Wednesday, 21 September 2011

It's Oh So Quiet

Sorry about the silence but since the last blog entry, somewhere around Lisbon at the end of August, things got a little bit hectic. For a start I had to race down to Gibraltar as I desperately needed to pay nearly twice as much for a pint in a duty-free country as in its non-duty-free neighbour, but mostly because I wanted a photograph of my bike with some monkeys climbing on it. Oh, and it's a capital.

Then there was the murderous traffic and non-existent shoulders of Spain's almost entirely flat N-340, lovingly known as the Road of Death. This links Gibraltar to Nerja, my final destination for 2011. As I had no desire to get squished, I had to take a massive detour inland, going from sea level up and over the 1100 metre pass near Ronda, adding more miles to my journey than I care to calculate. Nice scenery though.

But I did it. I arrived in Nerja. And on the last day, my old mountain walking pal, Boz, joined me for the final leg before kicking off the first of many celebratory drinking sessions.

This was followed by seven days in Majorca, playing with telescopes and spectrographs and a daily quota of three hours' sleep. Just like the Nottingham residential back in July, it was another fantastic week. It was harder work, with longer working sessions and no laid on entertainment, but it was full of equally great fellow OU students and climaxed with an utterly brilliant student-organised beach party. Toilet facilities were limited but there was always the Med.

But this is the end of the ride, for 2011 at least. Although I've still to calculate a more accurate figure, I've completed somewhere in the region of 9,000 arse-busting kilometres, visited seventeen countries and sixteen capitals (I'll do Madrid next year) and eaten lungs, spleens, intestines, stomach linings, eels, horse and marmots. I've paid one euro for a pint, met a woman who's climbed Everest twice, been called a tramp by a Christian, spoken bits of ten languages and met some of the nicest people in the world. This has been the best year of my life.

I've spoken to a lot of people about this ride. Many of them have said that they'd love to do something like this, not necessarily cycling but a big adventure. If you're one of those people, please go and do it. If you can't afford to do it yet, work out a plan so that you can. Eventually you will get ill, or old, or worse, and then you won't be able to do it. Do it now. Or plan it now and do it very soon.

For now, I'm taking a break. Not an actual relaxing break - I still need to write up a report for the astronomy residential, revise for my maths exam in mid-October, finish a 20,000 word philosophy dissertation before the New Year, learn as much Italian, Greek and Turkish as possible for next year, revise the Greek alphabet and learn the Cyrillic one, and train for a half-marathon or possibly a marathon in March as a way to keep the weight off over winter. But I'll take a break from this blog.

Action will resume some time in early 2012 while I prepare for the kick off of Year Two, a trip even more exciting than 2011's, with visits to central Turkey, a short excursion avoiding bears and landmines in Kosovo and experimenting with even more foreign languages in forgotten corners of forgotten lands like Albania. So please come back. I'll still be blogging occasionally for the OU on their Platform site (with links from the UniCycle50 Facebook page) but perhaps not as often as I have been doing.

So a massive thanks to each and every one of you for reading this blog, and for commenting, and for Facebook Liking and Twitter following. You probably don't realise the emotional spur your feedback provides. When I find an internet connection in a dreary backwater after a hard day in the saddle, the stuff you write lights up my day. I feel like I've personally carried all three hundred and odd of UniCycle50's Facebook Likers along with me. This has been great, but do you think you could all perhaps lose a bit of weight before I set off again next year?

And now the silence returns until 2012...

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Sweet Stink of Victory

One week left! It's just seven days until, after a victorious six months that have included sixteen glorious countries, and Liechtenstein, I can finally climb off the saddle for winter. That's if the saddle doesn't come off before then. It's falling apart. So are my handlebar grips, held together as they are with duct tape. And so are most of my clothes. Falling apart, that is, not held together with duct tape. Though that's an idea.

These last few weeks have been a lot harder than any that came before. For a start, there has been the heat, but I've already whinged about that and so I'll shut up about it. But to avoid the worst of the heat, I've been setting off at first light every day to grab at least an hour or two of cool morning air. It's been a bit like having a job. What am I talking about? Has it bollocks! This has been fun. Hard, but fun. It's nothing like having a job.

But the biggest difficult has been the lack of rest days. Because I need to get back to somewhere near Malaga airport for a flight to Majorca for the Open University's astronomy residential that kicks off in a week and a half, I need to be done by the 7th. And to finish by then, and to complete the rest of the route, it means I'll only have managed to have had two days off the bike since the 24th July. That's not enough. My legs are tired, my face is burnt and, worst of all, my trainers absolutely stink.

The Spanish road system hasn't helped, leading to extra, totally unnecessary miles. Spain has upgraded a lot of its A-roads to motorways, meaning that there is no longer a bicycle-friendly A-road between some major towns, just a motorway. I'm not supposed to go on motorways. I've sneaked on a couple when there really was no other option, ignoring the blaring horns of trucks warning me of my indiscretion. Although I've yet to be stopped, I was once beeped by the rozzers coming in the opposite direction. I'm not sure what they would have done if they'd been on my side of the road. Lucky for me, Spain abolished the death sentence in 2009.

Portugal is even more annoying. It didn't even bother to upgrade its A-roads to motorways. It just designated some bits of them with an IP number and that means faster traffic, minimal to zero hard shoulders and definitely no bikes. I tried one of those but I nearly cacked myself, and that really wouldn't have helped the trainers. I got off at the next turnoff and had a lie down.

But back to Spain. Between now and the 7th I need to get to and from Gibraltar to tick off my last capital for the year and, looking at the map, I'm really not sure how I'm going to manage that. Even the best one I can find only shows motorway access to Gibraltar. It looks like I'll be sneaking on another. Or does it still count if I arrive by hot air balloon?

So, one week from today, I will be sat drinking a large, icy beer on a deserted beach somewhere on the Costa del Sol. But, I hear you cry, there are no deserted beaches on the Costa del Sol. There will be when my trainers arrive.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Christian Etiquette and Tramp Chow Mein

Today has been an experience. I've honestly had two of the most depressing episodes in my entire six month long ride. It's not your fault, so don't blame yourself. Just settle back and read this shite.

First of all, I'm sorry. I lied to you. I did it for the right reasons - for comic effect - but I was repaid double. Y'see, in my last post, I mentioned that I'd been to a Chinese in Zaragoza where, thanks to sloppy serving, I had three courses on my table at once, and that the meal had lasted 15 minutes. That wasn't exactly true. I only ever had two courses on my table at any one time, which is bad enough, and the meal lasted about 45 minutes, which is still fast food, but it's been beaten here in a cheap Chinese in Segovia, and in quite spectacular fashion.

Here's what I ordered: hot 'n' sour soup, Vietnamese spring rolls, and sizzling duck with plain rice. Oh, and a bottle of wine. The wine arrived first - good. Then the soup. Thirty seconds into the soup, after hearing the frazzling of the spring rolls from the kitchen, came those little Asian parcels. OK, maybe the two startery things come at once. The main course will obviously wait. But no, the rice was there within another 30 seconds, and then - Jesus! - the sizzling duck arrived another minute after that. So, for the record, four courses (if we count the rice as a course, which they did on the menu) on the table at once. Super!

The soup was alright - nothing special - but the Vietnamese rolls were burnt, as though they'd been napalmed, which seemed appropriate, and by the time I got to the sizzling duck it had become emulsified duck, and wasn't really duck - just duck fat - but let's not forget that this was cheap. And it needed to be cheap because, sorry Mum, I'm now a tramp.

Yes, shortly after I arrived in Segovia, I was accosted by three young South American girls who wanted to tell me that God loves me. That's nice, I thought, that He's singled me out. But they didn't mean that. He loves everyone, the slag. We had a theological discusssion where I explained that I really didn't think there was a need for God in our understanding of the universe, and that, to me, the word 'spiritual' was just a substitute for the word 'emotional'. We all got on. Belief obviously made them happy. I had no use for it. No one was converted but we both walked away with a respectful understanding of each other. No crusades were launched. No one was stoned to death. Lovely.

Then half an hour later, I came across another bunch of Christians, all singing and flag waving. As they marched through the main square, one of 'em made eye contact and came over. He explained that he was from New Zealand and had once found happiness in girls and beer and surfing - which sounds pretty ideal to me - but God has shown him that this was wrong, the tool, and that there was another way. Right, not really interested in this story but can you tell me why Christians keep picking on me and telling me that God loves me? He replied, and I quote, "Because you look a bit red and sunburnt and that you might be homeless, and living on the streets". Mmm, cheers. God loves me 'cos I look like a hobo. How depressing!

Sadly, as it turns out, I am homeless. My flat in Blackburn is rented out. The closest thing I have to a home at this moment is a tent. There's always my mum and dad's. But that cheeky, presumptous shite didn't know that. Anyway, let's not dwell on his delusion. Back to the Chinese.

My meal looked like it was going to last twenty minutes if that. Now, I think that if you're going to pay 20 or 30 quid for a meal it should at least last an hour and half. And so, if only to amuse myself, I decided that it would do. I sat there and waited, and the staff glared at me, like I was shitting on their favourite beige rug. I'd love to say that they were a Gang of Four, but there were only three of 'em. Now, I have a little notebook in which I write stuff down, things like where I've been or the answers to maths assignments. And it's red. You might even say that it's a Little Red Book. The obvious Communist connotations (which I'm hoping are obvious - if not, I'm sorry) got them thinking. Is he a Maoist spy perhaps? Mmm. (Yes, I am, but they didn't know that.)

