When you read this, I’m on my way south through the Alps from Switzerland to Monaco followed by Southern France, the Pyrenees and then north along the Atlantic coast. Mid May, I arrived in Biel, Switzerland, after biking 4,300k around Southern Europe during two months of spring. Arriving in Biel also implied passing the 60,000k milestone for this round-the-world trip and 85,000k of bike touring with my three trial runs around Europe. From Greece, through Southern Italy to Malta, Sardinia and Corsica; then across Northern Italy to San Marino and Garda Lake and finally across the Alps to Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
Biking around Southern Europe in spring was an amazing nature experience – most notable Malta and Corsica. Very diverse, from endless beautiful coastlines and gorgeous beaches to green forests and cultivated valleys with countless rivers and creeks as well as numerous stunning snow-capped mountains. An important factor for the experience was the great timing - everywhere blooming trees and flowers as well as temperatures in the 20Cs. The first 5 weeks including Corsica were sunny and dry while the last 3 weeks through Northern Italy and Central Europe offered unusually bad weather with many overcast and rainy days, but fortunately also some sunny days with blue skies. The most permanent about the weather was semi-strong to strong winds from ever changing directions.
With few exceptions, the roads were generally in good condition whether main roads or secondary roads – partly due to avoiding the cities and big towns where the road quality is always worse. The big roads had shoulders but seldom the smaller roads and never the narrow curvy mountain roads. The latter were quite dangerous since speeding was prevailing everywhere and most motorcyclists used the mountain roads as racetracks not expecting a bicyclist going 5 k/h. Southern Italy, Sardinia and Corsica were there worst with countless drivers squeezing by when no room and cutting corners/curves (sometimes all the way to the white right line in my side of the road). At the same time, few drivers had patience with me occasionally riding on the road (e.g. because of gravel or poor pavement) gesticulating, shouting or honking. In Corsica, two guys in a van tried to kill me – the passenger hitting me on the shoulder out of the window, while I was going downhill with 40-45 k/h. When confronting them and calling them crazy, the only comment was “and….? this is Corsica” like it was a universal explanation for killing anybody who misbehaved according to their rules.
I biked Southern Europe with my Greek friend Sonia. Before we left Greece, we had talked a lot about the potential challenges we could face and unfortunately they all materialised – we rode much slower and shorter than I do myself and we had daily disputes about camping. Over the weeks, our friendship was stretched to the limit and none of us were happy with the situation. The only reason we didn’t split up much before, was that Sonia didn’t want to bike alone and I had promised taking her to San Marino, so she could take a ferry back to Greece. It’s not so nice to say about a friend, but after splitting up, I felt a great relief.
We couchsurfed in Malta and San Marino, which were also the places we did some sightseeing. Otherwise we wild camped, which is generally illegal, but it of course worked out anyway. However, it was often difficult to find camp spots for two tents - the countryside was often open and/or fenced fields, while the mountain and coastal regions were either built-up or implied steep overgrown slopes. The best chances were abandoned roads or public land (e.g. by creeks/rivers) though in Switzerland I also camped in forests. The few times wild camping didn’t work out, local people were mostly helpful allowing camping on their land. Camping in a regional park in Southern Italy, around sunset a roadblock was established only 30m away and suddenly the police shot 100-150 rounds into the forest just next to us. We remained hidden, and an hour later two cars were towed by, so it was just an accident up the road. The police were likely bored, shooting randomly into the forest maybe after some animals. Even for me an unusual experience.
Southern Italy was poor with many ramshackle houses and cars and not least much garbage everywhere. From Sardinia to Switzerland, people and societies seemed richer and more organised with well-maintained houses/cars, neat gardens and recycle stations everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere. Southern Europe and especially Southern Italy is known for its hospitality, but I didn’t have that feeling. Maybe it’s a façade for paying tourists or maybe they are just uncomfortable with the unknown (long-distance bicyclists). We greeted everybody we passed by, but the locals rarely greeted us back (more often tourists). Many people ignored us, many had had blank stares (as if all life had been sucked out of them) and the rest stared in disbelief/disapprovingly, so maybe we were too unusual for some conservative communities especially in the mountain villages. People in Northern Italy seemed friendlier – more talkative, more greetings and few disapproving looks. I had the same experience with Eastern and Western Switzerland, with the western part being much more relaxed and friendly. Almost all the way, there were countless bicyclists, many in their own world completely focused on pushing themselves, but quite a lot returning the greetings though few were curious or courageous enough to stop and talk – or maybe just concerned about the language barrier.
As always, I had quite a lot of bike problems. After a week, I had a deep cut in my fairly new rear tire and had to change to a spare. My odometer sensor broke after some weeks and despite changing to a spare sensor, I had ongoing problems getting it to work. The biggest problem however, was my bearings – maybe due to the hard frost in Turkey or the sand storms in Asia? The stem bearings got worse and worse and in the end, I could hardly turn the handlebar, which was quite a challenge especially on the curvy mountain roads. My rear wheel bearings also worsened and I ended up riding +1,000k with very noisy crushed bearings (the wheel tilting 6-7mm to each side), before I finally found a shop where they were changed. Much later on the last steep hill before Biel, two spokes broke out of the hub and the rim was also damaged - likely because I rode so long on the crushed bearings. Incredible with another broken rear wheel (new from Istanbul), but at least it was only 25 kilometres from Biel, where I could have a new built while going to Denmark for a couple of weeks. Had it happened in the mountains or after leaving Biel, I would have been in big trouble. The bike shop guy noticed that the front wheel rim was “bending” outwards when adding tire pressure, so he strongly recommended getting a new wheel. Having done 85,000k, I knew it was long overdue, though I had hoped it could make it to Denmark. However, with lots of big mountains coming up, it was too risky not to change it.
Other equipment problems were a broken camera and broken pannier straps. On the very positive side, my new phone was brilliant – both the fast/precise gps and the sturdiness (a couple of times I dropped it on the pavement without a scratch).
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Navigate down through my travel description “Europe 2016/17” at the top of the dark blue menu bar on the left. You're of course most welcome to write in my guestbook and/or send me a personal message as well as referring people you think might be interested to my website - see options at the bottom of this mail.
I wish you and your family a great summer (or winter in the southern hemisphere) - may you be as happy and fortunate in life as I am.
Many greetings from Michael