Viewing entries tagged
nature reserve

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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Felicia and the Furballs

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Felicia and the Furballs

A year ago I helped a moose calf get reunited with its mother. Lately there has been a marked increase in animal rescue cases. I didn’t even mention this before, but in Corsica Isabelle saved two tiny stupid dogs from running on a busy road. The owners were so thankful they let us stay for several days in their guest apartment. Although the dogs escaped several more times during our stay, so I don’t have high expectations for their wellbeing.

Civitavecchia on the first day in Italy.

In Italy the trend has continued. On our second day back on the continent, we were checking out the Caldara di Manziana nature preserve area. It’s a volcano crater northwest of Rome, with some small geysers. A strong stench of rotten eggs permeates the area, due to sulfur escaping from the ground.

I saw some movement in the high ferns. It was a shy black dog that seemed curious about us, but kept vanishing into the shadows before we got a good look at it. When no owner appeared, we became equally curious. Eventually we found it lying under a tree. She looked scared, hungry and was covered in ticks. Isabelle gave her water and some of her dog food (despite Kira’s protests). When she got up to eat, we finally saw how thin she was - basically just bones covered in fur. She must've been there for months, and was probably mere days away from dying.

In this photo she doesn't even look that bad.

Camping was probably not allowed in the area, but we couldn’t leave the dog alone, so pitched our tents at sunset. While trying to decide what to do, there was a stroke of luck: A local man with five dogs came strolling in on his evening walk. Exactly the kind of person who would know how to deal with the situation! He took one look at Felicia (as we named her), and shook his head seriously. He would call some animal rescue people and come back in the morning.

Franco kept his word and arrived with help the next day: A man and a woman from a nearby shelter. Felicia was surprisingly calm with five people, Franco’s five dogs plus Kira milling around. She seemed to understand we were there to help. We got a closer look at her fur in the daylight. There were dozens of ticks. Maybe hundreds. The food we had given her was all around the tree, undigested. She could barely walk, and I don’t envy the guy who had to carry her to the car, parasites and all. 

For some reason the shelter folks had uniforms that looked like they belonged to German police from the 70s.

The shelter people seemed uncertain whether she would make it, or whether she’d find a home. We got their number in case I would have to adopt a dog of my own. But I thought there was a strong change they might have to put her down.

A week or two later I got a message in Trevignano: “The dog is doing fine. She is gaining weight and having more confidence with people. There is already a family that wants to adopt her.” I cried a little.

Fast forward another couple weeks. I hitchhiked to Radicofani because I needed to visit a pharmacy for some antihistamines and it sits on top of a high hill. Radicofani is a village I would describe as “delightfully Italian”.

A stereotypical street in an old Italian village.
Awwwwwwwwwww.

Outside the pharmacy on the road there was a tiny black kitten. Probably slightly under a month old, the cutest thing ever. I didn’t see a mother, and no one seemed to know who he belonged to. I tried to shoo it away from the traffic to the pedestrian path. When a car left a parking spot, I heard a scream and another equally young kitten, a grey one, half ran half limped away from under the car. Apparently one of its front paws got squashed by a tire. Well, shit.

I cleared my schedule for the rest of day. I was supposed to hitchhike back down the road, but fortunately Isabelle found a helpful van and came up to the village with both bicycles. We hung around to feed the kitties. When they couldn't stop running onto the road, we put them in a cardboard box for safety. Evening came and no humans or felines had arrived to claim them, so we started to look for a surrogate in town. Plan B was to take them in our handlebar bags and find a nice farm the next day. The grey one was walking on all fours again, so the paw wasn’t too badly hurt.

This one was particularly active and kept getting into trouble all the time.

Again it was getting dark, and again we got lucky. A woman walking past us in the park saw the cats and came over. One of the kittens had been under her car in the morning, and a day earlier a friend of hers had already adopted another little furball, probably from the same batch, a few streets away. She went to fetch the friend, and within minutes the kitties had a home! We left the village feeling pretty good about ourselves.

I like it when stories have happy endings.

It's a flower.

