combined with unabashed curiosity about the status of our travel partnership after having met only two weeks earlier. In fact, quite a few people seem to share this interest and are asking if we’re going to cycle around the world together as a couple now. Personally, I think it seems a touch early to be considering such a thing.

We arrived on Tuesday and already by Wednesday afternoon I was being interviewed for a local newspaper. The reporter was one of Jan’s old students. Again we took questions about whether we were a couple already, with Corrie fanning the flames mischievously. Our picture was taken by a veteran photographer who, among many other subjects, had shot the queen of the Netherlands more than a thousand times. Going from the queen to us is quite a career drop. I tried to look regal to make him feel better. Judging by the photo, I looked more like the court jester.

On Thursday Jan gave us a photo tour of the surroundings. In the morning we went to Kinderdijk, a famous UNESCO site of an area with 19 windmills east of Rotterdam. In the afternoon we saw the Biesbosch National Park, where Jan shared a lot of interesting information about the history of the area. After another great dinner, I went with him to a meeting of the local photo club.

Kinderdijk with the ND1000 filter.
Weather at Biesbosch was too grey for landscapes, so we took macros instead.

Speaking in front of an audience is a pretty scary thought to me, so I was anxious at first when Jan asked me to show some photographs and talk about my trip. On the other hand, it was also an excellent opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, so I was eager to give it a try. No reason to let such fears control your life, after all.

There were about 20-30 people at the club. When I introduced myself in front of the group, they suddenly remembered that there was a microphone around somewhere. I guess my voice doesn’t exactly fill a room. I did a slideshow of two dozen of my more or less favourite photos of the trip so far. I talked about the shooting or processing workflow of each photo, and pointed out where I’d made mistakes.

Past the initial nervousness I started to get into the whole thing and actually enjoyed it. Afterwards I spoke with several of the members and overall had a great time. I felt an excited rush long after we had left.

We were supposed to leave the next day, but it had been such an eventful and tiring day that we decided to rest and stay for one more night. We could’ve happily stayed for weeks, but winter is coming and it’s better to keep heading towards the southern climate. So on Saturday we said our goodbyes to Jan and Corrie. Their last gift was a fresh copy or the newspaper article: “Tomi Rantanen cycles around the world.”

 I’ll never forget their friendship and hospitality, and hope we’ll get to meet again some day.

Jan, Isabelle and Corrie before our departure.
Throwback to the previous spiderweb field.
 

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