Eventually, after half an hour of glaring, I decided to go for dessert. Unfortunately, the lead and only Spanish-speaking member of staff had popped out for some reason, leaving a fat-headed bint in charge. I asked, in Spanish, if she had any ice cream. "You want bill?" she replied. No, ice cream. "Bill?" No, ice cream. "Bill?" No. I checked with the only other occupied table, a young Spanish lass feeding her boyfriend, who had both his hands bandaged. Was I pronouncing 'ice cream' correctly in Spanish? Si! Eventually fathead brought the menu and I pointed. Sorted! And a brandy? "The bill?" No. A fuckin' brandy. "The bill?" So I walked to the bar and reached for the bottle. Ah, now she got it. The ice cream and brandy arrived and I tried my best attempt at 'thank you' in Mandarin, which sounds something like "shear she" and always raises a smile. Now we were friends. The glaring stopped. I was no longer shitting on their carpet. But I was still a dirty, smelly, disgusting tramp. Happy days!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Baptise Me, Lord, And See My Nipples

Part of this has stopped being fun. Unfortunately it's the cycling part, the bit that takes up six to eight hours of my day. Now that I've hit Spain, the temperatures have gone mental. Yesterday it was 167C, and this is still northern Spain, in the shade. My stupid eyebrows exploded right off my face, which has at least solved one problem.

And in order to finish the tour with enough time to reach Majorca in early September for the OU astronomy residential, I've had to up the daily mileage. Today it was around 140 kilometres, and that's not actually a joke, although I wish it were. It was boiling. Every half an hour I'd buy a bottle of cold water, and within ten minutes it was tepid. Ten minutes later, the plastic had melted.

But eventually I reached my target, Zaragoza, a Spanish city I knew absolutely nothing about. Was it industrial? Was it a secret gem? Was it twinned with Peckham? I didn't know. From the smoking stacks visible from the hills around, it didn't look too promising, and then I descended and things picked up. After negotiating the suburbs, suddenly there was a magnificent mosque-like cathedral. Great! More about that later.

The mosque churchy thing

I cycled around and eventually found a cheapish hotel, the Hotel Sauce, a Carry On film hotel name if ever there was one. And then I popped out for a wander. Oh Lordy, what was going on? The streets were full of religious types, all in their teens, from all nations, parading around with banners and t-shirts and testosterone. Some of 'em were even dressed in robes, and these were, let's not forget, teenagers. Surely God isn't that twisted?

Homoerotic teenage monk fondling

I continued to explore. It turned out that the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, the big churchy thing which isn't a mosque though looks like one from some angles, where some miracle didn't happen in 40AD despite what numpties think*, was to be the centre of a massive international youth Godathon. In the same square as that frankly gorgeous church is an equally impressive water feature. My Mum would love it in her garden. If her garden were eighty times bigger. It's a sort of cascading irregular shape where the water eventually ends up in a trough that could easily accommodate a dozen or so people. The Christians were in there today.

With the wheelchairs gathered around the fountain, it was clear that some well-meaning types had intended to get the crippled walking again with the power of tap water. When that hadn't worked they'd resorted to baptisms. When they'd realised that this was Spain and everyone was already baptised, it basically turned into a wet t-shirt competition with the blokes dunking the girls and then getting semi monk-ons and becoming all guilty about what they would own up to at their next confession.

God loves you! Especially in that wet t-shirt!

Oh hum. I went for a Chinese, which was the quickest meal I've ever had. At one point I had three courses on my table at once. (Here's an idea. Let me finish this course before you bring the next one. OK?) It was soon over - about 15 minutes later - and then I went back out to see how the revival was going on.

Jesus. The square now had a floodlit stage containing a dozen seated Vatican types. At regular intervals a squadron of national Goddies would get up and deliver a monotone piece, while something like two thousand teens sat enrapt. What were they getting out of it? What about nightclubs and cider and feeling up girls in the park? Surely that's fun, not this. This was clearly going to go on for hours.

Where else would you rather be on a Saturday night?

I couldn't take it. The crowd was with them, lighting candles and swaying like alcoholics at a Bryan Adams gig, but I wasn't. Yes, I know you're only 15 but GROW UP! Despite what your t-shirt says, God doesn't love you. You've made Him up. He actually does nothing for you. You, yes you, just have to make this world work for you. Which I suppose is what you're doing. By being happy in your deluded, dream-like state. Which is not really something I can knock you for. Better that than have you smash up the place, like in London or Manchester. Hell, I hate it when religion provides some sort of answer.

Oh, next time, please could you chuck the fit ones into the fountain instead.

* How do I know? Read David Hume's "Of Miracles".

Friday, 12 August 2011

Sailing In Andorra

I'm officially over the hill. I don't mean that I'm in my forties and knackered, though that's true as well, but I have conquered what will probably be my highest peak of the entire three year ride - the Envalira pass to get from France to Andorra. At over 2,400 metres it takes some pedalling. And I didn't see a single other tourer on either side of the hill, just Tour de France types with their big, soppy, helium-filled bikes and total lack of luggage, something that made me feel good and filled me with a sense of smugness usually only granted to Tory MPs.

I didn't know what to expect of Andorra. When I posted my, erm, slightly negative comments about pointless Liechtenstein, I remember someone on Facebook saying that Andorra is just the same but higher. But he or she was very, very wrong. Andorra is absolutely gorgeous. It could be the delirium of getting to the top of the hill that made me think that, but I don't think so. It's just endless vistas of beauty. And of Andorra la Vella, the capital, I was expecting three houses and a dog, but it's a fantastic, bustling, little city situated in a natural bowl, with the Pyrenees on all sides.

I like it when I turn up somewhere new and I have someone to meet. On this trip I've met some great people. I've told you about some of 'em. But I met one of my favourites, Clare, the most inspiring, wonderful woman I've probably ever encountered, in Andorra. To look at her, she seems like any other 65 year old woman, but bloody hell has she had an amazing life? And she has the energy of a busload of 18 year old girls with firecrackers in their pants. She's driven across Asia, and sailed to everywhere except Jupiter, and has a million stories to tell. Her husband, a spritely if now slightly deaf 95 year old called Edward, is also a legend. He started sailing when he was six years old and continued into his early nineties. He's been around the world more times than the moon. I wanted to suck his sailing knowledge out of his head with a straw, but I suspect it wouldn't have helped his hearing.

People like Clare amass friends in the way that most of us amass bills - effortlessly - and she introduced me to several interesting ones, including an OU student called Kirsty, and Cathy, a motivational speaker, who's climbed Everest from both sides. That afternoon Clare was volunteering as an interpreter for non-Catalan speakers at the local, immaculately maintained hospital. She took me along for a look around. She introduced me to a British patient there and said, "This is Steven. He's just cycled over Envalira today. Can you imagine that?" I smiled. "Yes, I can," she replied. "A friend of mine does it every year when he comes to see us. He's seventy." My smugness withered and died.

I've tried hard to get my Mum online. She dabbles with the internet but it doesn't come easy. I didn't even bother with my Dad. But both Clare and Edward are computer demons. I showed him UGRIB, a freeware application for downloading global weather data, something unimaginable when he was sailing. To see him on the PC made me want to shake my Dad and say, "Look how much fun you can have with a computer!" But, if my Dad did use it, I know he'd only end up downloading naked pictures of Ann Widdecombe.

I stayed the night at Clare and Edward's. Their living room is stunning, with large windows that frame the mountain views around them. I would have loved to have stayed longer and heard more stories, but Clare was off to the UK the next day with an absolutely mental itinerary, seeing about four hundred different friends in a week that involved driving about two thousand miles. I spent less than twenty four hours in her company but I felt like I'd known her all my life. They've both written a handful of books about their sailing experiences. I'll hunt them out when I get home and get my stories that way.

So, if there is a God, which there isn't, but never mind, as I enter my sixties, please give me Clare's energy. And as I approach my mid-nineties, please can I have Edward's mental capacity? Hell, give it to me now. Half of it will do. OK then, a quarter. Just do what you can, God.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

So Long And Thanks To All The Swiss

I think I judged the Swiss unfairly when I wrote that "everyone seemed to lumber around like zombies". Generalisations are always lazy. I think that may just apply to everyone in Zürich. Yes, everywhere else the people were lovely, eager to return a smile, sometimes even initiating them. It's not what you expect from an even partly Germanic people. Those five years I had in Graz were spent smiling at people only to receive endless frosty glares. Don't misunderstand me. Mine weren't leery, you-fancy-some? smirks, but casual, top-o'-the-morning-to-you beamers. Bugger 'em, I thought, I'm just going to keep on smiling. Then I asked the German wife of a friend of mine what she would think if a stranger smiled at her and she replied, "I'd just think he was mental". Fair enough. But the Swiss don't think like that and, for that, I thank 'em.

And although Zürich's prissiness didn't really do it for me, as I've already written, and Lucerne looks an identical copy except for the addition of a mountain, Switzerland grew on me the farther west I went. Although at least one of my Zürich-dwelling Facebook friends described Bern as 'a toilet', I quite liked it. But I come from Blackburn, and I know a toilet when I see it. No, Bern had a bit of atmosphere. I still couldn't afford to breathe there but you can't have it all. And then, just down the road from Bern, there was Fribourg, a stunning, little place with a magnificent bridge over its huge gorge. To the west of Switzerland the villages get a little shabbier and more, well, French, but they're better for it. At least you can imagine the people there doing human things, like having sex or going to the toilet, unlike some of the places out east that I passed through. So, thank you, west Switzerland for enabling me to really enjoy the place.

