After twenty seven weeks on the road, it was time for the Freedom of Movement Tour guys head on the final leg back home and as Alex takes up the story, we follow them all the way from the south west of France to frosty Edinburgh in Scotland. Chiara and Alex have been travelling across Europe on bicycle to discover the wonderful right of freedom of movement within the European Union. Don’t forget to follow them on their Facebook page , Tumblr and their Twitter handle.
On behalf of all of us at Europa United, congratulations to Chiara and Alex for undertaking an incredible journey and we hope that what ever the outcome, this experience will be a positive one for them and all who read about it.
The reputation of French drivers precedes them. I recently saw a postcard for sale in Brussels that depicts the worst characteristics of each nationality in Europe. The French are bad drivers, it told me. It also told me the British can’t cook. And that the Italians can’t regulate their emotions. I tend to agree with this… Whatever the truth, we encountered some of the worst driving of the trip in France. Not all is bad though. Something I liked about cycling in France were the common sense signs inviting cyclists to go through red lights to turn right or go straight ahead while giving way to pedestrians. I’ve found it difficult to explain when I think cyclists should go through red lights and this does so perfectly. It makes cycling in a city a more fluid experience.
The heat bore down on us still, and Chiara felt herself continually close to overheating. We got from Bayonne to Paris on bike and by train, stopping for a culinary interjection in Bordeaux, where we tried the infamous andouillette. Like many tourists, we ordered this by mistake, quite excited about the possibility of trying a local delicacy. Being myself rather curious about the offally delights of Rome and – as yet – managing to stomach them all (including brains and pajata, a tragic dish of lamb intestine full of the milk it took from its mother before it was killed), I relished the opportunity to try the andouillette. Like many tourists before us, we were in for a treat. The taste and texture were outdone only by the stench, which to me smelt like festering horse excrement. Chiara gave up quite quickly and I soldiered on for a few bites before my gagging instinct set in. We quickly paid the bill and left. I couldn’t face meat for a week after.
In Paris we were hosted first by Kate and then by Lesley, Mark and family. Our cycle out of the city via Versailles took us up some enormous hills and on some very busy roads. I swerved my bike after being brushed by a car, which drew several spokes out of the very worn rim on my rear wheel. Managing to limp on to our hosts, their kindness was unsurpassed when they took us to the only open place for a repair or replacement, a nearby Decathlon. Their house was comfortable and the dying summer sun streamed across wheat fields onto delicious plums and grapes I grazed on. In Paris we took the opportunity to cover Frexit stickers with pro-European stickers of our own.
We also involuntarily but gladly joined a climate change protest. The striking thing about it was that it was massive. We thought: if the British were as good at protesting as the French, would Brexit still be looming on us?
After Paris we headed north to Lille where we went to the biggest Decathlon in existence (the flagship and home store) to replace the nth damaged part of my bike: rear derailleur and worn chain and cassette. The facilities were excellent. We were provided with bike stands and tools to conduct our own repairs.
While always preferring local bikes shops, Decathlon very much has its place in the mind of a bicycle tourer. We found they were very useful in that their opening hours were longer and they had more parts in stock. Lille felt like a return to England. Cycling into the city we happened upon red brick terraces and concrete blocks. We quickly moved on.
After Lille we cycled back into cycling heaven that is Flanders. Upon crossing the border, broader more clearly defined cycle lanes suddenly appeared and drivers overtook us more slowly and giving more room. It was good to be back in Belgium. This was our first and only crossover of the trip, so our return to Ghent and Brussels felt like a homecoming. We stayed with familiar faces and saw more of these cities than before.
With time against us we left Brussels by train heading south on car-free day (all train tickets to anywhere in Belgium were €5). Back on our bikes we cycled across the border into Luxembourg and on to Luxembourg City. The sun and warmth had returned. We were greeted and hosted by the inspirational Fiona, Miguel and Saskia, and spent a lovely evening talking Europe and Brexit and all other manner of things. While there we took the opportunity to visit Schengen and the microclimate of the river valley. We popped over into Germany for lunch. We were also invited to visit the European Court of Justice, where we met fellow Scots and toured the buildings.