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A Fresh New Year at Camargue National Park

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A Fresh New Year at Camargue National Park

Just as Christmas, Isabelle and I celebrated New Year’s Eve quietly. We rented a room in Arles in South France for two days, to have a nice place to relax and watch fireworks in. Turns out France is not the ideal place for this plan, because fireworks were either illegal or just not cared about. So there wasn't much to see. Which was fine, because by midnight we were as sleepy as two puppies in a basket.

But we did get to relax. That’s something I’ve really felt the need for lately. Being on the road for seven months is beginning to have its effect on me. Not that our cycling distances are particularly strenuous (although now that I’m usually pulling the trailer, uphills are more of a challenge). But just the fact of packing every morning, moving even a short distance, and then finding a new place to sleep can become exhausting. With closed camping grounds, wild camping being illegal, cold weather and sleeping at strangers’ homes, there haven’t been many opportunities to enjoy lazy days of doing nothing.

It will soon be time to take the first long rest of the trip, for a couple weeks or more.

But in the meanwhile, the plan for 2018 is to have more adventures. In the last weeks we’ve spent too much time in unphotogenic towns and cities. It’s time to camp more in nature and other interesting or exotic locations. The first stop of the year: Camargue National Park.

Are you lost, Gringo?

Camargue is a wide open area of flat farmland and wetlands in the delta of the Rhone river. It’s famous for its white horses, pink flamingos, and Camargue bulls bred for the bullfighting arenas of the region. We got to see all of them, but the last two didn’t dare come close enough for my 24-70mm lens.

On the first afternoon we spotted two people walking in what looked like grey robes from a distance. Going in for a closer look, they turned out to indeed be genuine monks out for a stroll. Sleeping in a monastery? Definitely an adventure. We asked whether it was possible, but the prices were 40€ for a room or 10€ for camping outside. Paying to sleep in a monastery? Not an adventure, we agreed, and cycled onwards.

The wind was picking up and there weren’t many options for taking shelter. Few buildings, many fences and gates, no forests - only farmland and tall grass. It was already dark by the time we found a farmhouse with nobody around. Sleeping on haystacks in a barn seemed adequately adventurous.

The truth about being a digital nomad.
Waves of the Mediterranean at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

The next day we cycled to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and reached the shore of the Mediterranean. Neither one of us had seen the sea since we’d met almost three months earlier, so it was a beautiful sight. This also means I’ve cycled across the continent from the far reaches of Northern Scandinavia all the way to South Europe. That feels like an accomplishment.

Finally we could smell the familiar salty scent of the sea, hear the crashing waves, and enjoy the beautiful sunsets. Even the red supermoon rose to greet us when we stopped for a snack by the shore. The weather was pleasantly warm for the first time in months. Due to faraway storms, the wind blew heavily, so we found a somewhat sheltered place near the beach and camped there for two nights doing nothing much.

Camping in a National Park and resting at the same time? Now this is the way to start the new year.

I've really missed sunsets by the sea.
A soft moonrise over the sea.
 

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Winter in Belgium

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Winter in Belgium

With the arrival of November, the weather took a significant dive. Double digit daytime temperatures were a thing of the past, and at night it dipped even below zero a couple times. It was the inevitable consequence of cycling south at this pace. With Finnish genes and warm gear the cold weather still wasn’t a disaster for me, but Isabelle couldn’t really handle camping anymore. At least until she'd get to Luxembourg where a new sleeping bag was waiting for her.

This caused some friction, because I had been looking forward to sleeping outside more again. Southeast Belgium has a lot of beautiful forest areas in the Ardennes, which sounded nice for camping. In Holland we had mostly slept indoors, which usually results in very little alone time. And there is a limit to how much peopleing I can do. After a while I get exhausted and need to recharge in a quiet place somewhere out in nature.

As a solution, in the Hoge Kempen and the Hautes Fagnes National Parks in Belgium we cycled separate routes and met up in the evening. This gave me a chance to spend extra time taking photos and enjoying some important solitude.

Our first glimpse of Belgium was still colourful and pleasant.
Hoge Kempen in the morning light.

In addition to the seasons, there were also major changes to the terrain. Since Denmark there hadn’t been any uphills whatsoever, but Hautes Fagnes included a climb up to 700m. And there were many more hills ahead. This made cycling even slower, but at least the scenery was finally improving. On the other hand, autumn colours were turning brown and the landscape was often shrouded in fog.

