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An Icelandic Saga

2 Jul

Hello dear friends,

Well, we can’t believe it but today is our final day in Europe. This morning we find ourselves tucked into a trendy tea house in downtown Reykjavik, sheltered from the wind and rain that dance outside. Our past week in Iceland has been completely out-of-this-world and we are so glad we chose this country as our journey’s final destination. Iceland is a country of extremes and while she presents various challenges, her rewards are unbelievable: fascinating history, stoic people, and absolutely extraordinary nature.

We began our trip on the bicycle, reassembling our bikes at the airport and heading north on the Reykjanes Peninsula to a campground at Iceland’s oldest lighthouse for a summer solstice “party”. There was beautiful live music playing all evening, with many people clad in wool mingling about the area. We were struck by their reserved and respectful personalities, and also impressed how non-commercialized the event was. We spent most of the evening sitting on the coast’s rocky shoreline watching the sun set for hours, and were overjoyed with the magical reality that the soft light never disappeared.

We awoke in this peaceful place and began our cycle west, exploring the peninsula’s flat lava fields and completely bewitched by the otherworldliness of the place. It felt as though we were cycling on the moon, if not for the ocean on our right, colourful splashes of wildflowers, and the tiny towns of simple houses that emerged every so often. A highlight was our visit to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge’s rift valley, where we could walk back and forth between the Eurasian and American continental plates; these plates are drifting apart from each other at the same rate fingernails grow. We lay in the valley’s volcanic ash and were so humbled by the chance to see such an active geological process.

We spent that evening in a grassy field nestled in our first Icelandic mountains, and although the daytime skies had been dull, the evening cleared to showcase beautiful reds and pinks. It was perfect. But the weather changed on us in the morning, bringing winds from the north that raged with such force it nearly blew our tent over and made cycling impossible. Realizing we only had a very short stay in Iceland and that the strength of the wind, combined with upcoming gravel roads and a pulled leg muscle, meant that we would see very little of the country if we stayed on our bikes. Thus, we made the difficult (and expensive) decision to turn around and rent a car for three days. We battled the winds back to the airport (30 kilometres took us almost four hours!) and traded Nootka and Temagami for Eric the Silver, a cute little Ford Fiesta who was a sanctuary for our exhausted bodies.

And so, we headed west, effortlessly cutting through the wind and feeling like we were going incredibly fast; one hour in a car equals one day on the bicycles! That evening, we took the opportunity to thank our muscles for getting us through the wind by visiting our first Icelandic geothermal bath in the town of Hveragerðl. Hveragerðl sits right on top of an active geothermal area, centred around a main steaming hot spring (where you can smell the sulphur). Locals have been using the heat for decades to bake their bread and boil eggs, but we were happy to use the heat to simply warm ourselves. The entrance fee to the community pool was only $3 and we had access to a swimming pool, two outdoor hot tubs (which were both naturally heated to 40 degrees Celsius) and a sauna utilizing the steam directly from the Earth. Wow! We slunk out of the pool feeling relaxed, but disgruntled with the fact that the cold wind was still raging. Unable to find a picnic table out of the wind, we made our pasta dinner in the protection of a bus shelter. A campground warden saw us huddled around our MSR stove and promptly offered us a free place to stay at his site, which had a hedge that acted as a good wind block. Ollie was a good man to meet and we were thankful for his episode of hospitality.

The next three days were an absolute whirlwind… in short, we are in complete awe of Iceland. We travelled 1,000 kilometres with Eric the Silver and he carried us through geothermal hotspots, past massive waterfalls, beside plains of endless purple lupine, into shockingly green mountains, alongside volcanoes covered by glaciers, and near to groups of horses that have remained unchanged since the Viking’s time. Our entire trip felt like a dream, and it was a paradise for Alec-the-photographer (we pulled onto the road’s shoulder about every two minutes). The expression “mind blowing” has never been more appropriate.

We spent our time in the southern section of the islands and this area boasts many specific natural attractions. The tour that almost every tourist to Iceland undertakes is called “The Golden Circle” and this short loop brought us to Kerið, Geysir, Gulfoss and Þingvellir Kerið is a 50 meter deep crater from a volcanic cone that is now filled with water. Geysir is a geothermal area home to the “original” geyser and although this one no longer bubbles and spouts boiling water 70 metres into the air, its (shorter) neighbour Strokkur naturally goes off every ten minutes. Gulfoss is a beautiful two-tiered cascade whose water plunges into a narrow canyon. Þingvellir was impressive for its natural beauty as well as historical reasons, as this is the site of one of the oldest parliaments in the world; Iceland’s parliament was established at Þingvellir in 930, on a more northerly section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Icelanders gathered here for legal, judicial and social purposes until 1789 and the location continues to be an important national gathering site.

Beyond the Golden Circle, it was a hit parade of natural phenomenon. Our trip took us through three main glaciers: Mýrdalsjökull, Eyjafjallajökull (which sat a top the famed 2010 volcano) and Europe’s largest called Vatnajökull. These incredible masses of ice partially melt away into countless waterfalls which plunge over the green slopes we drove beside. Two especially impressive waterfalls were the gushing Skógafoss and the ribbon-like Seljalandsfoss, which we were able to walk behind.

Our final “attraction” was also a result of glacial action and was probably one of the most impressive things we have ever seen. A lagoon, called Jökulsárlón, has been forming from the Vatnajökull glacier ever since the 1920s (a period of rising temperatures). The Vatnajökull is calving into the lagoon; this deep and clear water body is full of majestic icebergs of all shapes and shades of blue and white. We were in awe. This was an emotion our fellow tourists shared as there was a peacefulness to the place, and people spoke quietly as if to bring ease to the lagoon’s playful seals and to ensure that a berg did not flip over (as they often do) prematurely. The lagoon flowed into the ocean and thus smaller bits of ice lined the beach; the pieces of ice lay on the black beach like glittering jewels on a velvet carpet, and they resonated with the crashing waves.

This place perhaps best highlighted how naturally different Iceland is. It was often hard to make sense of our surroundings, and to remember that we were not walking along a sandy beach looking at snowy mountains, but rather that our feet were atop of ash and our vistas were of glacial capped volcanoes. These volcanoes contribute to the intensity of making a home in this country; eruptions can result in great dynamism and disaster. But this is only one example of the extremities Icelanders of past and present face. The weather is (as we experientially discovered) very windy and it seems to change frequently. Their winters here are long and dark, and the usually tree-less landscape provides little refuge from storms. However, despite being at such a high latitude (62° to 66°) their climate is relatively mild thanks to the Gulf Stream and we enjoyed incredible sunny and warm weather during most of our stay on the island. We’ve had to do a double take at the flowers that can grow in this environment, the farm animals that can live here (cows, sheep and horses), and bewildered to see the vegetables Icelanders grow, although this is largely thanks to geothermal-based greenhouses.

Besides wildflowers and livestock, an incredible amount of birds also make their home here. The coast’s cliffs and mountain’s crooks are filled with nesting and feeding seabirds that peacefully soar with thousands of their comrades. The bird calls were completely different than any we have heard before, and their unique and warbling voices were often the only noise we could hear while sitting at a picnic table beside the quiet main road. We felt connected to these birds, whose lives in many ways embody the beautifully free lifestyle we have been able to live over the past nine months. However, many of these birds have travelled farther than us this year. For example, the arctic tern we frequently saw has the longest migration pattern in the world; terns migrate 70,000 kilometres a year, and it is estimated that in one lifetime a tern will travel 2.5 million kilometres. That would be many days pedalling for us!

And speaking of cycling, we should mention our feelings of travelling by car instead of bike through this incredible place. We realize that the car certainly is more advantageous for a quick visit and we are truly thankful that with Eric the Silver we were able to see so much in such a short period of time. This was especially useful in Iceland as one of the incredible parts of the country is how diverse it is and how quickly the landscapes can change. The car protected us from the weather so that changes in winds or rains wouldn’t slow us down from our sight-seeing. However, although in a sense we “saw more” with our little Ford, we know we did not see things as thoroughly or as richly. We did miss getting to feel, smell and listen to the world around us, and found it unfortunate that in our closed off environment we mainly used our eyes to understand the Icelandic world. Luckily, we still had the “cycle touring mentality” and got out of the car very frequently, wandered around when we could, and still enjoyed camping in open spaces. We were also very glad that with our car we could pick up a young hitchhiking couple, happy to repay the generosity of the
strangers we have gotten rides from on previous adventures.