Returning via Brussels to Ghent we then set off towards our final country and capital city. Our cycle to Antwerp was, at least for me, one of the most difficult of the trip. We should really have taken a train or just stayed inside. Although not particularly cold, the rain was heavy and persistent. Within an hour we were soaked to the skin and despite cycling as fast as we could to try and keep warm, the flatness of the land (rising only to mount a bridge) kept us shivering. I’ve never felt so cold (and I’ve cycled in -25°C without difficulty). The dampness on my skin brought my body temperature down so much that it felt impossible to get warm. Eventually we reached Antwerp and ducked into the nearest cafe, where the friendly staff offered us towels and hot drinks. We warmed up enough to press on to our hosts, where we steeped ourselves in warm water and wrapped up before falling quickly to sleep. Since then we have found it humourous to reflect that the Italian of us was hospitalised with heatstroke, while the Geordie was rendered senseless with borderline hypothermia, while it should have really been the opposite way round.
After Antwerp we crossed the border to Baarle Hertog, then promptly crossed back again and then again and again. Baarle Hertog is a Belgian town within the Netherlands. What’s even more fascinating is that within Baarle Hertog there patches of land that are the Netherlands. So after a little wandering we found ourselves at some point in the Netherlands in Belgium in the Netherlands. The border is marked on the pavement and in shops and restaurants to help you work out exactly which country you’re in, and houses are marked with flags. I found it very interesting to discover your house might officially be, say, Belgian, but your kitchen might be in the Netherlands. You need to cross the border to draw the curtains in your spare room or to flush the loo.
After this confined border to-and-froing we cycled to Amsterdam via Breda, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. In Breda we stayed with Lisa, from Germany, and helped her to make laundry detergent from chestnuts before we ate. In Rotterdam, Carolien’s kittens kept us entertained on the rooftop as the sun went down and we shared breakfast and stimulating conversation before we left. In The Hague we had a warm Spanish welcome from Pilar (and the best tortilla I’ve ever eaten – and I now know I prefer it wet) and we discussed living, working and travelling across our continent. In Utrecht, Noortje was our penultimate host. She offered us potato beer and additional conversation about Europe.
In Amsterdam we spent a few nights with Caroline and Smek before a night in Haarlem prior to our ferry to Newcastle. Smek’s pensive beauty followed us around the flat and the city.
We experienced deep sadness as we boarded the ferry as we thought about what we had left behind (6 months of inspiration, a seemingly unlimited amount of kindness and cats, disbelief, anger and incredulity at Brexit) and what we had to look forward to (growing uncertainty about Brexit and our own upcoming and as yet undefined Brexodus).
Our arrival at the Port of Tyne was a wet one. In a slightly drier and warmer disposition than our dreaded cycle to Antwerp, we cycled past the Roman fort of Segedunum and reflected on how far we had travelled under a sign pointing to Rome.
The strains of illness and extreme weather (this time, storm Callum), the ever-present challenges of our trip, mandated us to take a train Edinburgh. This was the final difficult compromise we made. Brexit is all about compromise for us. As we returned to the UK we began to work out our Brexit plan. For many people we have met on the way this has meant applying for citizenship in the country they are living in. For some it means returning to the UK. For others the future promises more serious separation of families.
We arrived in Edinburgh under the rain once more, this time with far more uncertainty about our future than when we set out. And this time having cycled across 25 EU countries. One way or another we feel that, at least for us, the future really is Europe.
Our thanks go to our hosts during these weeks: Kate, Lesley, Mark and family, Inge, Marion and Fulcieri, Fiona, Miguel and Saskia, Ivo and family, Lisa, Carolien, Pilar, Noortje, Caroline and Smek.
This post is dedicated to Fulcieri, a true European, who gave us inspiration above all else. Recently flicking through a notebook from our trip I discovered I had quoted him directly, “you are very important: you carry the flag.”