But the biggest thank you for Switzerland goes to Elli, who washed my clothes, and dried my tent, provided a bed for two nights and a day-long family of cycling partners, a safe place for my bike during the maths residential and de-stinked a fatty marmot for my dinner. And then, as a bonus, she served me donkey milk for my final breakfast. It was...interesting. Apparently it's the closest thing to breast milk you can get. Apart from breast milk, which even generous Elli was reluctant to provide. So thank you, Elli.

When it comes down to it, I'm not sure of a person's motives for visiting Switzerland. There's nothing it has that its neighbours don't have, and the prices are double, but if you want to meet nice, friendly people or stay in a country where you probably won't get stabbed in the face, or if you fancy marmot stew, I suppose it's not to be entirely discounted. (Except for the marmot stew. That's only for special visitors.) If your motive is just to tick off another country or another capital then you, and I, have to accept that we're just going to have to pay for the pleasure. But I'm really glad I did, thanks.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Peter Sutcliffe Loves His Algebra

Bloody hell! The Open University residential was amazing. I went there expecting to learn about mathematical modelling and instead I befriended the cohorts of the sickest minds in Britain. And it wasn't even a LibDem residential.

It started off in the pub on the first day. The subject came around to sport. I can't really talk football but I like watching Blackburn (which many would argue isn't football at all) because it embraces the eternal optimist in me. If you support Manchester United or Chelsea then anything but a massive victory is a huge disappointment. As a Rovers fans, I'll happily take a 1-0 defeat because it should probably have been a lot worse. When I mentioned my fondness for the Blue and Whites, Jamie on my left said that he didn't think I'd find many football fans in a roomful of mathematicians. I didn't believe him. So I did a straw poll of my other tablemates. And - buggering hell - he was completely right. Apart from Don, who couldn't decide whether he supported Charlton or Chelsea and ended up saying "I just support football", which really doesn't count, no one else was a fan. Out of six, it was just me. But then, totally unconnected to this - or 'apropos of nothing' in wankspeak - Jamie let it slip that he was from Gloucester.

Before I continue, let me explain that I actually have no fascination at all with the perverts and serial killers that have recently featured on this blog but there's a reason for my interest in one of 'em. I used to run a comedy sketch group. I'd never performed on stage before I started it, and my acting skills were (and still are) zero. But I discovered that the more remote a character I played was from my personality, the more comfortable I felt on stage. It's like hiding. And, for this reason, or so I constantly told myself, I always felt happiest playing the part of a certain recurring comedy character we had called Fred West.

Back to the story. Gloucester is Fred West's home town. I thought I'd try a punt. "Did you know Fred West then?" I asked. "No," he replied. Obviously. "But I used to walk past his house every day." Wow! OK, Gloucester isn't massive. Perhaps everybody walked past his house. Maybe he lived near a Greggs. Surely, this was entirely normal.

So, for reasons of statistical analysis - we'd tried the football poll after all - I turned to David on my right. I knew he hailed from Holmfirth, the location of The Last of the Summer Wine, and not too far from Sheffield. So I casually asked him, more sarcastically than anything, if he had any connection to Peter Sutcliffe. At this stage I'd known him for about three hours and was expecting a solid no or maybe a smack in the face, but he replied, "How close a connection?" It turned out he had two. He'd lived in Sheffield's red light district back in the 70s and was on nodding terms with the prostitute who was in the car with Sutcliffe when he was arrested. As a doctor, he also knew a bloke who'd analysed samples of Sutcliffe's victims. Now c'mon. Two out of two. That's spooky.

Chas decided he'd had enough and retired, and while Don was at the bar, I explained the backstory to Londoner Chris and asked, just to amuse myself really, whether he had a connection to anything as sinister as the other two. "No," he replied. Of course. See, entirely normal. "Ah, maybe. My grandma used to have regular phone conversations with Ronnie Kray." Jesus freakin' Christ!

So there you have it. I haven't done much statistics with the OU yet and so this all may be a bit flawed, but from my data, only 16.667% of mathematicians like football, but 50% of 'em have established connections to famous murderers and perverts. Mmm, I bet Carol Voderman is Josef Fritzl's daughter.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Observing Syphilis in Zurich

In Liechtenstein's pretend capital city, Vaduz, I thought I'd been robbed when I bought a kebab for eight Swiss francs. I hadn't realised I'd scored myself a bargain. In Zurich they cost up to four hundred thousand pounds. Normally, wherever you are in the world, the kebab house is a safe bet if you want a cheap meal and can't be arsed to cook. In Switzerland, if you want a cheap meal and can't be arsed to cook then you just have to pretend you've already eaten. Even the bins are padlocked to prevent you from helping yourself to someone's mouldy old leftovers.

And it's not just restaurants. Supermarkets are so dear they have to display their prices in exponential notation. An entry level, scrawny chicken starts at about eight quid. The sort that would cost you three quid at home is more like twelve here. I thought I'd found some fish that compared favourably to Spain until I realised that its price was for 100 g rather than a kilogram. Yikes!

In the Co-op near our apartment the trolleys had a strange additional feature - a magnifying glass on the side. The Lovely Nina hadn't really looked too closely and had taken it to be a side mirror to allow safer navigation around the supermarket aisles. It's not such a silly idea. You can imagine the Swiss doing that, indicating to go into the Cheese section and then pulling out slowly. So why the magnifying glass? I reckon it was so I could see the piece of meat I could actually afford to buy. Or perhaps you could manoeuvre the glass over the top of your trolley and thereby convince yourself that you weren't going to starve to death this week.

Zurich's an odd place. Perhaps we caught them on a bad day but everyone seemed to lumber around like zombies, with no expression except a slight scowl. Signs of life were difficult to detect. I've since discovered that Zurich is twinned with Stepford.

But it's a pretty enough city, nestled on the shore of Lake Zurich, and it's got some interesting attractions. Yesterday we visited the Kunsthaus. That's the art gallery by the way, and not the Swiss parliament as you might have guessed. We had a pleasant afternoon examining its Picassos, van Goghs and Rodins and getting told off by the staff for various misdemeanours. Nina was in a playful mood. I should have known that taking along those felt tips was a bad idea.

More unusual was the Moulagenmuseum. This contains hundreds of wax recreations of hideously disfiguring diseases and skin conditions. Although it would appeal to those fascinated by the macabre, it's in a room at the medical university and is a genuine educational tool. Speaking of tools, it was heavy on syphilitic genitalia, great swollen penises and a particularly unattractive, oozing vagina that seemed to be developing its own collection of elephantiasised raspberries. This was powerful anti-porn. I now know how to diagnose various sexually transmitted diseases. Well, it's something for the CV, isn't it? By the time we emerged from the horror show we both felt pretty queasy. We didn't mind in the slightest. Neither of us felt like eating. At least that solved the problem of the supermarket prices for a while.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Liechtenstein, You Pointless Sod

Since we last spoke I've done two more countries. Well, I haven't really done Switzerland yet - I've only just poked my nose around its door. And yesterday I didn't really do Liechtenstein because there really was nothing to do. I apologise to any Liechtensteiners reading this but I just have to ask: 'What exactly is the point of you?'

I was expecting Liechtenstein to be another Luxembourg, y'know, a place that doesn't really draw the masses but hides a little gem. But whereas Luxembourg was gorgeous, Liechtenstein wasn't anything at all. The good views it possesses actually belong to Austria and Switzerland sitting either side of it. The capital, Vaduz, has the population of a Port Vale versus Grimsby match on a wet Saturday in February and with even less to entertain you. Let me illustrate this with an example: Liechtenstein's biggest tourist draw is a denture factory. Dear me.

It could have been so much more. There's an attractive, little castle up on the hill over Vaduz. Unfortunately, the royal family live up there, gurning smugly from on high, and won't let us proles have a look inside. We're supposed to be content with the gnashers emporium while they lounge around on thrones, smoking €500 notes and eating swan butties.

Last night - my first in Switzerland - there was a storm. It wasn't a massive storm. It rained quite a lot, there was a little thunder and lightning, and for one brief moment it blew a bit, but it was nothing to worry about. Not unless you're the tent pole of my Hilleberg Nallo GT2. In which case it was such a devastating occasion that the only sensible thing to do was to go into a deep panic and snap once again.

You may be thinking that my tent had been doing well of late since I haven't mentioned it self-destructing for a while. But that's not really true. Rooms were cheap in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And then I had well over a week in Austria staying with mates. And then, bizarrely, rooms in the eastern half of Austria weren't too expensive either. So I've only actually used the tent five times since Prague. Here, have some statistics (as of 8th July):

Number of times tent used on this trip: 37
Number of broken poles: 8
Days per broken pole: 4.625
Number of remaining spare pieces if I continue to use just two poles instead of three: 5
Estimated number of camping days before having only one working pole renders tent utterly useless: 23

Now, in Switzerland and France, rooms are expensive and so I'll need to camp every day. I return from my Open University residential on the 25th July. This means - by my calculations - I have until 17th August before the tent is a goner. Unless Hilleberg, the tent's manufacturer, can replace the broken poles with their new and much improved version. Failing that, it'll have to go in the bin. Or maybe I'm missing an opportunity: I could take the knackered tent back to Liechtenstein and open it as a tourist attraction. Roll up, roll up!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Marmot for Gary Glitter

You're a dodgy lot. I'm slowly developing a profile of my typical blog reader. My last entry, the one that mentioned Josef Fritzl in its title, was my second most read post since I began. The only thing to beat it was the one a few months back entitled "My Life As Fred West". You see a pattern emerging here? Yes, me too. I haven't worked out yet whether you're darkly fascinated by murder and sexual abuse or whether you're actually looking for tips on how to construct a soundproof cellar or lay a decent patio. Anyway, the mention of Gary Glitter in this post's title was bait. And it lured you in, didn't it? You sick, little puppy.