In general, we definitely made the right decision renting a vehicle, but we really hope one day we could come back when we have many weeks and cycle tour through Iceland. We saw many cycle tourists on the road who were taking the whole summer to travel by bike. What luck they have to exclusively breathe in the island’s fresh air, find special places to tuck into, and understand the weather for what it properly is. We’ll definitely put cycle touring Iceland on the to do list.
And the last part of our Iceland adventure, as well as the very last part of our European tour, is in this quaint capital of Reykjavik. Of the 300,000 people living in Iceland, approximately 200,000 live in this harbour town with a wonderfully high density of cafes, restaurants, shopping and nightlife. There is a very artistic and musical energy to the city, and we were happy to see hundreds of people lounging on the grass enjoying the sun. We have been lucky to finish the trip staying with a lovely friend-of-a-friend named Ása, who lived in a nice home right downtown. We felt very comfortable with Ása (who was also born on June 7th!) and really enjoyed our conversations with her. We were happy that she could provide us greater insight on the Icelandic people. We find them an interesting population and are fascinated by the fact that Icelanders can trace themselves back to the original Viking settlers who arrived in Iceland in the 800s…. In fact, Ása showed us an online genealogy database that displays comprehensive heritage detail on each Icelander!

Another impressive thing about Icelandic culture is how strong their native language is. This language is rather ancient and, thanks to their geographical isolation, is very close to what the Vikings spoke. It continues to be used prolifically despite a widespread comfort with English. There also still seems to be a strong appreciation for their heritage’s tradition and literature, and when we return we hope to learn more of this part of Icelandic life. We also might have to try some of the more outrageous food Icelandic cuisine offers; in Reykjavik you can eat puffin, whale, putrefied (read: rotting!) shark and lamb’s head! Although we haven’t yet indulged in these aforementioned delicacies, we have enjoyed some Icelandic-specific foods including snack bags of harðfiskur (dried fish), pickled things, rye pancake flatbreads, lots of liquorice-flavoured treats, and (our favourite) skyr, which a yogurt-like product very rich with protein. And of course, we had to have pylsa, which is often called “Iceland’s national food”. What is it? A hot dog! With random sauce and fried onions. Hilarious.

Another thing we really appreciate about the Icelandic mentality is the accessibility the locals and tourists alike have to nature. We really respected the fact that we were never charged admission to visit any of these natural wonders, and although Iceland is VERY expensive we don’t mind paying a little more for coffee and bread when all these destinations are free. We think it exemplifies the innate respect the Icelanders must have for nature, as this embodies the idea that nature is not to be exploited or sold.

We are so happy that Iceland was our final destination, and even though we can’t believe our trip is over we couldn’t have asked for a better send off. While our experiences with nature in Iceland were probably some of the most epic, it serves as a fitting end to our European adventures as so many of our special moments were spent within incredible natural beauty. Despite all countries having their own economic, political and social intricacies, our trip exemplified that in each place Mother Earth exceeds imagination, adding unique splendour to every corner, from craggy coastlines, to green mountains, to fields of wildflowers and sparkling fresh water lakes… we give thanks to the bicycle for allowing us to bear witness to the immense pleasure the natural world has to offer.

And we know this is how we will continue to structure our lives, to continue seeking for wild and ecospiritual places. For it is on the path to and through these experiences that we find not only tranquility and motivating people, but also the reminder of what fundamentally makes us human. We vow to ourselves to continue to gaze upon the world with wonder and will remember that the deeper we know Mother Earth the more humbled and inspired we become. How lucky we are to be children of this Earth, with the hearts and the minds to explore it.

What a joy it was that at this bittersweet end, with so much of us wishing that the trip could never be over, we were in a place where time seemed to stand still. In Iceland the sun lingers through all hours so that each day blends into the next and the arrival of “tomorrow” is only vaguely felt. And likewise, this week we have lingered in our vagabond lifestyle, in disbelief of the places we have been and not quite sure where we are going next, but relishing in the ground beneath our feet and the endless summer skies above us. And we know tomorrow will come, and with it new joys and challenges, and into the sun we carry everything we have gained over the past nine months.

We wouldn’t have changed anything on our trip, and will be forever grateful for it. We are so thankful to everyone who followed our blog and shared in these experiences with us, and are looking forward to seeing you all in person sometime soon. We will post a final blog when we return home, but for now we will leave you with our last European update.

With lots of love,

Alec and Caitlin

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Tales from the British Isle

1 Jul

Hello friends,

We write to you from Reykjavik, Iceland’s tiny capital. We are in the middle of a phenomenal Icelandic tour, and will share these adventures with you in our next blog. For now, we’ll upload our long overdue entry about our fantastic time in the United Kingdom.

Our two weeks in the UK were some of the trip’s most special. We were lucky enough to travel with Alec’s aunt and uncle (Pauline and Byron) for an exciting fourteen days. Our time with them consisted of one week in England’s famed Lake District and one week in central Scotland. It was a very active and outdoor vacation, interspersed with good stories, food and ales!

Byron and Pauline generously rented a cottage for the four of us in the picturesque town of Ambleside, which served as an excellent base for exploring the surrounding lakes and mountains. Even though it rained almost every morning, we were able to go for great hikes every day. A mentionable hike was through the Langmere Valley, which we explored on a free guided tour. The hike afforded some great views, and our highly entertaining guides’ comedic interludes compensated for the drizzly weather. Our guides were both part of the Lake District’s Mountain Rescue team, a dedicated organization which is impressively all volunteer. Other hikes that week took us through fields of grazing sheep, to lush forests with enormous rhododendron plants, and up steep slopes that granted great vistas.

But certainly our most epic (and favourite!) hike of the week was our trek around Fairfield’s Horseshoe. This hike was an 18 kilometre jaunt over a mountain ridge that connected seven peaks (the tallest being 900 metres) in a horseshoe formation. We had fantastic weather and were able to see all the way out to the ocean, enjoying the mountains, lakes, and nestled towns in between. The wind at the top was roaring, and that energy added to the adrenaline of the day. The ascents and descents provided a great work out and after eight hours of hiking our legs had turned to jello! We stumbled into a pub on our way back to the cottage and (deciding we couldn’t go any further!) enjoyed a well earned pint of English cask ale. For the rest of our stay, whenever we looked up at the horseshoe perched over Ambleside we were repeatedly impressed with our accomplishments! If anyone ever comes to the Lake District we highly suggest this hike.

We can’t express how nice it was to have a “home” during our stay in Ambleside. After such a rainy time in Ireland, we felt especially needy for some creature comforts. The self-catering cottage we stayed in was lovely, and each day we relished in having a very comfortable bed, squeaky-clean shower, big kitchen, and a pair of sofas to relax on or play cards from! This “Roseberry Cottage” was in downtown Ambleside and we loved getting to explore the quaint streets lined with stone buildings that housed many cute cafes, restaurants and shops. We feel lucky to have spent so long in Ambleside.

In general, the Lake District was stunning; we will definitely try to return someday. This area is officially called the Cumbrian Glacial Mountains area, and this name is perhaps more indicative as the truly impressive part of the Lake District is the numerous peaks that rise up from the valleys. The lakes certainly add to the scenic charm, even though they are relatively small (Ambleside is just inland from the largest lake in England, Lake Windermere, which is ten kilometres long). People have been living amongst these hills for millennia; our visit to a stone circle emphasized the ancient and spiritual power of this place. Tourists have been coming here since the 1700s, as the Victorian elite were drawn to the district’s natural beauty. The Lake District prides itself on the poets and writers who found their inspiration amidst the mountains and lakes, two of the most notable authors being the poet William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, the imagination behind the Peter Rabbit stories.