Through the Ardennes we could travel on an old railroad that had been turned into a bicycle path. This was perfect, because Belgians don’t always seem to be the greatest of drivers. Many drive at retarded speeds, and Isabelle had a close call with a truck driver who probably thought “patience” is some kind of Calvin Klein fragrance. So the paved railway was a real luxury. Not only were there no cars, but the slight inclines meant for locomotives were very easy to handle with heavy touring loads.

Every little village has an old church in this part of the world.

When we were in a French-speaking village called Faymonville it even snowed a few centimetres one day. It didn't really affect us however, because we spent the day resting. The previous night we were looking for a place to stay when a car stopped and a woman asked if we needed help. When we explained the situation, she told us to follow her. Within a couple minutes we were taken to her hair salon where she had a studio apartment in the back.

She introduced herself as Caroline, with a heavy accent. She was like a character from a French movie, looking very chic, smoking cigarettes inside and pouring us some red wine. She wouldn't be 'ome for two days, and of course we could stay alone in her apartment and business place for the whole weekend!

So next morning I woke up and looked out the window to see snow falling. I briefly considered getting up to take photos, but just went back to sleep instead.

Merci beaucoup!

Wake up, it's time to ride!
Some of the water drops were still frozen when it was time to be back on the road.
 

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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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It's Always Sunny in the Netherlands

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It's Always Sunny in the Netherlands

I’m just gonna go ahead and be honest here: Not all places are equal. There were a lot of good things about Germany (the excellent bicycle lanes for example), but overall I just didn’t enjoy my stay there. Crossing into the Netherlands turned everything around.

Farmland seemed more idyllic, architecture more beautiful, the traffic less hectic. Even the weather improved and the sun came out. People were suddenly much more laid back and helpful, and they spoke English almost everywhere.

Despite being a very densely populated country, there were still some forests and nature to be found. In one tiny forest between two farms Isabelle woke me up because the light was great for photography. Which is one of the very few things I don’t mind waking up early for. There was a thick layer of fog and the sun was about to rise. I packed up my stuff quickly and cycled on alone taking photographs in the misty yellow light. After an hour I found an overgrown pasture with thousands of spiderwebs and I stayed there until Isabelle caught up with me for breakfast.

Cycling without a destination on a morning like this is the best thing in the world.
The entire field was full of spiderwebs everywhere you looked.

Later that day we rode through the Dwingelderveld National Park, with bicycle lanes going through an old forest painted with autumn colours. On the other side of the forest the landscape suddenly turned into something resembling the African savannah.

Here be lions.

Isabelle’s old work friend Ilse joined us in Wittelte on her bicycle. She's a funny Dutch girl who took the role of our local tour guide for four days. My experience of the Netherlands improved even more, with someone showing us around a few of the more hidden places, translating signs and explaining the local history. Mid-October brought a record heatwave and excellent camping weather.

In Giethoorn we cycled in "the Venice of Holland”, a village nestled among small canals with fairytale houses everywhere. It was so quaint and idyllic that the entire village looked like one huge museum or film set. Further evidenced by the signs in Chinese telling tourists not to walk inside the houses, because people actually live in them.

We stopped to sit at the terrace of a nice restaurant, where Ilse ordered lunch and pancakes in Dutch. I found out why she and Isabelle are friends, when my dessert was brought in by a line of smiling waitresses with sparkly fireworks wishing me another happy birthday. It looked like they were about to break into song, but probably thought better of it because I was sinking so far into my chair I almost broke the backrest.

"Act normal", I said.

"Act normal", I said.

Isabelle, Ilse and Kira, all ready to start the day.

After Ilse left us we had an evening of uncharacteristically bad weather. The headwind was awful, it rained horizontally, and we couldn’t find a place to stay. Camping was out of the question, so at sunset we started knocking on doors again. Outside a small village we tried a couple farmhouses without any luck. The neighbourhood seemed to be getting more and more expensive, and we came to one place that was really more of a mansion, probably costing millions. There was a fence around the premise, with a keypad and security camera by the gigantic black metal gate.

