On the morning of May 22 last year I had just finished loading my bicycle with panniers which carried a tent, a sleeping bag, cooking equipment and some clothes. With a pit of nerves and excitement growing in my stomach, I began to pedal away from the suburban London home I grew up in – with the target of reaching Istanbul.
People told me I was crazy. Perhaps I was a little, but arriving in Istanbul after three months of cycling made me feel on top of the world; alive and knowing I’m capable of anything. It was a journey that saw me follow some of Europe’s greatest rivers, pass through some of its best cities and witness some of its most beautiful scenery.
As you might expect, I discovered a lot about both Europe and myself during my time on the road. Here are 10 things I learned along the way.
1. Serbia is home to incredibly friendly people
For reasons that can only be filed under “stereotypes,” Serbia caused people to express concern at my decision to cycle there. I had repeatedly been told to “be careful” because Serbia is an “unsafe” country. For this reason, I crossed over the border feeling rather defensive. Everyone was so wrong. Never have I visited a country whose citizens were so kind and fiercely hospitable. People would wave and shout hello or “welcome to Serbia!” as I cycled past. And, one afternoon, I pulled up at a petrol station to buy a drink and a truck driver insisted on gifting me some oranges.
2. It’s not so bad being vulnerable
I very quickly learned that as a solo traveller, and especially as a young woman, people worried about me. I suppose when they saw me –a small, young female cycling alone – they considered me vulnerable, and they’d quickly make it their business to look after me. “Do you need any water?” “Would you like some help putting up your tent?” Despite the feminist in me, I was glad that help was readily available, should I need it.
3. France is excellent for cycling
France gets a lot of things right for cyclists. For one, we’re not seen as an inconvenience like we are in the UK. Motorists in France give cyclists space and respect, whereas my father once had a pint of milk thrown at him while pedalling through London. It’s almost as though France was built for cyclists; I was graced with well signposted, pristine roads, dedicated bike lanes and scenic voie verte (green ways). Sometimes, the roads actually felt kind of silky and my tyres would glide over them effortlessly. Bliss.
4. Riding a bike is the best form of therapy
Life on a bike is very straightforward. You can only carry the essentials. Every evening, I would set up my tent and sit down to cook myself a meal on my camp stove. I was forced to live very simply for a while, which really made me appreciate what I had. Cycling alone gave me a lot of time to just think, which helped me come to terms with a lot of problems from my past. I felt a huge mixture of emotions during my time on the road; loneliness, joy, liberation, pride, anxiety. It was quite the character-builder and my confidence and independence have grown as a result.
5. The bicycle touring community is incredible
As I used a popular route for a lot of the way – the EuroVelo 6 – I was able to meet a ton of other bicycle tourists. Cyclists love to speak with other cyclists; I suppose they can assume that you’ll be keen to talk about bikes. Many of the campsites along EuroVelo 6 were dominated by bike tourists, and I was often invited to join people for dinner or have a chat. It felt like being a part of a community. As I headed further east, EuroVelo 6 became less and less populated with cyclists, so when I did spot one, we’d always wave at each other a little too enthusiastically.
6. Austria is breathtakingly beautiful
I had expected Austria to be beautiful, but I was astounded by just how beautiful. The leg of my route that saw me cycle from the Austrian border with Germany to Vienna is one of the most memorable sections by far. I pedalled along the Danube river, past terraced vineyards, apricot orchards, forests, gorges and scenic farmland. A real highlight for me was when I stopped at a town called Melk, home to Stift Melk, which is a simply spectacular Benedictine monastery overlooking the river.
7. Sweat, sunscreen + cycling = a bad combination
Cycling through Europe in the summer was very hot at times, particularly as there was a heatwave during the middle of my trip. Sunscreen was a necessity. Unfortunately, cycling in the heat means that clouds of small insects, dust, and dirt would fly directly into my sweaty, sunscreen-clad skin and stick there for most of the day. The despair felt upon arriving at a campsite to find that they didn’t have working showers still haunts me.
8. Cycling is the best way to discover a country
The reality of bicycle touring is that you'll travel slowly through a region, rather than jumping from hotspot to hotspot. I had some rather tedious evenings in France where the village I stayed in was so small that there was nothing but a shop, a pharmacy and a post office. I also spent three days cycling through a seemingly endless collection of wheat fields in Hungary. On the other hand, I got to uncover all the things that most tourists miss. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “it is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,” and I have to agree. I was able to notice the fine details and truly immerse myself into my surroundings.
9. The world is inherently good
Despite the almost daily occurrence of being told that what I was doing was dangerous, nothing bad happened. In fact, nothing bad even almost happened. Every day, I was met with kindness, generosity and courtesy. Most people want you to enjoy the country they call home and will often go out of their way to make sure of this. Despite what many people seem to think, the world isn’t out to get you.
10. If I can do this, so can you
I am not a particularly brave person, nor am I particularly strong-willed, so I wholeheartedly believe that if you want to take on a challenge like this, you probably can! The sights and adventure you’ll experience daily will make the distance seem almost irrelevant. You’ll need a true desire to accomplish it and plenty of time, and, if you’re less able, you can always use an e-bike. The first couple of weeks were hard going as my body got used to 7-hour days in the saddle, but after that, I felt superhuman. By the end of the trip, I was cycling over 55 miles (90km) a day across hilly Bulgaria.
Europe is so diverse with so much to see, and I can’t think of a better way to explore it than on a bicycle.
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