After saying goodbye to England, we continued north by train to Glasgow to start the next part of our UK adventure. We arrived in Glasgow in the pouring rain but were warmly welcomed into the home of David. We connected with David through Warm Showers and we will always remember him as one of the most special people on our trip. With remarkable generosity, David lent Byron and Pauline two of his bicycles so that they could join us on a small tour through central Scotland. The four of us went out for a great dinner with David, and we were happy that he could show us a bit of the West End of Glasgow. He was an incredible source of knowledge! Our initial impressions of Glasgow were quite positive: even though it is certainly a bit “rough around the edges” and carries a post-industrial feel, the city boasts some very impressive architecture and seems to have great museums and a good amount of green space. Unfortunately, our time here was short, but we hope to return.

We left from Glasgow on the National Cycle Network Route 7, which we followed for almost 200 kilometres. The route took us out of the industrial lowlands of Glasgow and into a beautiful world of forests, mountains and lakes (or “lochs”).We didn’t have the greatest weather, but the skies thankfully cleared on our second day when we climbed Duke’s Pass through the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, and we were able to get an incredible view of the whole area. Route 7 took us in and out of small villages, and on to quiet roads where we hardly ever saw a car. But the route was a very challenging one, with lots of climbs (sometimes quite steep) and often over unpaved or potholed roads. We were certainly working hard and we were extremely impressed with the fitness level of Byron and Pauline!! They are a tough pair!

They also had to bike through one of our trip’s rainiest days. It simply down-poured on our third afternoon! We hid for a few hours, warming ourselves by a pub’s fire and playing cards, but as we had already booked tickets to Edinburgh we had to keep pushing onward. To keep morale high the four of us sang show tunes and Christmas carols as the water tumbled onto us, and took no shame in eating multiple chocolate covered digestive cookies! And we should mention that this was June 21st… the first day of summer!

Another unfortunate, although humorous, part of the tour was the high number of flats! Temagami and Nootka both got a flat, but this week’s troublesome character was Byron’s bike, who managed to lose air in his tires on three separate occasions!

But come steep hills, flat tires or rain, we made it to the quaint town of Pithlochry with time to spare, enjoying the warmth and dryness of a Pauline-and-Byron-sponsored B&B (thanks!!), and some Scottish food. We should mention some of our meals over the past two weeks. In general, the food is very heavy and although every meal seems to consist of meat and potatoes, there lots of variance to that combination! Highlights included steak and ale pie, roast beef with Yorkshire Pudding, lamb chops, and of course haggis with neeps and tatties (minced meat cooked in a sheep’s stomach bag with turnips and potatoes). A favourite dessert was sticky toffee pudding! Yum. And British breakfasts are quite the event! A full morning meal includes: sausage, bacon, black pudding (essentially blood sausage), fried mushrooms, a fried tomato and a fried egg. It’s impressive anyone can move afterwards. It’s a good thing we had such an active holiday here so that we could properly enjoy this food without concern for extra pounds…. although we must admit that British people seemed on average the heaviest out of any other country we travelled through.

We arrived in Edinburgh by train and were immediately impressed with the downtown’s skyline… and subsequently UNimpressed by their hotel capacity! Byron and Pauline had not booked a hotel in Edinburgh and unfortunately, due to a Bon Jovi concert and a massive agricultural event, there wasn’t an available room in the city. After hours of phoning (with the assistance of very helpful Tourist Information staff) they decided to take a train back to Glasgow. Disappointing!

We stayed in Edinburgh with another pair of Warm Showers hosts, Ian and Liz. We absolutely loved Edinburgh! However, we did not spend much time exploring the city and instead opted to visit the aforementioned “massive agricultural event”: The Royal Highland Show that took place on the city limits and considers itself “The Greatest Show on Earth”! The RHS was really a trip highlight, an event that traditionally was for showing livestock and but has since expanded to a showcase of farm machinery, traditional music, crafts, equestrian competitions, renewable energies, sustainable living, rural/urban projects, food, and much, much, more! We walked for six hours straight and never repeated a section, and we learned a lot about Scotland, farming and sustainability! Totally worth the trip!

We spent the evening in Edinburgh on a “literary pub tour”, which was essentially comedic live theatre that (pseudo) explained the city’s literary heritage while exploring a few historic drinking establishments. It was a lot of fun, and although the admission was a bit steep, we didn’t feel guilty as that evening Alec found a 20 pound note on the ground! The literary gods were on our side. It was a great way to see Edinburgh and we loved what we saw: the city is small, with incredible architecture, wonderful little streets, and a very positive energy. We’ll be back.

Finally, we returned to Glasgow on Friday to bid farewell to Byron and Pauline. We are so thankful for the time we spent with them, as they are incredibly interesting and fun people who make very good travel companions. They certainly spoiled us while we were together, but ultimately the greatest gift they gave us was their company. We hope that the four of us can travel again in the future!

And speaking of people we hope to soon reconnect with, we have to again mention David (who we spent another night with in Glasgow). We were so impressed with how well David, and his wife Isabelle, treated us and we really admire the way the two of them live their life. A very special gift from David was a photo of a street lamp, with an excerpt from the Scottish “Canadian Boat Song” on the back:

“From the lone shieling, on the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the mist of seas,
But still the pull is strong, the heart is Highland,
As we in dreams behold the Hebrides”

The words fit our experience beautifully, for as we prepare for our return to Canada (albeit by plane, and with excitement) we know that a piece of every place we visited and each person we met will journey across the ocean with us.

And then, we packed the bikes, got in a plane, and arrived to the Icelandic isle for the final week of our epic journey! More details to follow!

With love,

Caitlin and Alec

P.s. Happy Canada Day!

Farewell Ireland

11 Jun

Hello friends,

We have now left Ireland after our three week tour of the little island. Although the weather never permanently cooperated, we’re happy to report that the wind died down and we had one full day of sunshine! In many ways, the colder and wetter weather encouraged us to move a bit slower and explore the Irish towns, and since our last blog we spent time in three noteworthy places: the village of Dingle, the town of Galway, and the city of Dublin.

The tiny town of Dingle sits on the Dingle Peninsula, which is one of Ireland’s main tourist attractions. Looking to shower in something other than raindrops, we took a hostel (and ended up spending two nights due to weather) in Dingle and enjoyed exploring its many shops and pubs. Like everywhere we went in Ireland, pubs abound in Dingle: the town has a permanent population of only 1,000 people and also has 54 pubs. We really enjoyed a famous pub called Dick Mack’s, a pub that doubles as a hardware store. Fix your belt, get a pint, buy some nails! Another highlight of Dingle was we purchased our very first souvenir! With less than a month left we feel more able to carry a bit of extra weight and thus Alec is the proud owner of an Aran Island wool sweater.

Between Dingle and Galway we enjoyed some beautiful coastal biking, through the breathtaking views of Dingle Peninsula (accompanied by its very old anthropological history), up Ireland’s highest paved mountain pass, and through a unique area called The Burren. We found the Burren to be very special and unlike anything else we had seen: layers and piles of sharp, jagged limestone which provided a barren appearance but in reality was home to many wildflowers. The grey weather really added to the otherworldly feel of the landscape. Near to The Burren area was the Cliffs of Moher, steep cliffs sitting 200 metres above sea level which are also an important seabird habitat (although we only saw the cliffs attracting tourists!). The admission to Cliffs of Moher was unreasonably expensive… and thus with the flexibility our bikes bring we decided to go through the back way unnoticed.

After the Burren we travelled along the pretty south shores of the Galway Bay, through some of the sunniest (although still quite windy) weather we’ve had. We really had to thank Mother Nature for providing us with easy terrain and clear skies since our cycle to Galway essentially ended our cycle tour proper (we are now spending two weeks hiking, cottaging and cycling in the UK with Alec’s aunt and uncle). We were luckily able to find some great live Irish music that afternoon, and we thought it the perfect send off from the world of two-wheel spontaneity. Nootka, however, was a bit unimpressed that he would have to start travelling by bus, train and ferry again and thus six kilometres out of Galway he had a flat tire, despite neither bike needing a tube change since Brittany!

Although we arrived in Galway feeling a bit nostalgic, the town soon reminded us that we still have plenty of adventures left on our trip! We stayed in Galway with a really lovely couple (the exact same ages as us) named Marie and Fergal who provided lots of interesting conversation and also let us share in their cocktail and pizza party with some of their friends. They lived in a great location to explore Galway, and we had fun getting to know this colourful student town, full of street music, cafes, pubs, and artsy shops.