Clearly not the kind of place that would welcome two soggy Scandinavian bicycle bums looking for a place to sleep after dark. It would be a waste of time to even try, I thought. I looked around to share my assessment with Isabelle, but she was already ringing the doorbell, fixing her hair, and motioning me to come in front of the camera: “Try to look non-threatening!”

To my astonishment, the gate opened and a grey-haired man in his sixties came to the door. He didn’t speak English, but seemed unafraid and willing to help, and the words “tent”, “rain” and “roof” are universal hand signals. He opened the door to the barn and we were thrilled to have a nice clean dry floor to sleep on.

Then the wife walked in, introducing herself with a smile. She said this won’t do at all, and ordered us inside the house into a spare room, which she used as her painter's atelier. She didn’t speak English either, but chattered away with such bubbly friendliness that we managed to understand most of what she said regardless.

We changed into dry clothes and she returned with tea and an evening snack before we called it a night. In the morning she made us a huge breakfast better than in most of the expensive hotels I’ve been to in my life.

In the end, I still don't know much about the couple, except that they were willing to trust two complete strangers by letting them into their home. And that is a beautiful thing.

Some leaves are more quick to accept change than others.
 

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First Glimpse of Denmark at Mols Bjerge

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First Glimpse of Denmark at Mols Bjerge

I’m not one to usually admit being wrong, but oh boy, was I mistaken about Denmark. I've never really known much about it, to be honest - always thinking it’s just that boring flat country between Norway and Europe. If Sweden is a step down from Norway, I figured Denmark was a step down from Sweden. This was entirely false, in the way that assumptions tend to be.

First of all, bike paths were fantastic. I almost always had my own lane, and the signs were impeccable. There was no chance of accidentally straying from the bicycle route, which happened frequently in Sweden. Even in large intersections, which are usually intimidating in new cities and foreign countries, I had my own traffic lights and knew exactly where to go thanks to the painted lane.

The second thing I noticed was drivers in the countryside smiling and waving. That hadn’t happened to the same extent in quite a while.

And then there was the nature. My first stop was the Mols Bjerge National Park. It’s a mix of different landscapes from woodlands to moors, farms and cottages. The forests range from young plantations to very old beech forests stretching at least 30, if not 40, meters up. These giants block all the sunlight from reaching the ground, which is covered in a thick muddy carpet of leaves from previous autumns.

"We shall fight on the beeches..."

I had woken up uncharacteristically early, to prepare for stealth camping. If I sleep in a place where it's best to go unnoticed, it’s better to arrive at dusk and leave at dawn. As a result of an early start, I was also looking to camp already in the late afternoon. While searching for a place inside the national park, I came across a lively birthday party campsite with two adults and about eight little girls frying food around a fire.

It was about the warmest and most adorable welcome I’ve ever had. The kids asked me a barrage of questions, some even daring to speak english - rather well, I thought, for what looked like 11-year-olds. They all seemed to want my business card and to appear in the same photo with such a mysterious traveller. I asked the grown-ups for instructions and continued to a nearby campsite, all smiles after the unabashed curiosity and excitement of the children.

Evening view from the Mols Bjerge hilltop.

I came to a 137-meter tall hill, which is possibly one of the highest points in Denmark. There was an unobstructed view in every direction. Just below the hill were rolling green pastures for sheep and horses, beyond them some farm buildings, and in most directions I saw all the way to the sea.

The sun was setting, so I quickly pitched my tent by the picnic table. After it got dark I saw some flashes in the horizon far away - lightning! I’ve never successfully photographed one, despite a couple attempts earlier on this trip. I interrupted a time-lapse that was pointing in the wrong direction and aimed a new one at the storm instead. While waiting I fell asleep in my tent.

When I woke up the camera was completely soaked from dewdrops and the battery was dead. After a careful drying process I was happy to see it still working. Quite a few flashes had registered in the camera, and it also turned out that even the northern lights were visible while I slept. One lucky frame captured both of them!

Cool nature phenomena aside, there are many mistakes in this photo.

The morning brought even more goodness. Knowing there’d be early morning fog I got up before the sunrise. I’m glad I did. From my vantage point I saw a soft grey mist flowing between the hills. Then the sun rose and painted everything in a blindingly bright gold. This only lasted for a fleeting moment, before it vanished behind clouds again.

I was so happy to be alive and experiencing this special morning right there and then.