I'm in a strange place right now. I don't mean emotionally. I'm not that complex. I mean my location. I'm staying in a typically Austrian Gasthof - y'know, all timber and pretty, little flowers spilling from the balconies, dispensing schnitzels and leberknödelsuppes to the locals - except that this Gasthof is run by a Chinese family. It makes a nice change. It's like Heidi meets Bladerunner. And, not surprisingly, they do Chinese food too. For lunch I've just had their Eat-All-You-Want buffet. All I would say is that you should read the labels of the things you put on your plate carefully. Garlic sauce and battered bananas isn't a winning combination. Incidentally, Eat-All-You-Want is not the same as the more American concept of Eat-All-You-Can.

Anyway, I've reached the end of the road. I'm in Zams, Tirol. There's only one sensible way out of this place and that's the way I came in. If you want to continue west you have to go over a 1800 metre pass or burrow through a thirteen kilometre tunnel. As a cyclist I'm not allowed in the tunnel and so your deductive powers have already told you my way out is going to involve pain. At least though there's something to look forward to on the other side of the agony. Well, several things. In five days' time, I meet The Lovely Nina in Zürich for a few days of intense joy before she heads back to Spain and I fly to the UK for a week-long Open University maths residential in Nottingham. I'm particularly looking forward to the exercises involving curves. And the residential should be good too.

But before then I get to meet Elli, OU graduate - definitely graduate and no longer a student, she insists - in Switzerland. Just as my cousin Sarah removed all the pain from the French round of my Eat Something Stupid challenge by getting her hubby to lovingly cook up that poo sausage, Elli's made my life easier too. She's only gone and 'acquired' a bloody marmot, hasn't she? I don't know whether this means she's been secretly out in the hills with a rifle or just that she's a particularly clumsy driver. Not only will this be the first marmot I've eaten, but also my first ever rodent. This is big! About 28 inches long, but I didn't mean that. It's one thing to eat a new species, but Rodentia is a brand new order! Rumour has it that marmot doesn't taste that great. Even better. This was never supposed to be easy.

But why am I telling you all this? You're not interested. All you want is stuff about Peter Sutcliffe or that German cannibal who cooked and ate the other bloke's penis, isn't it? And you'd probably prefer it in the form of a poem, wouldn't you? OK then, just to try and appease you I'll give you a limerick about Gary Glitter and marmots:

I don't know whether it's clear,
But Glitter likes games with his rear,
Even he lost the plot,
When he bought a marmot,
And sex advice from Richard Gere.

Happy now?

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

An Ode To Josef Fritzl (And Others)

Austria is starting to annoy me. It's too pretty for sarky comments. How the hell are you supposed to take the piss out of somewhere so perfect? So instead, let's talk people. And I think Austria provides some serious mileage here.

The Lovely Nina's challenge for this beautiful land was an interesting one. I had to write a poem that contained some of Austria's most notable characters. So in the absence of anything to say about the country, here I present my pitiful effort. You probably don't want to read this if you're easily offended, and especially if you're my Mum.

by Steven Primrose-Smith

Arnie was a hero once, but left for pastures new,
From Conan to the Governor, his reputation grew,
The Austrians were most surprised, his brains so full of cack,
And no one here in Graz is chuffed, when he says, "I'll be back!"

Hitler is a warning call to all those Mums and Dads,
Whose kids are over-influenced by violent X-box fads,
Buy them something boring like a sponge or, say, a whisk,
Adolf's folks regretted most ever buying Risk.

Fritzl was a family man, and such a loving fella,
He liked to keep his children safe, so locked 'em in the cellar.
No one doubts he cared for them, in his own special way,
They say he loved his daughter least three times a day.

Not so many years ago, a bloke called Mister Freud,
Obsessed on genitalia, so much that it annoyed.
Oedipus, Freud announced, had fallen for his Mum,
But if she's fit, what's wrong with it? (But safer in the bum.)

So here we have four pillars, supporting this small land,
It seems that freaks and Austria are always hand in hand,
There's Adolf, Freud and Arnie and of course there's Mr Fritzl,
What's the secret formula? I blame it on the schnitzel.


Yes, OK, sorry about that but a challenge is a challenge. Box ticked. Anyone care to add a verse?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

How To Blow Your Nose Off

Oh Leberkäse - what a thing of beauty you are! Never has abattoir slurry been more attractive. If you've never tried it I recommend that you book yourself on the next flight to Graz immediately, drink yourself into a lather and then reach for a slice of this offally good snack as a morning hangover cure. It works. Really. And if it doesn't, what have you lost?

Describing Leberkäse without making you feel ill is quite difficult. It looks like a meat blancmange. Well, when I say meat, I mean all the bits that can't be sold as meat in their own right, ground to a paste and then baked like a cake. It's like Spam without the class. Its name literally translates as 'liver cheese', but the inclusion of 'liver' in the name is just to attract more punters. It doesn't contain anything as recognizable as that.

It's best served on a bun with a giant squirt of mustard and a good shaving of fresh horseradish. You have to treat fresh horseradish with respect. It's not like the mildly pungent creamy sauce you sometimes get with beef in Britain. This stuff can blow your nose off your face. When I used to live here back in the 90s, I took an English friend of mine to an Austrian restaurant. She ordered a plate of cold meats, which, as is fairly normal here, was topped with a fistful of the freshest grated horseradish. I feel bad. I didn't warn her in time. "Oh good," she said, "mozzerella!" She picked up a giant forkful and stuffed it in her gob. She couldn't really explain what happened next. Cheese doesn't normally do that. She danced around with her eyes streaming, wafting her face and howling. I think she thought she was dying. I'm glad it happened though because, first, it serves as a warning to anyone reading this, but mostly because I laughed my tits off. Her nose has only recently grown back.

Other Austrian meat products are equally dangerous. If you want a tasty sausage I recommend the Käsekrainer. But don't fry one without supervision, for inside its dense meatiness are hidden pockets of cheese. And as its core temperature increases, the cheese somehow transmutes into molten lava. Prod it roughly enough in the pan to break its surface and you'll be down Graz's A&E with a badly charred but really quite delicious eyeball.

Austria's good at soups and stews too. Leberknödelsuppe is a baseball-sized liver dumpling floating in a warm bath of beef bouillon. It's delicious although visually it's very reminiscent of an overly full potty. But there's one thing in this category I've never, ever had despite having lived here for five years. And, as you might have guessed, I'm hoping to sample it on this trip. It's called Beuschel. This is a heart, lungs, spleen and liver stew. Doesn't that sound yummy? No? I didn't even know you could eat a spleen. Why did we stop eating them? Why aren't there spleen-flavoured crisps? Is it because it tastes disgusting? Or maybe it has a foul odour. If it does, there's a simple solution. I'll just reach for a handful of horseradish and launch my nose across the room.

Bis später!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Today My Beard Took A Life

The Lovely Nina has cursed me. In her crazy attempts to inject spirituality into my existence she's gone too far. All these occasions when I've been forced to visit temples and churches to satisfy her challenges, or perform incantations beside gravestones, have turned me. My beard has become enchanted. It's gone thoroughly evil.

First off, its length has got seriously out of hand. Every time I look in the mirror I grab the phone and immediately start calling the Sex Offenders' Hotline. But it's gone beyond that. Today, while casually walking through the centre of Bratislava, a young woman whizzing past on her bike glanced at me. I thought nothing of it, and then - thump! - I turned around and there she was, picking herself up off the floor, while a middle aged woman lay unconscious in the middle of the road. My beard did that! Distracted by the idea of Peter Sutcliffe walking unshackled around her hometown, the girl's only option was to terminate the life of a tourist. Bad beard!

But I can't shave it off yet. Many centuries ago I did a psychology A-level. I remember learning that there are times that we only remember things when we are in the same state we were when we learned them. So there are facts that you may have learned while you were off your tits that you'll never remember until you take your tits off again. And because I've revised for my planetary science exam on Monday with beard, what happens if I shave it off? Will I lose the knowledge? It's too big a risk. I'd have to sit in the exam hall for three weeks until I grew it back again. And there are other good reasons for keeping it. It's got so long now that I sometimes find snacks in it, and you never know when that's going to come in handy. This morning I found a 12" Subway.

I got lucky when I arrived in Bratislava. I turned up at the tourist office and asked for a cheap hotel and the nice lady there took one look at me and thought, "Where would Captain Birdseye like to stay in Bratislava?" and she immediately offered me a boatel - that's a boat that's also a hotel - a boatel! It's a rusty, old thing moored up on the Danube, but the room is great and the staff are super-friendly. Perhaps that's because they think I'm the skipper. I've even got the biggest cabin, and the only one with a balcony. We're all going to make Fish Fingers later.

But even though I've only been here for two days, it's time for me to leave. Slovakia doesn't get a proper exploration because it carelessly sited its capital right on its border with Austria and so there's no need on this trip to venture further inside. And that's a shame because the good stuff - Slovakia's amazing mountains, rivers and lakes - are all miles away, and time doesn't allow me to have a look. Maybe on a future trip. If my beard hasn't destroyed the universe by then.

Oh lovely, I've just found a Snickers. Good beard.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Beware - I Am BikeBot!