Galway will always be a special place because during our visit Caitlin celebrated her 23rd birthday. Alec spoiled her incredibly by finding her a beautiful ruby tear drop necklace from a local shop, which will serve as a true memento of this trip and the way we have grown throughout it. Alec also took Caitlin out for a delicious and fancy birthday dinner at a seafood restaurant in the pedestrian area of Galway. What an incredible way to bring in a new year!!! We went out for some drinks at a highly recommended pub after with some very surprising guests… three of Caitlin’s friends from high school! Completely by luck, Tyler and Colin who were visiting Galway for only three days as well, recognized Caitlin when we rolled into town on our bikes. Another friend, Blair, was coming into town that evening, so the three of them were able to celebrate with us the next evening, making for a fun little birthday party. It’s a small world after all!

After Galway, we started making an epic journey that included a bus, ferry, and multiple trains towards the Lake District to visit with Uncle Byron and Aunt Pauline. We were able to spend two nights in Dublin with a friend of a friend named Mark. On our first evening, Mark took us on a tour of the downtown, which included a little pub crawl in the famous Temple Bar district. Considering it was a Wednesday, this city has a lot of night time energy! We loved that every place we went to had live music of all genres, and most of great quality. The next day we continued to explore Dublin by bike and we definitely liked what we saw of the city. We loved all the brick buildings, and found interesting architecture nestled within the neighbourhoods. We were especially impressed with Phoenix Park, a massive green space just outside of the downtown. The city certainly felt a bit more “rough” than others we have visited but had a real energy and colour that made it exciting and enjoyable.

In Dublin we hit a very exciting landmark… 10,000 kilometres! We were extremely proud to see our odometer click into five digits and certainly made us reflect happily on all the different places we have cycled through, all the people we have met, all the challenges we have overcome and all the fun we have had. What a way to spend the better part of a year!

We would have liked to explore more of Dublin, and had planned to see some of the city’s museums on Friday. However, on Thursday night as we looked into the details of our ferry to Liverpool we realized what the fine print said: no foot passengers or cyclists allowed on board! We luckily were able to make a quick change of plans and take a morning ferry to Holyhead, Wales instead, thus losing time in Dublin but successfully arriving in the UK!

So now, it’s farewell to Ireland. We are glad we visited the country as we were able to learn so much about this island. Despite the old adage, Ireland’s history has not been one of luck, and we wish it all the best as it struggles through their newest challenge of economic trials. We certainly saw lots of evidence of both the Celtic Tiger and this subsequent crash: thousands of new subdivision homes and nice cars, but also a plethora of For Sale signs, half-built houses left abandoned, and a network of roads which remain in quite rough conditions. An economic aspect that struck us personally was the expense of basic items: Ireland was our most expensive country so far for groceries. Apparently these costs are going down and we hope for the sake of the unemployed (15%) it continues to do so!
We are happy to learn that despite a horrible history of oppression, the relationship between Ireland and Britain is improving. It was very interesting for us to be in Ireland around the time of the Queen’s visit. This is the first time that a British monarch has ever visited the Republic of Ireland. Although there were the bomb-scares and although we spoke with people who were disappointed by her visit, in general it seems she was positively received. Hopefully the two countries can continue to move forward in an increasingly healthy relationship.

Ireland also received another big visitor while we were there: Obama! We were really impressed at how well he was received; there was an incredible amount of hype and positive energy, and the Irish people seemed generally inspired by his words (which included “yes we can“ in Gaelic). Throughout the whole trip, we really noted the deep connection Irish people seem to have to the United States and to a lesser degree Canada as well. With the exception of the Celtic Tiger era, Ireland has always had net emigration and thus the Irish have spread out all over the world: there are 30 million Irish-Americans and Irish-Canadians make up our country’s fourth largest immigration group. Many locals asked us about the job situation in Canada, and we met many people who knew someone that had recently moved to a Canadian city.

Onwards we go!

With love,

Alec and Caitlin

Dia Dhuit

30 May

We have now spent over a week on the Emerald Isle and thus far it has been a beautiful, albeit often a bit challenging, experience. Our first impressions of Ireland were slightly grim as, after an over-priced and under-serviced ferry from Cherbourgh, we were greeted by the port town of Rosslare with wet skies and heavy winds. We promptly ducked into a pub, understanding almost automatically why such places are so popular in Ireland, and enjoyed our first pint of Guinness. Excellent. We set out a bit begrudgingly an hour or so later, packing away our sunglasses and pulling out our gloves that had been hibernating throughout our French adventures. We began our trek west, straight into the gusty winds.

After about 20 or 30 kilometres we decided to have another break due to too much rain, seeking refuge in a rural roadside pub. As luck would have it, we arrived in the middle of a championship rugby match, and one of the teams came from the province we were in (Lienster). As we again enjoyed a pint we watched Lienster pull further ahead of their opponent, and simultaneously the good spirit of the pub also grew. We were soon chatting with the patrons, most of whom lived just down the road, and all of whom were impressed that a pair of soggy Canadians had stumbled into the establishment and predicted we must be the first ever. We got great travel advice from a variety of people, and a better summary of Irish history, politics and economics than a guidebook or Wikipedia article could ever provide. We were just so impressed by the friendliness and good quality of people we came into contact with that evening.
Especially generous were Donal and Joanna, an outgoing and intelligent couple who had also done a fair share of travelling. We felt immediately connected to and comfortable with them. We were very thankful for their conversation while at the pub, and as a truly wonderful episode of hospitality they told us that we needn’t worry about setting up our tent in the downpour and offered us their home for the evening. They were excellent hosts to us in their warm house, and the bed they gave us was one of the most comfortable ones on the trip! The food they shared happily reminded us of home: omelettes and fries for dinner and bacon with brown toast for breakfast! It was very comforting. We’re lucky to have come across Donal and Joanna; they set an excellent tone for the rest of our Irish journey.

After leaving their country home, we continued our way west with a goal in mind: we knew that Caitlin’s lifelong family friends, the Kietzmans, were also in Ireland and would be in a relatively close town called Kinsale on Tuesday evening. Caitlin hadn’t seen the family since the summer of 2009, and wasn’t sure when she could see them all again. Alec, having heard so much about the Kietzmans, was also keen to connect with them. Thus, we set off with determination. We only needed to bike 150 kilometres in three days, a distance we could usually accomplish without much effort. However, the three days towards Kinsale were spent exclusively biking since the winds howled directly towards us with astonishing force; sea foam being blown onto a road 100 metres up a cliff demonstrated the wind’s strength. In fact, the northwestern part of Ireland suffered from such intense winds (clocked at 144 km/h!) that houses were damaged and towns left without power. To add to this, the skies often opened up into rain. The (very rural) roads were also challenging: a narrow patchwork of potholes with thick hedgerows which meant there was often little to look at.

But was it ever worth it! We arrived at the Kietzman’s B&B before the family had checked in, but nonetheless were welcomed in by an amiable host named Victor. He was happy we had come, as he had forgotten about the Kietzman’s booking, and let us relax in the living room, serving us a tray of tea and delicious fruit loaves. Once the Kietzmans arrived, the reunion was grand. They kindly gifted us a room in the B&B (which included our first complete “Irish Breakfast”!) and also treated us to dinner. But the truly priceless part of the evening was the chance to share conversation and laughs with each one of them. They are all such special people. Such an extended trip has made us better appreciate good quality friends, so we feel so lucky to get to spend time with important people while still abroad. The time with them gave us both a lot of joy and energy.

After the Kietzmans, we turned inland to head towards the town of Cork, one of the larger cities in Ireland. Thanks to the wind now being in our favour, we had fun flying down the roads towards the town. Alec’s family has roots in Cork. However, since there were no relatives to be found we went to the next best thing: Warm Showers! We spent two nights with Jim, who has lived in Cork for ten years and works for Apple (a fitting profession as Ireland is a major centre of tech companies). Besides being a fellow cyclist, Jim was also a Vipassana meditator and an avid gardener, growing a wealth of vegetables despite the harsh Irish climate. We enjoyed the city of Cork as it had a very energetic and alternative vibe. The largely pedestrian streets were lined with colourful buildings stacked alongside one another, most of which housed pubs and cafes. On Wednesday night, Jim took us to the most “authentic” pub we have ever been to. A real highlight of many Irish pubs is the live music, known as “trad sessions”: good Celtic melodies informally played on Irish instruments by a group of friends around a pub table.

