Saturday, May 5, 2007

Europe by "Barge" 1987

It occurred to Doug the other day that 20 years ago this summer we pedaled our way around Europe for over three months. I certainly have never forgotten that somewhat epic trip for me, but I had neglected to make the connection that this was an ‘anniversary’ year.

Photos Above L-R: Our "barge bikes" resting on the coast of western Ireland; Stepping stones from campsite to the pub in Wales. It was one way to ensure some level of sobriety on the ride home; Doug crossing Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge in Northern Ireland. Not shown is the deep narrow canyon beneath.

I was just finishing an internship at the first of several return trips to school, so my participation in the planning process was negligible. It was also my first trip abroad. In those pre-Google days, however, about all an international bicycle traveler really needed was a good Michelin map. What we didn’t know ahead, we just figured out as we went along. Shudder to think we would consider doing that now!

When we arrived at London Heathrow, we sadly discovered our bikes did not make the plane transfers. Our change of plans required a few days layover and we headed out looking for the dirt cheapest place to stay. It turned out to be the “Polish Relief Center”---not that either one of us is Polish, but I did go through high school with a yearbook full of names like Wojciechowski and Mazurkiewicz. The accommodations befit the name; it was barely one rung above being on the streets. The Underground Tube (I swear) ran through our room.

Photos Below L - R: Riding across three passes and 60 miles on the Brecon Beacons in Wales. That evening I swore I had the best meal in my entire life at the pub; Doug enjoying cocktail hour at Mont St. Michel while waiting for the tide to go out and snap that world famous picture; Cheering on the lawn bowlers in Scotland. We passed them on the way to dinner at the pub, and they were still hard at it on the way home at 10 pm.

Our bikes arrived somewhat battered two days after us, and we hopped a train out of London to be on our way to find the backroads of Europe. 21 speed mountain bikes were not all that common on the roads in Europe in 1987. They held the weight of the front and rear panniers better than road bikes, but still rode like “barges”, so after a week we dumped a significant amount of expendable gear. We basically spent the summer with one extra T-shirt and shorts, a ‘going-to-dinner’ outfit, and rain jacket. We’d rinse out our shirts at night and air-dry them off the bikes while we rode. Tent, sleeping bag/foam pad, water bottles, cooking gear, reading/writing stuff, food, etc. consumed the rest of the space.

Photo L: A dapper (and highly successful) Welsh fisherman. When asked for his photo, he insisted on straightening his tie and arighting his suit jacket and hat. Doug asked about what fly he was using, underingstanding only about 1% of his thick Welsh accent.

Doug promised that he would never miss an opportunity to take photos along the way, and he kept his word. He would drop pre-paid Kodak 35mm mailers in the Post so they would be waiting when we arrived home. Photos of the scenery and architecture were no-brainers; but he really wanted to capture some of the people. At first he was shy asking them, but once he realized how charmed most of them were, he pursued it with great zeal. Although in recent years I have been known to shoot more photos, on that trip my only camera time was insisting upon a few pictures of Doug just to prove he was there.

We camped six out of seven nights in our miniature tent, dwarfed by the apartment-sized European outfits. With no set itinerary, when we tired of an area or its weather, we’d hop a train and head somewhere else. We still disagree about how many miles we logged during those 3+ months. The bike computer was damaged in transit, so it will forever remain a guess---Doug says 3,000 miles, I claim more like 4,000. If we really wanted to know, we could retrace our route on our well-worn maps. We still occasionally go back to our journals to refresh and recharge. We naturally complained a lot---it’s lunchtime and nothing’s open; cold showers in the camp; pub closed til 7 pm; the number of spokes Doug had to replace; wind, hills, rain---sometimes all three at once.

Photos Above & L: An equally dapper 2-wheeled bike commuter. Brits would call their cycles "push bikes", and there were a few hills where our barges earned that reputation; Kids outside a Cotswold grocery---they asked if we worked for the police department in America. We asked why would they think that? All they knew of America was T.J. Hooker, the most popular TV show at the time.

A year ago we were emptying out the storage locker where the hundreds of these slides had been stored, only to discover there had been a “water surge” under the locker door. Water wicked up and destroyed many of them. Memories flooded (emphasis intended) back about the trip. Remember the time….? 20 years has taken its toll on the slides, they’ve started to deteriorate. Guess I could say the same about myself.

Photo L: Our only picnic table in 3+ months! We stayed an extra night just to savor the good times.

But, here I am 20 years later, beginning another great adventure. We fly back into London next week before heading to France. Just for the heck of it, I tried Google-ing the “Polish Relief Center” to see if they we could book our old room. If they’re still in business, they’re one of the few without a website. If so, it's good to know some things might never change.

Photos Below L - R: Nancy's horns come out at a French market over a tasty pastry; street artist chalking Madonna & child in London or Paris??; a Cotswold butcher; at least a century-old Frenchman in his blue 'boiler suit' on bicycle with leather panniers.

Photo L: Women in traditional dress in Spaakenburg Netherlands. They didn't like to have their photos taken.


Judy said...

I'm still amazed at your stamina to do all that biking all over Europe, but what sights you must have seen close up and personal! Our European trips were always by car (that broke down in the Lake District in England) or by train but with 3 kids in tow. Ron would always pick up hitch hikers in the various countries and if they could speak some English we'd have a great time. Judy

Anonymous said...

Your very clear memories of these events 20 years later makes me envious! Luke is lucky if she can remember what day it is! As always, your pictures are lovely and they give me such a "feel" for where you've been.

Bon Chance with the new abode!