I've mutated. I am no longer human. And it's appropriate that in the country whose language gave us the word 'robot', I've morphed into BikeBot. After all the jibes about saddle-induced boils and painful undercarriages, I am no longer comfortable unless I am on my bike. When perched on its slowly disintegrating saddle, I am complete. I'm not particularly quick, but the legs pump and I glide across the face of Europe. But when I'm off the bike, things are not so good. I move around with the grace of Albert Steptoe.

I'm slowly falling apart. The latest problem is a dodgy left knee, which was agony walking around Brno yesterday. But ask it to cycle several tens of kilometres this morning and it's perfectly fine. I'm not sure how that works. Presumably it's the cycling that has caused the damage, and so why doesn't it hurt when riding? It is because I am BikeBot, homo cyclis.

I was also warned of the backache that would ensue by using a rucksack instead of front panniers. But I only get backache when I take the bugger off. Walking around a city or village without it, a pain shoots from my lower back down my right leg and then everything goes numb and I can't really move. I'm sure it's something muscle-related but maybe each evening I'm having a stroke.

So two legs bad, two wheels good. If I'm at an hotel, it's now getting to the point when, rather than walking, it would be more comfortable to cycle up the stairs. And there have been a lot of hotels in the Czech Republic. If I'm being honest, rather than the image you might have of me lying inside my pokey, little tent in a waterlogged campsite, I've lived like a king in this country. My hotel tonight costs €12. It's difficult to motivate myself to sleep in a field for a couple of euros less. And despite the kilometres, I'm pretty sure I've put weight on here too. It's the food. Ah, who am I kidding? No, it's not; it's the beer. When beer is only one euro a pint, it doesn't have much impact on the daily budget and so it tends not to get reckoned at all. And then suddenly I find I've had thirty-six pints and there's no money left for anything else. Except dumplings. Mmm, dumplings.

So my advice to you if money is tighter than normal this holiday season is to come to the Czech Republic. It's got some gorgeous, little villages (and, it has to be said, some god awful ones too), the most beautiful capital in Europe (so far) and it's cheap. The only problem is that, outside of Prague, you might struggle unless you speak some German. But learning a new language is a small price to pay for such a wonderful holiday. And when you're here, and you see me creased up in the corner of a town writhing around in agony, you can carefully put me back on my saddle and I will be happily on my way again.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Beer, Dumplings and Jewish Metamorphosisms

I'm stood dripping at the top end of Prague's most famous square, beneath the statue that provides its name. Good King Wenceslas looks down on the beast of Steven, a pink, sweaty freak with luminous eyebrows that make me look like a reverse Alistair Darling. Prague is hot today, but I've reached the Czech Republic's temporary Open University office at last. I hang about for a bit to cool down but I'm still a mess by the time I present myself. Jana and Lucka (whose name may be missing one or more of the Czech language's millions of diacritical marks, in which case, sorry) don't seem to mind and revive me with coffee and water. It's all change at OU Prague. They're moving from this small office to much bigger premises out of the centre soon. We have a nice chat and agree to meet the next day for a beer.

Mmm, beer. I may have mentioned this before but beer in outrageously cheap in the Czech Republic. In Prague, if you avoid the obvious tourist-milking outlets, a pint is one tenth of the price it is in Paris. And it's great beer too. It's not the fizzy pap you usually get fobbed off with in the UK now that the lager-producing monopolies are in power. But that's only one of the reasons why I love Prague. If Berlin is the city I want to live in, Prague is the one I want to visit as often as possible while I'm living there. The place is amazing to look at, with architecture covering eight centuries, and beautiful statues lying about all over the place. And from my random sample of four people I met here in Prague, it's full of great people too.

I met fellow Northerner Jamie on my first evening at a blues gig just around the corner from Charles Bridge. He's lived in Prague for seven years and is a friend of The Lovely Nina's sister, who suggested we should meet. I'm glad she did. Stan the Man, a Prague legend, was playing his electric blues that night. The club is little bigger than a single car garage but the atmosphere was rocking. Jamie is a guitar hero himself. I met him again on Wednesday night at the same venue to watch him play his own, more laid back, thoughtful acoustic blues. Watching Jamie is a mixture of pleasure and pain - pleasure because of the sound he makes with seemingly effortless fingerwork and rugged but note-perfect singing, and pain because I know I'll never be able to make a sound like that. I've played guitar for nearly fifteen years and I'm still utterly shite. I have the manual dexterity of Abu Hamza. If you're ever in Prague, Jamie has regular gigs at U Maleho Glena. Go and see him - you'll like it. You can also catch him at

After the show I got talking to a teenage guitarist from Ukraine who was about to begin studying in Prague, although he didn't have any idea what subject that might be. He looked like a cross between Brian May and my fifteen year old nephew, Jordan. Since you almost certainly don't know who Jordan is, that comparison is totally pointless but the next time I'm back in the Isle of Man I'll force him to wear one of my old comedy frightwigs so that I can recreate the look for you. Anyway, I told Brian Mayski my plan to cycle to Kiev and he laughed at me like I was a dick. The roads aren't great apparently, although he was proud to tell me that Kiev had been the centre of a massive empire in the 10th century. I asked him if they'd updated the roads since then. He laughed again, but he didn't say yes. Oh well. That's a problem for another year.

On Tuesday I caught up with Prague-born OU student Sasha, over here to see her parents. She took me to the National Museum where I learned some Czech history and was then given a tour of the places she loves in Prague, including a very popular ice cream parlour just off Wenceslas Square and the quiet, peacock-filled Valdstejnská garden. While enjoying the ice cream, we were accosted by a young American who wanted signatures to petition for the planting of a million trees in Prague. I asked him how many he'd planted so far and he replied, "Five." Well, it's a start. When I asked him what sort of trees he wanted to plant, he thought for a second and said, "Y'know, leafy ones". Ah, thanks for that. Sasha and I finished off in a restaurant she knew quite a way from the centre of town where I had the most massive and the most delicious pile of pork, cabbage and dumplings yet. Good King Wenceslas wasn't looking down this time but this really was the feast of Steven*. Sasha's tour wasn't from any guide book. To be able to see Prague through the eyes of someone who knows it as well as she does was very special.

The beer with the OUettes turned into three beers and a plateful of bacon dumplings. If I lived here I'd be the size of, well, the size I was a few years ago when I lived in Austria. Jana and Lucka are both extremely entertaining. It's their capable hands that will guide the OU in the Czech Republic. As university prices rise in the UK, dragging the OU with it, their job gets harder and through no fault of their own. The effects of Nick Clegg's deceit travel farther than the UK. I had a great time in the pub with them. Both of them were very funny with tons of stories to tell.

As well as meeting great people, I've fulfilled the tourist checklist of things to see: the people-stuffed Charles Bridge, the castle on the hill along with its cathedral, Wenceslas Square and the John Lennon Wall. And I got a chance to practise my fledgling Czech, which only got started late when I switched from Polish to Czech at the last minute. It's another bugger of a language. Sasha explained that there's a sound in Czech - the 'r' in Dvorak - that's impossible to make correctly if your tongue isn't perfectly formed. If this is the case, as it was with her brother, you need to have the skin beneath your tongue sliced away. "Didn't he mind that?" I asked. "He didn't complain," she replied. Well, he wouldn't really be able to, would he?

My Nina Challenge was another graveyard-flavoured one. I love cemeteries. Being surrounded by so much death reminds me to keep making the most of being alive. Her challenge was in two parts: to find and photograph the grave of Franz Kafka, one of my favourite authors, and, in honour of his most famous short story, to photograph a metamorphosis. Everything fell nicely into place. Because he's buried in the New Jewish Cemetery, to enter the graveyard I had to wear a yarmulke, which they hand out at the entrance. To capture my first skullcap-wearing experience I took an aerial view of myself. Suddenly I'd morphed from someone who's thinning on top to a much younger man with a luxuriantly full head of hair. Is it possible to convert to Judaism? It might seem like a lot of effort to cover a budding bald patch but I've already priced up what it will cost to install two sinks in the kitchen. Shalom!

Not everything in Prague worked out so conveniently. I woke up on Wednesday morning, a full 36 hours after erecting the tent, to discover a tent pole had snapped again, this time in situ, in the middle of the night. This tent has had more breaks than Steve Davis. I've now had breakages as soon as I've put the tent up, just as I have been taking it down and now after being left alone for over a day. I can now repair a cracked pole in a matter of seconds, but if things keeps up at this rate I won't have any spare pieces by July and then I'm buggered. And the tent is not the only equipment malfunction.

Cycling out of Prague this morning was a little hairy. The main roads through town were all triple-laned with no cycle paths. It was like being on a motorway without a hard shoulder. And as I got to the outskirts of the city and beyond, the edges of the Czech roads were getting a bit lumpy. The Carradice panniers have a clasp mechanism to keep the bags fastened to the rack, but these are working themselves loose while I'm riding with no obvious way to retighten them. Speeding down a busy hill I hit a tarmac divet that sent the right-hand pannier flying clean off the bike and on to the road behind. It was only the quick reactions of the driver following me that prevented by stove, gas canisters and bike tools from being crushed flat. It's looks like another botch job is required.

So, tent and panniers aside, Prague was wonderful, the city and its people. Thank you Jamie, Jana, Lucka and Sasha - my new Czechmates - for making my three days in Prague so fantastic and for making Prague the next city I'd like to live in if Berlin won't let me in for having stupid eyebrows.

* Joke copyright 2011 The Lovely Nina

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Drinking Horseradish with God

About one hundred kilometres south of Berlin is a cute, little village called Lübbenau. It's the sort of place that old people go to on coaches for the day, walk around for ten minutes before realising that ten minutes is all they really needed, and then spend the rest of the day in the pub forgetting that there's no toilet on the coach for the two hour journey home.