On the topic of pubs, we should mention that going out to the pub seems to be a sort of responsibility while travelling through Ireland. Whenever we speak to people about our travel itinerary their suggestions primarily include which pubs we should visit. The stereotype of the Irish drinking holds true! We are enjoying taking the time to explore the pubs as the cold and rainy weather is not conducive to taking breaks outside. Reminiscent of our perpetually wet tour through Croatia, the rainy weather right now is apparently very abnormal. However, unlike in Croatia, there are many other tourists here also surprised by the weather. We’ve seen lots of other day cyclists, which is always nice, and motorcyclists as well. We met a lovely Spanish/German couple who have been all over the world with their bike… a different type of two wheel travellers but with the same mentality.

As we progress further west on the island we realize that the poor weather doesn’t take away from the country’s beauty, and often enhances it. Ireland is stunning. The landscape, especially where we currently are in the southwest, is wonderfully dramatic: small mountain clusters jut out on peninsulas into the sea, and while some sections are barren and ripe with exposed rock, the lush forests contain all shades of green and drip with colourful flowers. We can’t complain about the rain as it allows us to cycle past beautiful waterfalls and rushing streams, and the dampness in the air adds a mythical, ancient weight to the landscape. It exceeds the imagination. And the thousands of sheep roaming the hills add a real air of authenticity. We are looking forward to continuing along the west coast of the island, with hopes we can also see what this dramatic place looks like with sunshine.

In many ways Ireland has felt a bit like coming home. At the most fundamental level, it is brilliant to be able to speak English with everyone again. We are having frequent and fluid conversation with local people and are relishing in easily reading the newspapers, listening to the radio in stores, and getting to eavesdrop again! However, it’s important to note that although English abounds, the Irish people do have their own language and in some counties it is still the conversational language. Like in other parts of our trip, Gaelic Irish was seriously suppressed by Ireland’s colonizers: the British. The oppressive and abusive position the British took against the Irish is really incredible, and we are so impressed by the Irish people’s ability to maintain their culture despite 800 years of British occupation and active attempts to eradicate Catholicism and consequently Irish way of life in general. You can see one very small example of cultural maintenance in our slideshow, as we went to a Gaelic Tug-O-War match!

Another way that Ireland feels like home is the food. We have enjoyed a few hearty meals full of meat and root vegetables… mainly potatoes. We’ve so far had potatoes made eight different ways, and counting! The bread and the beer are darker again too, there’s ketchup and mayonnaise on the table and peanut butter no longer costs an arm and a leg. The coffees are “normal sized”. And speaking of coffees… in Irish corner stores you can buy Tim Horton’s coffee from a machine! Who would have guessed it!? A funny, yet very true, taste of home.

Well, we’re off again. We just finished cycling the absolutely epic “Ring of Kerry” and now will continue on to the famous Dingle Peninsula.

Happy trails,

Alec and Caitlin

P.s. We were generously given a book called Just a Little Run Around the World by Joanna and Donal. An incredible story of a Welsh woman who sets off on a world run at the age of 57, travelling 20,000 miles over 5 years for cancer awareness and funding. We are flying through the book and being blown away by her efforts, and enjoy reading about another’s travels. Check out Rosie Swale Pope’s blog at http://www.rosiearoundtheworld.co.uk . Rosie is a relative of Joanna.

Normandy

21 May

Hello world!

We just completed the last leg of our Tour de France: Normandy. It was an educational and emotional week in this French region known for its camembert and cider, but internationally infamous for being the landing site of the Allies on D-Day.
The Germans were not the first people to conquer the area now known as Normandy. A millennium ago, this region was conquered and subsequently settled by the Vikings. The descendents, known by then as “the Normans”, later took control of England from King Edward in 1066 under the leadership of William the Conqueror. This conquest (the Battle of Hastings) is brought to life by the largest comic strip in the world, a 68 m tapestry that has been preserved for almost a thousand years and now sits in a glass display in the city of Bayeux. The brutality of war is evident in the moving scenes of chaos and death, but this was not the last time that war boats would cross the English Channel with the intention of shedding blood.

Nine centuries later, those who were conquered by the Normans would become their liberators. Indeed, the war monument in Bayeux inscribes that: “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land”. The Germans had occupied France since 1940, and had overtaken most countries of continental Europe. During the four years, the Germans (and their civilian and military prisoners) had worked to build the Atlantic Wall, which was a stronghold of defences wrapping around the continent in preparation for a coastal attack from the Allies. The Atlantic Wall consisted of bunkers, beach obstacles and mines and although it was not yet complete by 1944, it was a formidable D- |^||^||^|. In order to successfully breach this stronghold, and the strength of the awaiting Germany army, the Allies rallied together the largest amphibious force in history. In the early hours of June 6th, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops landed on five separate beaches in Normandy (Utah, Omaha, Sword, Juno and Gold). Despite suffering heavy casualties, the courage and sheer numbers of the Allied forces overwhelmed the Germans, and marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime.

To help us better understand these events and their details, we visited three museums, two cemeteries and former batteries. The most meaningful museum we visited was the Canadian museum, situated at the Canadian’s landing beach (Juno). This surprisingly new museum (opened in 2003) accounted the involvement of Canadians in the D-Day invasions, the Battle of Normandy, and other campaigns throughout World War II, and detailed the war effort on native soil. We also had a beach tour which better put in to context what the invasion would have been like. We were sobered by the stories, and also the numbers: one million men served overseas, out of only a population of 11 million. 45,000 of these men died, and we were very moved by our visit to the Canadian War Cemetery which made an eternal home for almost 3,000 of soldiers. The graves all had emotional epitaphs, but perhaps the most poignant aspect of our visit was that the age of each soldier was also included on the grave; the vast majority were in their early- or mid-twenties like us. Overall, we were extremely impressed by the cemetery. Perched on a hill overlooking the beaches and surrounding area, the grounds were immaculately kept and the area was quiet and felt quite peaceful. A special touch was that maple trees had been planted throughout.

We also visited the American cemetery where almost 10,000 bodies are laid to rest. Although less quiet, the Americans have done an excellent job in commemorating their war heroes. We had a great stroke of luck as we were met in the parking lot by Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is the director of the cemetery and was meant to give a tour to White House delegates but, because of their car troubles, had a free hour and instead offered to give us a tour. Being a long time military man and a war veteran himself (Vietnam and Korea) he was very passionate about honouring the people who died in WWII. He was incredibly informative and honest and knew great detail about the lives of many of the buried soldiers. Learning these stories added a lot of depth to our experience, allowing us really to identify with the men who fought here. This cemetery homes so many lost sons, fathers, lovers and friends; and, as Mr. Anderson reminded us, there are still many people who remember and love these deceased. Especially emotional was seeing brothers buried side by side (the cemetery has 41 sets of brothers) and this cemetery is the only American cemetery where a father and son rest together.

Certainly this experience evoked sadness within us about the youthful, innocent lives lost. However, more than grief, we were overcome by the reality of our own good fortune. We appreciate now more than ever that our freedom is something we did not earn ourselves but is rather a gift from our ancestors who made immense sacrifices. Seeing the deceased reminds and inspires us to live the best life that we can.

And the evidence of freedom abounds in this place. Although this area is heavy with memories, and the towns still seem to be recovering from their complete annihilation seven decades ago, there is a real sense of beauty and peace to coastal Normandy. One particularly moving episode was watching two French-speaking adults playing on Omaha Beach with two young German children, of whom they seemed to be the guardian of. As we watched their sand castle get bigger, we saw this as a genuine expression of the peace that has come to Europe since the war. We also felt proud of our last night on the beaches; we camped just by the shores and enjoyed a good meal and a glass of wine before going for a long barefoot walk along the beach with the sunset. We think this would have been what so many of the soldiers were fighting for: the ability to be free with loved ones.