And to think I’m normally sound asleep at this hour. I’m going to make sure there will be more sunrise photos coming from now on.

Before sunrise.
... and after.
I've never regretted waking up early for a sunrise.
 

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Everything is Better in Norway

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Everything is Better in Norway

As a Finn, I’m well aware of our inferiority to Norway in every way. Having such a perfect neighbour is almost unfair.

Norway has vastly better landscapes and views, everything is cleaner and better maintained, buildings look nicer, and the people are happier and healthier. The air smells cleaner and water tastes better. Even their borders extend further south, west, north AND east than ours. Norway is so rich and generous they are seriously considering donating a mountain to Finland. It would be Finland’s highest point, but doesn’t even crack Norway’s top 100. Everything is bigger and better in Norway.

Welcome to Norway - even our roads are pristine. All of them.

The headwind was still blowing when I started again, so I only cycled across the border and to the first rest stop. Obviously a very idyllic and tidy rest stop with sixteen rolls of toilet paper in a bathroom that was made of solid gold. The forecast said the wind would calm down in an hour or two, so I had a slow lunch and did some bike maintenance while I waited.

My brakes had felt pretty weak earlier, so I adjusted the pads. Then I lubed my chain, fixed the mirror position, tightened a few screws here and there, and taped up a couple points in the front of the frame that were rubbing against wire casings. Presumably there were likely to be very few bumps in the exquisite Norwegian roads ahead, so I pumped a little more air into my tires to increase speed at the cost of suspension.

The brakes in particular are very important in a place like this with many long downhills. This is something I learned last summer in Lofoten Islands when both of my break pads wore down to nothing. I had to either walk my bike downhill or brake with one foot dragging on the asfalt, which wore down the sole of my left shoe to a nearly patternless smooth surface.

Late at night I found a great place to camp called Lulledalen, next to the Lullefjellet Nature Reserve forest. I was back in a coniferous zone (as opposed to the sparse vegetation and dwarf birches of Kilpisjärvi). There was a 2.7km path around the forest with many informational plaques. Apparently among the various flora of the forest they even have the rare yellow Lady’s Slipper orchid, but I couldn’t find it. Maybe it wasn’t blooming yet due to the cold early summer.

They even have laavus in Norway.

The nearby stream was so flooded even the spruce trees were in the water. (Long exposure shot)

While doing some customary typing in my sleeping bag before bed, I suddenly heard a deep loud rumbling sound that lasted a few seconds. At first I presumed it must be thunder, but it was far too cold for a lightning storm. Then I realized the sound was actually rocks - or more likely huge boulders - falling off the mountain on the other side of the river! Ho-lee crap. I hope no-one was camping under that. And there’s a lesson for me to steer clear of rocky walls when finding a place for my tent.

The mountain still seemed to be mostly there in the morning.

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First Stop: Lemmenjoki National Park

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First Stop: Lemmenjoki National Park

Lemmenjoki is the biggest national park in Finland. Its area is 2850 square kilometers (or in the Imperial system, half a million football fields, or about 50 Manhattan Islands). Because I chose to visit here, I only cycled about 30km on my first day. But I wanted to start slowly anyway, to remind myself that there’s absolutely no need to hurry.

I spent the night by a quiet little lake in the northernmost part of the park, surrounded by old pine trees. The road was within earshot, but there was practically no traffic. There were no paths and few signs of humans except for an old ring of charred stones. The bones of two reindeer were scattered here and there. By a wolverine, perhaps.

It was actually not my first visit there. I found the campsite by chance last August on a one-nighter bike trip. My tendency to sleep in late is widely documented, but on that particular occasion I happened to wake up before sunrise at 4am. It was quite fortunate, because that morning was perhaps the most beautiful one I’ve ever witnessed. A purple sky turning into a golden yellow as the sun rose, with fog rising from the water, and perfectly constructed spiderwebs becoming visible by clinging dewdrops twinkling in the undergrowth.

However, at this point in the northern summer, the midnight sun removes the possibility of sunsets or sunrises. And the cold water doesn’t provide correct conditions for fog. I only took a few photos and spent a nice quiet evening relaxing, eating, and thinking about what lies ahead of me.

All the photos in this post are from my previous visit in August.

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