Lübbenau has some peculiar obsessions. For a start it has a cucumber museum. I don't think I've ever seen a statement that has demanded the question 'Why?' as much as that one. It also has several shops claiming to sell eighteen types of mustard and ten types of horseradish. And they're not talking about Dijon or anything as mundane as that either. No, here you can buy, for reasons known only to its manufacturers, raspberry mustard. Hang on, maybe that one requires a 'Why?' even more.

Now I could have sampled some fruit-flavoured mustard for my International Eat Something Daft challenge but I'm already doing fairly well in Germany on that front. In Berlin I had Sülze, which is cubed pork snouts in a red sauce but looked like the stuff that oozes out of the stomach of a roadkill cat. Then I had sucuk, a nicely spiced Turkish sausage, which was really quite yummy. And then today I had something that I'm still unsure of until I google it later. The menu said Grützpinkel, a brand new German word to me. I was especially attracted to the final two syllables because in my childhood home, and in no other house in the world, the male member was known as a 'pinkle'. Perhaps my dad had imported the word subconsciously from a German holiday. Or perhaps he'd been a Nazi spy during the war. That's unlikely given that he wasn't born until 1939. I know they recruited 'em young but informant toddlers can't be up to much. Sorry, I'm waffling.

So I asked the waitress in German what a Grützpinkel is and, beaming slightly mentally, she replied, "It's a Grütz sausage, of course!" with a tone that implied only a knob doesn't know that and now don't you go asking me what a Grütz is, you big bell end. So I didn't. Minutes later they arrived, two great, fat, grey wangers, on a bed of spuds and sauerkraut. I tucked in. Well, I tried to tuck in. My fork bounced off the first sausage's protective sheath. When I finally penetrated its rubbery outer, the innards spilled out revealing the contents of a baby's nappy. But it tasted alright, a bit black puddingy, but gooier. I've never written the words 'puddingy' or 'gooier' before. Neither looks quite right. Anyway I quickly polished off the phalluses. The discarded, inedible sausage skins, covered as they were in brown gunk, looked dangerously like something you might find on the floor of a homosexual porn set. That's an image that might stay with you for a while. If so, I'm sorry about that. Anyway, I finished up, paid my bill and scored me a photo of God. OK, let me explain.

Cor, just look at the size of my pinkel!

The Lovely Nina's challenge for Germany involved photographing God, or at least someone who looked like Him, on account of Germany's beautifully atheistic mindset, just to prove that He might actually still be here. For ten days cycling through the country, Jehovah hadn't crossed my path but then I found Him in Lübbenau. I put the camera away satisfied with a task well done and then, in the space of a minute, saw three even better Gods just walking around the place like then owned it. Well, if one of them really was God then maybe He did. Without the camera ready for action, their presences had to go unrecorded. You'll just have to make do with the shit God I actually managed to capture. Now I look at it again I think I may have just photo'ed Captain Birdseye.

God, earlier today

After the cooked pinkles and the encounter with a pantheon of Gods I decided to go for a beer and, just as I was leaving the place and about to pay, I saw that the bar had taken their horseradish obsession off into a much more agreeable direction. They were selling small bottles of horseradish schnapps. Obviously, I bought one and, I have to say, it's freakin' magnificent. Imagine drinking a chilled shot of vodka and then being smacked in the face with a fistful of horseradish. That's what it's like. In a good way. If anyone out there is in the alcoholic beverage import-export trade, please come here and buy it up. It's got Saturday night in Macclesfield written all over it, especially the being hit in the face bit.

So, in short, Lübbenau is a bit mad. Let's hope it continues. What will I find in the next village tomorrow as I keep heading southwards through Germany? A brussel sprout activity centre, cakes shaped like vaginas, bottles of pickled onion wine? Who knows? But it sounds like my kind of town.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Kingdom of Quirkiness

Berlin, welcome to the top of my favourite cities list. This is an amazing place. I'd expected less. Cycling through northern Germany had been a little ordinary, with uninspiring scenery and unexciting villages. Then I hit former East Germany and it picked up a bit. The larger towns had something about them, like Stendal, Brandenburg and especially Potsdam, a little shabbier but also quirkier. But Berlin is something else. It is King of Shabbiness in the Kingdom of Quirkiness, at least in Kreuzberg, where we stayed. Other districts are tidier but duller as a result.

There's too much to do. Rather than five days, I could have stayed five months and still not experienced all of it. We saw the Jewish Museum. We had to. There is a strong suspicion that The Lovely Nina's grandma on her mother's side was Jewish. If Jewishness is matrilineal then Nina wanted to connect with her people. As well as the usual sickening holocaust stories, the museum offers some interesting spaces-as-art. One of them, the Exile Garden, is a perfectly symmetrical seven by seven grid of rectangular concrete towers topped with olive trees. The weird thing is that the ground is cobbled and slightly sloping and so while you wander between the blocks surrounded by all this precision you feel disorientated. You have to find your own interpretation. Never employ a German builder, perhaps. There are lots of other stuff like that. It's a museum you come away from with a memory of feelings rather than facts.

We also saw the Stasi museum, housed in the old Stasi headquarters, a massive complex of dozens of utilitarian tower blocks, a monument to time wasted in the name of population control. The museum houses a funky collection of espionage toys, like bugging devices. There was also a secret camera built into a watering can so that people could be spied upon at cemeteries, and a oil drum with a similar device so that it could take pictures of people in parking lots. Bonkers. If they'd spent half as much effort in dealing with their economy as they did spying on their own folk, their socialist dream might not have all gone tits up. It must have been awful living in East Germany during that time, with your every move under scrutiny and everyone desperate to find some intelligence. You must have felt like Katie Price.

When we had our three days in London we rented an apartment. It's about the same price as a hotel but you feel like you're actually living in the city. And importantly you've got a decent kitchen at your disposal, vital in London where a very ordinary meal can cost you up to one kidney. We did the same here in Berlin but, for a capital city, eating out was ridiculously cheap. We've had sushi, thai and Turkish meals for just a few euros. We even ate some German food I think.

And this has been the cheapest place to drink on my ride so far. A lot of minimarts put a picnic bench or two outside their shop. You can pop in, buy a beer from their fridge at normal shop prices and sit outside and drink it chatting to your mates. It seemed to be the way that a lot of the locals in this area socialised. It's certainly cheaper than paying three pounds fifty for a pint of fizzy shite from your local in the UK.

So, in conclusion, I feel like at some point after this ride is over I'll have to live here. It's got too much going for it not to. Kingdom of Quirkiness, let me in.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Berlin, Love and Sausages

I'm excited. It's easy to take for granted those you love. Y'know, you see 'em every day and they are just there, being themselves, but still just there. But if you go away for a while you realise just how important they are to you. That shouldn't have to happen. You shouldn't need the distance, but that's how it seems to work out. It sharpens the mind. I haven't seen The Lovely Nina for about six weeks now but, come lunchtime tomorrow - my birthday - we will be reunited, provided she's got on the right bus at Berlin Schönefeld airport and got off at the right stop in Berlin's Kreuzberg area. If not, then by the time you read this she may be stranded in some distant suburb of Berlin with no German and a tiny bag of underwear.

Northern Germany has been very average. It has had the Netherlands' lack of contour action but without its quirky prettiness. The cycle paths have tended to stick close to busy-ish main roads rather than take you off down quiet, canal-lined lanes and - not really Germany's fault - the weather hasn't been quite so sunny. On the other hand, the choice of sausage has improved markedly.

The switch from former West Germany to former East Germany was a fairly sudden and obvious switch just east of Wolfsburg. Suddenly, all the villages became a little more unkempt and the petrol stations that had kept me supplied with Lion Bars dried up. But for all that, the place became more interesting to look at. It felt more like I was travelling somewhere exotic, which is strange really because the eastern towns had a more rundown, Blackburn feel to them, in that everywhere seemed to have suffered a distinct lack of recent investment and variations on the shell suit became a not uncommon sight. And just like Blackburn, every male over twelve looked like he could take my face off without weaponry.

But it's Berlin I've been looking forward to. I'm here for a mini-holiday for five days. Once I've rescued The Lovely Nina from the suburbs we've got some exploring to do. I've done very little research. All I know is that there was once a wall here or something. OK, I know more than that, but not much. But whatever happens, it'll be great to spend these days wth a special person and to really appreciate the time with them. I was going to make some crass joke involving sausages here but if you've stuck with this blog so far you're all capable of doing that for yourselves. Gute Nacht!

Friday, 13 May 2011

Chips 'n' Drugs and Kroket Rolls

It's nice to have a recommendation when you visit a new country, especially when it comes to food. "In the Netherlands, try a Kroket," I was told, "they're awful." I spent hours searching for one in Amsterdam but none was to be found. It seemed they'd been replaced as the Dutch snack of choice by felafel and kebab, which is probably a good thing. In the end I gave up on my search and decided to employ a fallback position. If I couldn't find a Kroket for the Disgusting Food challenge I'd buy some drugs instead.

If my Mum's reading this, then she's probably just fallen off her chair. Get back up, Mum, and let me explain. As you know, I need to try something I've never had before, and I've never had drugs. Well, there was that one time on my 21st when my girlfriend at the time scored me some sort of 'special' cigarette. It was just a pity I'd already had a skinful of lager by the time I had a pop at it because all it did was make me throw up for an hour and a half. Happy birthday!