And we were happy to have the chance to explore a free Normandy. The stereotype of Normandy rings true: lots, and lots of cows grazing in the rolling green pastures, often amidst apple orchards. A highlight of our time in Normandy was our stay in Bayeux with Marie from Warm Showers who welcomed us into her beautiful 15th century home, situated right next to the town’s incredible cathedral. She cooked us amazing food, including fresh bread every morning with homemade jam and yogurt, and also shared with us many of her perspectives, and gave us a better understanding of French life. We would have loved to stay for much longer with Marie, and although we decided to continue to the ferry, we have an open invitation to return to Bayeux which we hope we can take up sometime soon. Marie, as all our hosts have been, is certainly an ambassador for the peace, as bringing strangers into your home, showering them with generosity, and exchanging ideas is certainly an excellent way to maintain harmony and cross-cultural understanding. Kudos again, Warm Showers.

And in Normandy we received two especially exciting things. The first, a pair of shoes!
After eight months on the road, Caitlin’s shoes had become nearly sandals and her clip for the pedal was fairly non-existent. We knew it would soon be time to purchase new ones, but a bit wary of the cost. However, while wandering through a flea market in a tiny town, we saw a pair of brand new cycle shoes in Caitlin’s exact size sitting alone on a table! We purchased the shoes for only 30 euros and Caitlin is now enjoying a more comfortable ride. The other thing we FINALLY were able to receive was Caitlin’s passport. Thank you so much to everyone who helped her get a new one!

Now, with passport in hand, we have the ability to leave the Schengen Region. We are thus boarded a boat in Cherbourg (the site of a decisive WWII battle and the continental port the Titanic sailed from) headed for Ireland where we will spend close to three weeks. The weather is looking a bit wet, but we hope that the scenery and local “craic” (merrymaking) will balance it out!

And as a final farewell to France we must extend a big thank you to this country. We cycled over 2500 kilometres and spent about seven weeks exploring, and France exceeded all expectations. It is full of beautiful places, good people, fascinating history and delicious food. It is impossible to say which country so far is our “favourite”, but we can be sure that we will return to France. There is more to discover and new friends to reconnect with.

We’ll keep our eyes out for a pot of gold,

Alec and Caitlin

Passport in hand!!!

20 May

Exciting update!

Caitlin finally has her passport and this evening we sail for the Emerald Isle!

Aurevoir, France

Farewell Brittany

16 May

Bonjour!

After three weeks of adventures, we have finished our tour of the fine region of Bretagne. Brittany has certainly been the most thoroughly explored region of our trip, and with this blog we hope to paint a good picture of what we discovered.

As is always the case, what made Bretagne so special was the people we met. We’ve already related to you stories of many good people, but this week we were able to share in the company with Goulch’en, Sarah and their two young sons Kemo and Milan. We were put in contact with Goulch’en and Sarah through Jules and Christine. Goulch’en was a roller skater on the trip to Moscow in ’89 (with Jules, Christine, Anne’s husband and 14 other people). We’re just so thankful to have had this group of friends take care of us during our stay in Bretagne.

We had a great time with Goulch’en and Sarah, both interesting people who were good ambassadors of Breton culture. For example, their family is very musical, with a focus on Breton music; Kemo plays a type of flute specific for the genre. We enjoy Breton music very much, and it certainly highlights Bretagne’s Celtic roots. Interestingly, both Kemo and Milan go to a Breton-immersion school, something which indicates the renewal and reemphasis of keeping this a living language.
But the best “Breton experience” we had during our stay in Pommerit was attending the local “Fest Noz”. Directly translating to “Night Party”, these events happen in various community centres every weekend around the province. There were about 200 people at the one in Pommerit, which was apparently a small turn out despite the village only having a population of 2,000. The focus of the evening was dancing to live, traditional music. The dances all had specific steps (some easier than others) and were performed by everyone holding hands and moving clockwise in a large circle. Some people were excellent dancers, and others were there just to have fun, and the entire age range was present. It all seemed extremely inclusive. In the foyer, there was lots of inexpensive Breton food and drink available: local beer and cider, galettes, crepes and traditional baked goods. We felt really privileged of this experiences, and think these evenings must be incredible for a community’s cohesion and general spirit. To us, the evening was a real testament that the Breton traditions are alive and well. Thank you Goulch’en and Sarah for introducing Fest Noz to us!

We have felt this Breton energy in many of the people we have met so far. One way this sense of community seems to manifest itself is in the apparent level of trust. By far the most impressive episode of confidence was from Goulch’en and Sarah. Caitlin (being Caitlin) accidently left the special knife Alec handmade for her at a hotel in the centre of Brittany. After explaining this story, Goulch’en quickly offered us his car to go the 60 kilometres to retrieve the knife. Unfortunately, neither of us could drive standard. Unfazed by this reality (as well as the reality that neither of us had been behind a wheel in seven months) Goulch’en gave Alec a quick lesson and smilingly sent us off through the French countryside on our knife-saving mission. In this sink or swim event, Alec was very successful! We retrieved the knife, had a great drive, and were yet again inspired by the goodness of people.

And of course we had excellent food with Goulch’en and Sarah. This brings us to another major highlight of Bretagne (and all of France so far): the food! In short, the cuisine here is just amazing. Meals are quite the ordeal, following a standard formula: appetizers (accompanied by either liquor, cider or sweeter wine), the main plate, the cheese course (with bread and wine, and often salad), desert, and finished off with coffee! The staples of the French diet seem to be butter, cream, bread and of course cheese…. it’s a good thing we are also biking every day! We are really unsure how the French stay so thin, but we want to know the secret. A Breton speciality we have come to love is butter with salt crystals. We have now eaten cream in a large variety of ways: baked with vegetables, on rice, on fruit, on pizza, in galettes and in quiche. In terms of bread, the baguettes are always fresh and satisfying; and yes, the French really do walk around with full baguettes. And the cheese…. ooh la la! Hard cheese, creamy cheese, it’s all good, and is always the way you finish off the meal (when we told someone that this isn’t popular in Canada, they genuinely asked us when we ate our cheese, surprised that slices of Brie, Camembert and Roquefort are an indulgence back home). It is also popular to eat unpasteurized cheese, which is especially creamy and flavourful. Something else different is the popularity of duck and rabbit meat. We enjoyed a picnic lunch of both those items, and can attest that they were tasty. Seafood, namely mussels and oysters where we were in Brittany, is also widely eaten. Ah! Vive le France! Our stomachs never want to leave.

The thing that made Bretagne really special was the nature. It also helped that it was complemented by excellent weather; the region had an unusual May and, lucky for us, we saw very little rain. (We did see one massive thunderstorm, from which we hid out under a large rock structure!) The coast here is just breathtaking: vivaciously green headlands seated on stoic cliffs which tumble into the sea, surrounded by sandy beaches which cyclically drink and grow with the largest tides in Europe. The humans complimented the nature nicely, and each day we saw tiny fishing boats navigating the waves and islets, people riding horseback along the beach, and even peaceful paragliders using the winds to come as close as humans can to flying. Hiking is also very popular, as there is a well used trail that follows the circumference of Brittany.

In general, we found that the tourists attracted to Brittany were those interested in exploring nature and enjoying good scenery (… and even those seeking nude beaches, which we camped beside). There are popular sections of coast to visit, including the Pink Granite Coast and the Emerald Coast, each unique and stunning. The urban centres were nice as well, and the towns were small and therefore easy to explore. We were quite impressed with how well kept all the villages and cities were. Especially well preserved and presented were the port towns of Dinard and Saint Malo, two very popular beach destinations (and also the old stomping grounds of Jacques Cartier). The whole area was very conducive to cycle touring, and we were happy to meet other cycle tourists on our journey. However, the hilly (and often very steep!) terrain made it physically challenging at times.
We didn’t mind the challenge, because during our Breton stay we spent a lot of time lingering amidst the beauty and in the sunshine. After building up lots of “character” throughout short winter days of rougher weather, we are now happy to slow down the pace. And now the days are so long that we can spend many hours exploring or relaxing and still bike a good number of kilometres. We have really enjoyed more relaxing mornings as now dawn is warmer and there is no longer a need to get on the road early. Our spring routine includes leisurely breakfasts with a cup of coffee (or two), followed by an hour or so of meditating, reading or stretching. In Bretagne, we were able to find unbelievable campsites. Since the coastline is so wild and undeveloped (and rarely a “no camping” sign), there were many options. Most nights were spent perched on a headland watching the sun set over the Atlantic as the energetic waves crashed against the shore. We often met local people in the evenings, and no one seemed to have a problem with us camping, and in fact they usually congratulated us on finding such great spots. The campsites of the past week were some of the best of our whole lives.