And later the same girlfriend decided we should try Ecstacy. Fearing the bad press it had recently had, for our first go we decided to share a tablet just to be safe, like a regular Sid 'n' Nancy. I remember the cloak and dagger negotiations that went on down our town centre as she dabbled in the dark world of narcotic procurement. We took the pill but it did bugger all. That's not true actually. It cleared up my headache. So there you go. My total combined drug experience was a typical night for a bulimic and twenty quid on half a paracetamol.

But this time I'd get it right. I was in Amsterdam, the drug capital of Europe, for god's sake. I located my man. I approached nervously, putting on my shades as I shuffled towards the dealer - best to remain anonymous, I thought - and did it. A sizeable amount of cash changed hands. I now had it in my sweaty, little fist - 30 grams - well, 35 if you counted the wrappers and the sticks. OK, I'd bought two marijuana lollipops. Yes, so it wasn't even Space Cake. I'm a big coward, alright? But I was a big coward who now had two 'special' lollipops - one green one and one purple one - in his coat pocket. I was Howard Marks. I was Bob Marley. Alright, I was Kojak, but Kojak who was possessing.

I cycled out of Amsterdam the next day, still holding the stash, awaiting the sound of police sirens at every turn, but nothing. They were playing it clever. Very clever. Eighty kilometres later and still nothing. They were waiting to catch me unawares. But a fugitive has to eat. I found a cafe and decided to order a snack and what should appear on the menu? Go on, have a guess. Yes, a bloody Kroket and fries! Fantastic! Drugs and shit food, my life was looking up. So I ordered it and was terribly disappointed. It really wasn't bad at all, a slight curry taste with some kind of meat chunks floating in a moist slurry centre of a deep-fried, battered roll. It was a lot like a Findus Crispy Pancake, and for four years from the age of nine I lived on those things. Oops, my Mum's fallen off her chair again. Sorry, I shouldn't have mentioned that. Ah, but maybe this Kroket was a posh one. But no. Only two hours later, in the snack bar of the campsite I saw yet another Kroket. Surely this one must be dire but again it wasn't. Not as good as the first but it was very edible, just like Findus Crispy Pancakes aren't.

Back at the tent I realised I still had the fallback position to go through with, the lollipops. I unwrapped them, wondering what haze-filled experience, what hallucinogenic fantasies were about to unfold. Would I wake up three days from now in a cold sweat, imagining dead babies crawling across the roof of my tent, hooked on lollipops after only one hit? I popped them, one after the other, into my eager mouth and sucked. And sucked. And waited. And waited. Nothing. Fuckin' nothing! I may as well have snorted a Chupa Chup. Another half-arsed drugless episode comes to an end. Thank you, lollipop dealer. I hope you choke on my two euros. Next time I'll get it right.

Hmmm, I wonder if you can smoke a Kroket.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Amsterdamned 2 - The Red Light District

Top of today's list of things to do is to visit Amsterdam's famous Red Light District. To reach it from my hotel I have to cross the main shopping area, full of the same brands you see everywhere, but repeated more often than in most places. It gets a bit dull. It won't be long before a Euro-wide trip like mine is entirely pointless, each capital city being an identical copy of the one before, a result of globalisation.

Once you reach Porntown everything feels a little incongruous. Despite the quaint streets and the little canals everything suddenly becomes a little more Channel X. Smoking cafes replace the bistros, and suddenly I'm not being sold shoes and jeans from the shop windows but female flesh, all pouty and winking. How do they manage to stay in alluring mode all day? In most service industries it's hard enough to maintain a smile. Strangely, for every shop offering gimp masks and whips, there's a Chinese restaurant. I feel like I'm in a sunlit version of Bladerunner.

The prositutes comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are gorgeous, but lots aren't, and one or two seem to be catering for blokes with a Popeye fetish. Those were the ones that seemed to come on to me most strongly. Obviously I'm that type of bloke, or maybe they just have to try harder, I don't know. But it makes you think about the decision that put those women on to the other side of that glass showcase. What makes you wake up one day, decide to put on a pink bikini and sell your holes? Is it a career choice or a last resort? I'd love to know, but I suppose I'd have to pay for that sort of information.

I wander around and get disorientated. It's easy to do. I realise I've walked down the same dodgy little alley three times in about twenty minutes. Those girls must think I'm weighing them up, making a conscious decision where to invest my euros. Now I'm feeling like a genuine punter, like the groups of British lads over for the weekend, rather than a tourist, here for the viewing experience only. I finally find an escape route.

Out of the Red Light area and into the shopping area again, I realise that things aren't that different here. It's still sex that sells everything, from the bikini-clad woman in the Jack Jones window to the sexy, young things in the Zara display. Even the Big Macs look sexily fulfilling. But over here, it's all lies. You're buying a dream rather than a reality, the dress and not the body, a squished cow offal wafer on a bun and not a succulent beefstack skyscraper. At least over the canal, they deal in truths, even if they're slightly sordid ones. Whether you're buying noodles or 'cuddles' you know exactly what you're getting and you get what you pay for. And at least those who work the meat, whether it's the chef in the Chinese kitchen or the woman behind the grubby curtain, are getting the profits directly, rather than some fat cat in a corporate office in London or New York. Give me the honesty of the Red Light District any day.

But walking around between the sex shops and porn theatres I decide that this flesh isn't for me. I decide to watch a different bunch of pussies get screwed over. My team, Blackburn Rovers are playing West Ham this afternoon and it's being shown in one of the Red Light District bars. It's a must-win game if Rovers don't want to go down. The players should come here. At least they'd be certain of scoring.

Amsterdamned - Terror in the Cycle Lanes

Never have I seen such a contrast between a nation and its capital. In rural Netherlands, things don't get much more laid back. Very little seems to get done. Some sizeable villages can't even be arsed to have shops. "What, you need food? Try the next town, mate." I'd spent the last three days enjoying a life of ultimate pootling: perfectly flat landscapes, a sun continuing to shine against all probability and, while not breathtaking views, damn pretty ones. And I shared the bike paths that criss-cross the country with a handful of others, many of whom cycled beside me and chatted, asking me what I was doing.

Then I hit Amsterdam and it's mental. The town is heaving. It's Friday afternoon rush hour. I've done another Brussels - turned up at a silly time. On this occasion there's no fish festival. It just happens to be a national holiday instead. The bike lanes are stuffed full of people trying to go in all directions, zipping this way and that, but now there are others to watch for. Mopeds are allowed in cycle lanes. And the pensioners' shopmobility machines turn the lanes into a geriatric Death Race 2000. I saw two accidents in the first couple of hours. Some old fella was sprawled on the floor, presumably a victim of a hit and run, or at least a hit and pedal. Or maybe he was just off his tits on space cake. Then a young lad came off his bike. Being considerably more handsome he got a lot more offers of help.

And they are an attractive lot. All of 'em. The women, the men, the young and the old. And cycling must be working for them because everybody is slim. I spotted a few morbidly cuddly types walking down the street but when I passed them they had either British or American accents.

For a city of this size, it's light on cars, but that shouldn't be a surprise when the bicycle is king. But what happens on a bike when you see a friend in the street and she's going your way? You have a bike, she doesn't? A simple backer system works. The second human climbs aboard the rack at the back. There are two popular seating arrangements - the normal one-leg-each-side or side-saddle. Occasional you see a more daredevil approach, with the passenger stood on the rack like some sort of motorcycle display team. They then cycle around town trying to find a ring of fire to jump through.

The bikes themselves all seem to have been made in the 1920s, black and built from iron. They clunk and creak but they usually have a comfy-looking saddle. No one has an expensive bike. Theft is a problem here. Each bike comes complete with a couple of feet of chain, not a normal bicycle lock, but the sort of stuff you would use if you were devising a live stage show that involved velociraptors.

So, I have another day here. There are things to do. I've been told to hunt out a Kroket, on account of its horsemeatiness, there's a Nina challenge in a Buddhist temple and then, to recalibrate the spirituality, there's the Red Light District to have a look around. But I'm doing it all on foot. I'll leave the cycle lanes for those looking for slightly more danger.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

European Statues Condemned by the Daily Mail No.1: The Mannequin Pis

Memories are funny things. The last time I visited Brussels, back in 1990, the weather was being very English. I remember it as a miserable, grey, corporate world. The old buildings were grand but dour; the new were indentikit office blocks. But the Brussels I see today is a world away. In fact, it doesn't feel like the same place at all. That can't just be that the sun's shining, can it?

With the help of an A-Z map of Brussels, I found a beautiful, and beautifully quiet, route in via cycle lanes and leafy suburbs. I must have been only a kilometre or two from the centre before the traffic kicked in. And so like any normal bloke I hunted out a small statue of a little boy having a piss. And boy, is it small? The statue, that is. The Mannequin Pis apparently has hundreds of different outfits - a sort of urinating stone Barbie - including an Elvis one, but today he seemed to be decked out in the attire of a medieval Japanese warrior, although I'm not sure why.

Me and the pisser

My big problem was accommodation. Brussels was full up, full of humans and full of fish. Some international festival of seafood had taken all the rooms, even those in the normally cheap and cheerful hostels. I'd suspected this beforehand when, three days earlier, TripAdvisor's best deal was €230 per night - no, thanks - but it was confirmed by the tourist office. I had to get an internet connection and fast. Before I'd left Luxembourg I'd Facebooked a couple of the people I was meeting here to see if they had friends in Brussels with gardens in which I might be able to camp. It was a long shot. So I asked the tourist office about the nearest WiFi connection. "Out of the office, turn left, down the street, turn right after 100 metres, then turn right and there's a place that usually has internet." OK, I said. There's nowhere closer? "Oh yes, you can use WiFi here." What, here in the tourist office? "Yes." Mmm, yes, here seems closer. So, I did. No one knew anyone with a garden. My only option was to cycle out of the city and hope that there was space in a campsite an hour and a half away. But I'd already cycled for eight hours and my legs were pooped.