And now, we continue to head east. We left Bretagne with our visit to Le Mont Saint Michel. This is an extravagant abbey built on a cliff on an island… and the irony is that this potentially very isolated place is the second most visited spot in France. It is over 1300 years old and beautiful, although full of tourists. Beyond the architecture itself, what we found perhaps most interesting is how much its surrounding tides fluctuate. Also interesting is the regional ownership dispute; the estuary’s flow has caused boundary discrepancy between Normandy and Brittany and thus it is difficult to determine which region Le Mont Saint Michel is in. This river is causing other problems as well since its natural sediment flow might eventually connect Le Mont to the mainland, and thus decrease some of its iconic appeal. Consequently, a dam has been build to deter build up.

Normandy awaits us! We genuinely hope to return to Bretagne one day as we feel a great connection to this special place.

Et c’est tout pour aujourd’hui!

Avec de gros besous,

Alec and Caitlin

Beautiful Bretagne

8 May

Bonjour tout le monde!

And before we start: Happy Mother’s Day to our mom’s and everyone reading this that is a mother! We hope you have a great day and that you know how special you are.

We are writing this blog on the sandy shores of the Atlantic, watching the tide fall away from our little campsite as the sun rises up behind us. We have now spent almost two weeks in the French region of Brittany (or Bretagne in French oR Breizh in Breton), and can confidently call it our favourite. Brittany is a province in the far northwest of France that extends into the Atlantic Ocean. The Breton roots are Celtic, and thus the area has always been unique from the rest of the country. Even today, Brittany retains a distinctive culture. We have enjoyed their traditional cuisine of semi-sweet baked goods as well as galettes (savoury crepes) and crepes paired with cider, both in a restaurant and from our own stove. We also have appreciated the Breton translation of every French sign; similar to the story of Catalonia, in the mid- to late-20th century the Breton language was forbidden and thus almost forgotten, but now the region is attempting its revitalization. There is also much evidence of traditional Breton costumes and customs. Another mentionable thing about Brittany is its incredible nature. Many places have actually reminded us of Canada! We have cycled through wonderfully green forests, past waterfalls cascading through moss-covered valleys, and alongside the rugged coast which experiences exceptionally large tides. But what has been really impressive is how friendly and generous the people in this region are, and of course that is what has made our time in Brittany truly special.

We began our tour of Brittany from Nantes (which is considered a part of historical Brittany, even though the city is now a part of a different region). Based on the suggestion of our Warm Shower’s hosts Jules and Christine, we followed a canal north. This canal was commissioned by Napoleon to reroute the trading traffic inland in attempts to control and prohibit British trading with the continent. The canal is an impressive 385 kilometres long, and took decades to complete. Thanks to the work largely performed by slaves, the canal was completed in 1842. However, with the rise of rail it eventually fell into disuse. Now, the canal is popular for boaters (who navigate through the many locks) and for hikers and cyclists who can follow the canal on a trail for about 250 km. It was a very quiet, pretty ride. We met many other cyclists, many of them families out on their bikes for a few days. One such family was a set of cycle touring grandparents taking their granddaughter and her cousin out for their first tour! It was a really nice family to come across, and we enjoyed playing Frisbee with them for a while.

On the canal, we also met some different kind of “cycle tourists”. As bizarre as it may seem, we ended up spending a night with Brittany’s chapter of the Harley Davidson Club! A man named Olivier owned a restaurant (biker bar) just beside the canal and invited us to set up our tent behind his place and come to enjoy some drinks with him and his friends. At first we were a bit intimidated by the large, tattooed, French speaking men but quickly came to realize that they were friendly, entertaining and generous people. We enjoyed a huge barbeque with them (lots of meat!) and lots of drinks, conversations and laughs. We had so much fun we didn’t realize when we crawled into the tent that it was already past 2:00 am! It was cool for us to realize that they love riding their Harleys for the same reasons that we love cycling: taking it slow, getting off the busy roads, and enjoying the small things. They were a great group of people to meet.

And two days later, we met another amazing, and very unique, group of people. After the canal, we hopped on an old railway which had been converted into a bicycle path to reach the coast. We turned a corner on this trail to suddenly see two work horses pulling a large caravan, with three young girls and a mother sitting in the front. It looked just like a scene from Little House on the Prairie! We went over to speak with them and learned that they were from the middle of France and had been travelling through their country in this way for a year, and plan to spend a year more on the road. Their chosen last name was Papillion (the French word for butterfly) and their entourage included husband, wife, 12-year-old daughter who was permanently travelling with them, another 14-year-old daughter who was visiting, a family friend, two horses to pull their home, a horse for riding, a cat, and a goat which they milked each morning (they even made cheese with this milk). They had built the caravan themselves, and it had beds, a propane stove and a wood burning fireplace… the original campervan!

Such a family needs much more space than we do with our little tent! Especially needy are the horses and goat who eat grass, and a lot of it! So, each evening, the Papillion family would ask a farmer for permission to set up camp on their property in exchange for any work the farmer might need. Their speciality was horse therapy; the father Jerome practiced shiatsu for horses, which is similar to acupuncture, and their daughter Tara was becoming learned in this field too. Debbie practiced shiatsu on humans and would often offer this service as well. What a way to travel! We spent the night with them on a farmer’s field who needed help with his horse’s hoof. We enjoyed a big fire and a chicken dinner, accompanied by and the music of their fiddles and accordions. We can’t explain how inspired we were by this exceptional family, and how happy we are to have come across them.

After saying farewell to the Papillion family and, bringing with us a litre of freshly squeezed goat milk, we cycled toward the coast, picking up some honey from a bee farmer along the way. We had to play hide and seek with the rain, but we soon made it to the little town of Santec beside the sea. Jules and Christine had connected us with his friends Kaloun and Anne who lived here and we were warmly welcomed by Anne to their beachside home (unfortunately Kaloun was away as he was sea kayaking around some Scottish islands). Anne was an incredible woman, very positive and energetic and wonderfully hospitable and generous. She made us feel very comfortable in her home… and what a home it was! It was a very open and colourful home with a backdoor opening right onto the beach. The large windows made it so that we were constantly captivated by the marine landscape, which continually changed with the rhythm of the tides. The weather was fairly rainy while we were there and we really appreciated the opportunity to take rest indoors, taking walks along the beach and going for short bike rides in and out of Roscoff, which is the main port town beside Santec, known for its onions and seaweed. We also just loved spending time with Anne in her little piece of paradise. We stayed for four days, and could have stayed much longer, but we think that one day we will be back to Santec to visit this special place.

So now we continue east along the coast through France. Navigating through the headlands is proving to be very beautiful (albeit a bit challenging for the legs at times). A recent highlight was meeting another cycle tourist named Richard, who was very close to returning to his home in Cambridge, England after a seven month cycle tour that took him through some of Western Europe, former Yugoslavia, Turkey and the Middle East. Quite the trip! His favourite country to cycle tour was Syria, where he said the people were very hospitable. We enjoyed another act of hospitality that night; as we were camping beside the ocean a woman living in a nearby house brought us freshly caught mackerel which we grilled on a bonfire. Pretty perfect.

We will continue our stay in Brittany, and visit a few more of Jules and Christine’s friends along the way. It is a good thing we like it here so much because we are still waiting on Caitlin’s passport. It has been a very ridiculous and frustratingly long process (she has now been without a passport for over a month). This means that we aren’t going to be spending time cycling through the England and Wales, and instead remain in France (and possibly go to Belgium and the Netherlands again). Even though we originally wanted to cross to the UK, the lack of passport has been a blessing too, because it has meant we are really getting the opportunity to explore a lot of France, and learning to love it very much.

Hope the weather has finally transitioned from the winter into spring for everyone back home!

With love,

Alec and Caitlin

La Loire avec Claire

25 Apr

Salut tout la monde!