Just in case the campsite was full and I couldn't make it back to the city, I contacted Jo, fellow OU student, to see if I could pop around and pick up the replacement tent pole that Hilleberg had sent to her address for me. I don't know if I looked like I was dying when I arrived at her place but she immediately said that if I didn't mind the floor I could crash there. My saviour! After the possibility of a long and fruitless ride on weary legs, a floor, the very luxury of it!

So I had found another star. Jo's a cheerful soul and good company, and she's doing a lot of the same courses as I am, maths and astronomy. And she's been living here for fourteen years and so she knows a bar or two. We went out and grabbed something to eat and I got a chance to sample a few more Belgian beers - a top evening! Thanks Jo, you really helped me out.

Jo and a beer

So now I'm sat in a park typing this and awaiting another appointment, with another OU student, Mike, in a couple of hours. Like London and Paris and Luxembourg, Brussels really is worth a visit. I suspect I'm going to be saying that for everywhere I go on this ride. Just make sure the sun is shining when you visit.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Happy Days in the Land of the Gummi Bears

People always tell you how wonderful Paris is, or how magnificent is the architecture of Rome, or about the many splendours of Basingstoke, sorry, I mean Barcelona. But I've never heard anyone talk of Luxembourg City. Why not? It's a little gem.

Luxembourg proves that you don't need to be massive to be a great city. She has the same population as Blackburn, the town into which I was first shat upon this earth, but the simularity ends there. The old and the new work in harmony, with the fortified walls gazing down upon the old town with its winding, slow-paced river, while efficient, uptight, modern Europe, with a European Parliament and shiny, modern office blocks sit up on the hill counting its cash. You can guess which is the prettier, but the new stuff doesn't look bad either.

Unlike in London and Paris, the locals seem relaxed and happy, and again unlike London and Paris, there are no swarms of tourists buzzing from one site to the next. There's just a handful of wandering folk taking the occasional snap. Maybe there's a connection. Or maybe the tourists in Luxembourg just don't know where they're supposed to go buzzing to next.

Other reasons to visit Luxembourg:

1) It's the perfect size to walk around in a few hours.

2) It has an excellent cyclepath system and (almost) city-wide WiFi.

3) It has a shop that sells nothing but Gummi Bears. I'm not sure why but, to me, that seems like A Good Thing.

4) Since crossing the French border, beer has returned to affordable prices.

5) I was told that the official languages are French and German but a third language (is it Flemish?) is used in shop windows, which seems to be a cross between the two. This lends an air of mystery or makes you feel you're going slightly mad. You choose. (Or maybe these are just words my rubbish French and German haven't come across yet.)

6) There's a tranquil park beneath the viaduct if you want to escape the noise, but there isn't really that much noise.

7) It's not Blackburn.

You should come here, and I should stay longer. But I've got to leave in the morning and head towards Brussels, where I have three - count 'em, three! - people to meet and a date with a fully functioning tent pole from Hilleberg. Oh, and Belgian beer. Can't forget Belgian beer. So farewell, Luxembourg. It's been a pleasure.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Are You 1) Pale, 2) Ugly, 3) Heavily Tattooed? Then You Might Be British.

Some days things go well, and other days things go so perfectly that even the things that go wrong actually cause better things to happen.

A couple of days ago (25th), I'd arrived at my campsite in Juniville to discover that it had closed down five years earlier. I was told about another site, 20 kilometres away, in Attigny. I'd already done 80 kilometres that day but it seemed like the easiest option. But it all worked out. The campsite was lovely and so I stayed an extra day and studied under a tree, managing to get two weeks' worth of MST209 done in one day. And by starting from Attigny yesterday (27th), I had a lovely rural hour and a half's ride, by the side of a little river, and then through villages too small to have shops. It was gorgeous, absolutely flawless cycling.

For the rest of the day, the sun was shining and it felt like the perfect end when I arrived in Montmedy, up a huge hill on the way to its famous citadel, to find the campsite gates open. Perfect! But looking at its notice board the site didn't open until the 1st of May. The gates were only open because the gardeners were in giving it a once over before the season started. They directed me to the tourist office even farther up the hill, inside the walls of the citadel itself.

At the office it became clear that I wasn't the only person looking for a campsite. Also there was a Dutch cyclist whose partner was halfway back down the hill. They couldn't let us camp but instead they would open a gite especially for us. It was my first time in a gite. It's like an independent youth hostel, where you usually sleep in shared dorms, but this time I had a dorm entirely to myself. It was like staying in a hotel, in the shadow of the citadel, with a fridge, freezer and a fully equiped kitchen, and all for only €10.

The Dutch cyclist, Joris, was reunited with his girlfriend, Joëlle, and they decided to head back into town to see a doctor. Only four or five days into their ride, she had developed a knee problem that was stopping her doing much more than 20 kilometres per day. I went into town too, to find some food, and we eventually bumped into each other and decided that the best option, given that we had a kitchen at our disposal, was to cook something together.

Joris and Joëlle had started from their home town, Nÿmegen, and were hoping over the next four months to reach Timbuktu in Mali. The knee problem was putting a serious cloud over that project but they seemed determined to get there by any means, even if it meant occasionally putting the bikes on a train. Joris had just completed his PhD thesis in human geography and so had time to spare before returning to his university in September as a doctor and as a lecturer. Joëlle had chucked her job and was hoping for the best when she got back. As with everyone on this trip so far they were fantastically lovely, interesting people. They were both fizzing with energy.

I helped to make a salad while Joris created a vegetable couscous. They had an amazing collection of store cupboard ingredients, whereas all I had to offer from my bag was a jar of chilli powder. But it helped. We finished off with a selection of stinky cheeses and some tasty Leffe beer. Topics of conversation varied greatly, but it was amusing to learn what the Dutch stereotypical view of the British is (cover those sensitive ears): pale, ugly, loud, heavily tattooed and always in a football shirt. Well, it was my fault for asking, and there aren't too many surprises there.

As I've said before, the best bits of this trip are the people I meet. It was a rare coincidence that we were both looking for the same closed campsite on the same day, but staying at home I doubt I would ever have met people on their way to Mali. It's not the travelling that makes the trip but the people you find while you are out there.

Good luck Joris and Joëlle! Here's to Timbuktu!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Celebrating St Patrick's Day in April in the Middle of France

I'm not weird, right? My mum thinks I'm weird because I never wanted kids. And even The Lovely Nina sometimes says that I'm eccentric. I'm not. I'm very normal. Very, very normal indeed. And the talking gerbils that live in my hair agree. No, I'm not odd, but I met a man today who is.

I was cycling through the Champagne region of France and hit the town of Thierry Chateau. Walking with a drunken gait at the side of the road in mid-afternoon was an older bloke wearing what appeared to be a giant, Guiness-sponsored, St Patrick's Day comedy hat. That's unusual, I thought. You only normally see such hats on drunken idiots on St. Paddy's night. I know, I've worn one.

A minute or two later I decided to stop at a junction and check which way I should be going. While sat on the grass having a minute off the bike, hat man approached me and in an accent that sounded heavily French asked me if I was cycle touring. Oui, I replied. He then gave some sort of indication that he was doing the same thing. Really? I asked if he was French and he said, "Non, anglais". Right, so we were both English.

I know that I'm a bit of a porker but Andrew really didn't look like a cyclist. A packet of loose tobacco bulging from his shirt pocket isn't a definite sign of a non-cyclist but it's not that common. He spoke with a strong Norfolk accent and muttered to himself under his breath. Andrew was cycling from East Anglia to Palermo on an electric bike, towing a little trailer. If you're unaware, an electric bike charges up when you pedal so that it can give you a helping hand when climbing up the hills. The trailer was attached to the bike with the loosest, wobbliest fitting you could imagine. It was like the sort of handiwork I'd do, and then pay someone to put right.

It had taken him three weeks to get from Dieppe to here, and it's not that far. He'd wasted a lot of time getting lost in Dieppe until the early hours of the morning when he'd been picked up by the police and decided he would overnight in the cop shop until they got sick of him and told him where the nearest hotel was. And why did he get lost? He refuses to carry maps. No, he's not a modern cyclist using the latest spunky SatNav. He has simply used Google Earth to write down all the names of the towns that he will pass through from Norwich to Palermo so he always knows where to head next. Foolproof! Unless there's one of France's frequent Route Barrée signs blocking your way. Or the village you need isn't signposted. Or you take a wrong turning. Or, or, or a million different reasons. Get a map, you chump! They're cheap, especially if you're doing the daily distance he's doing.

Oh yes, and how far are you travelling each day? About twenty miles, he replied. And how long have you planned to get to Palermo? Well, the money will last for three months, he said. Something told me he possibly hadn't done the maths. Ninety days at twenty miles per day, especially when during the first twenty of those days he'd moved about one hundred and forty miles, isn't going to get him to Palermo.

Anyway, mad though he was, good luck to him. However far he gets, he'll have an adventure. And if you're one of the lovely people somewhere across Europe who has agreed to meet me later in the trip, keep your eyes out for him. He's bound to end up near one of you. My money's on St. Petersburg. The first thing you will notice is the hat. The second thing will probably be the trailer overtaking him on the downhills.