Well, in the great words of our friend William MacLeod (who may or may not remember saying this): “if life get’s much better than this, [we]’d like to see it”. Our last week has been nothing short of la crème de la crème. Our journey down the Loire Valley had a checkmark beside every condition necessary for a good cycle tour: long, sunny days, beautiful scenery, quiet roads, interesting history and culture, delicious food/wine, great camping and excellent company. Let us share with you!

From Stephanie’s we spent a few days travelling to the Loire River to meet our Canadian friend Claire. Claire, like Stephanie, has been teaching English in French schools for the past seven months in a town called Blois and, as good fortune would have it, her contract finished just before we met up with her. Since she had some interim time before travelling through Europe with family and friends, she decided to join us down the Loire. Before departing, we spent some time with Claire’s friends of many nationalities and explored her town of Blois. Besides meandering through the streets, two highlights of our time in the town were watching a professional cycle race and enjoying our first barbeque of 2011 (although it was thanks to a stove-top contraption since most French people don’t have BBQs).

And then: the Loire! We spent six days cycling along the riverside route and we have decided that it is our favourite of all the rivers we have biked this year. The path was very flat and relaxing and ran through green forests, vineyards and beside the river itself. The Loire is a very shallow, sandy river with many interspersed islands; thus, there was virtually no traffic on the water which made for a very peaceful experience. We were able to camp along the river four nights in a row, and enjoyed our first campfires of the year on its beaches. We even went wading to cool down before lunch, and were deterred from swimming only because we were in a place where the current was strong. And we weren’t the only ones who thought it was so beautiful; in the late afternoon and early morning you could always find people hot air ballooning through the valley. And although the Loire’s naturalness was probably why we loved it so much, there was many other attractions that made the trip so enjoyable, such as chateaux, wineries and food!

The landscape was absolutely littered with castles. Unlike the Rhine, where the castles were fortresses and often sat in some degree of ruin, the chateaux along the Loire were more like palaces and continue to be in great condition. Most of these grandiose places were built in the 15th and 16th centuries as second homes for the French nobility. We were very impressed by all the chateaux we saw, and we went into two of them, Chambord and Chenonceau, which provided even more insight to the lavish, luxurious lifestyles of the Renaissance nobility.

Chambord is the largest of the chateaux and apparently the best example of French architecture outside of Versailles. It was commissioned by Francois the I to serve as a hunting “lodge”. Surrounded by almost 6,000 hectares of forest, the palace itself had astronomical dimensions: for example, there were over four hundred rooms and almost three hundred fireplaces. Chenonceau had a different purpose. Chenonceau is built over one of the Loire’s tributaries and surrounded by gardens, and is called “the ladies’ chateau” as it served as a peaceful retreat for some of the royal women. Both chateaux are major tourist attractions today and besides being architecturally and culturally interesting are also excellent museums of the era’s art, tapestries and furniture. It also helps put into perspective why lower classes rose up against the nobles during France’s revolutions! The chateaux have also served other modern purposes. Chenonceau, for example, was important in both the World Wars; in WWI the chateau was converted into a hospital, and in WWII it sat on the line of demarcation and thus people were able to escape from the occupied zone into free France.

Although the large chateaux were built hundreds of years ago, there are many other grand modern homes in the area. Many of these places are attached to the wine industry. The Loire valley is France’s third most important wine region, especially known for its white wines. The other great part about being in a wine region is there is also lots of good food available for pairing. One of the region’s specialities is goat cheese, and we visited a goat farm to taste the local stuff. In general, the three of us enjoyed tasting wine along the route and taking tours of the “caves”. Sections of the Loire cut through tuffa rock, a soft and valuable rock. Tuffa was mined, creating large networks of tunnels and caves, to build many of the chateaux and also many of the village homes. Some wine masters realized the potential of the excavated quarries and now many wineries produce and store their wine in these underground tunnels. For example, the cave we visited in Saumur houses four million bottles under the town!

Speaking of Saumur, we had our first proper French lunch in this town. We spent most of the day with Claire’s friend Charles, who toured us through his town and then took us back to his home for lunch. We enjoyed a multi course meal in the company of Charles’ very energetic and generous mother. Exploring chateaux and vineyards is certainly special, but sharing meals and conversation with local people will always be the most priceless aspect of our trip. Thank you very much, Charles!

And we must also thank Claire, since our experience in Saumur, as well as many other experiences in the past week, would not have been possible without her! It was really nice to go cycle touring with another friend, especially one who is so adventurous and easy to get along with. It was also great having her with us for her mastery over the French language; she enabled much deeper conversation with locals than our French would have allowed. We also would like to proudly announce that we can fit a third person in our tent (relatively) comfortably and Temagami and Nootka are able to bear the extra load from a third traveller… so if anyone is interested in joining us for some time you just need to find a bike and then find us!

We are now enjoying time in the city of Nantes, one of the larger cities in France. We are staying with a great family who we found through Warm Showers. Jules and Christine are very kind people with two interesting and outgoing teenage sons Adrian and Victor. As a family they have done quite a few cycle tours! A very inspiring group, full of good energy. They treated us to two wonderful meals, and this morning we all shared in a pancake feast. We are very happy that on Easter weekend, as everyone back home is getting together with relatives, we are able to share good food and conversation with people that feel like old friends. Merci beacoup.

And tomorrow, we head north! Since Caitlin’s passport is still “being processed”, we have time to spare in France! We will be exploring the region of Brittany, an area of France with a strong culture. We are very excited because Jules and Christine have shared the contact information of some of their friends who live in the area, so hopefully we will be staying with lots of good Brittany folk!

Until next time,

Alec and Caitlin

Spring in France

14 Apr

Ah, la vie en France!

We’ve been here for just over a week, and already have seen so much. But while the sights have been grand, the true highlight since our arrival is that despite heading north we have jumped into the summer season. The weather has been absolutely phenomenal, with clear skies and above 30 degree temperatures… and as of now there is no sign of rain in the forecast. We’re in shorts and t-shirts, having fun shade-searching for the first time, and enjoying the excuse to eat ice cream! We also love seeing the different flowers blooming and the baby animals roaming the fields. The birds are especially lively as of late and act as a lovely alarm clock. Indeed, everything seems better with weather like this, and in France so far there has been much to appreciate.

We spent our first few days cycling in Europe’s largest forest: a vastness of pine which sits along the Atlantic Ocean. This area was once a marsh but was planted for forestry in the 1800s and although its main purpose today continues to be logging, the trails, campgrounds and beaches throughout make it very popular for recreational use as well. We really enjoyed biking along the lengthy cycle paths, and were interested to learn that many sections follow old German supply roads from World War II. Despite this history, the path felt unbelievably peaceful and it seemed we had it all to ourselves. An especially surreal part was that the trees were releasing large clouds of pollen and thus after each day we found ourselves covered in green “fairy dust”.

After a few days following the coast north, we turned inland towards the city of Bordeaux, which is France’s premier wine region (and of course most French would argue it produces the world’s finest). We took a hostel as we needed an address to receive the necessary passport forms and were pleased at the chance to enjoy the city. After a quick shower and trip to the market we headed down the river for a romantic French dinner avec a bottle of Bordeaux. From our bench along the quay we quickly fell in love with the city. Bordeaux has recently undergone a massive urban renewal, with new trams, parks, an improved waterfront and large pedestrian only areas. In partial thanks to these projects, now half the downtown is UNESCO listed. After the sun set we wandered the cobblestone streets and found live music in an eighteenth-century building, and enjoyed the entertainment of a gypsy band playing ‘jazz’.

The following day we were disappointed to discover that the rumours of the French Post were true as the passport package was now two days late. While waiting, we decided to make the best of our situation and embarked on a two day bicycle tour through the Bordeaux area. The first night we found a secluded spot along the shores of the Garonne River where we decided to have dinner and set up camp. The site was perfect, or so we thought, although we did note some oddities. Alec noticed that the colour of the river was quite brown and was carrying a lot of debris, and thought it was flowing in the wrong direction, while Caitlin noticed the docks on the river were more typical of those along the coast. We did not think too much of our observations and since it was now dark crawled into the tent to read some of the information provided by the tourist office. After some time we began reading about the main appellation (wine region) that we would be cycling through (Entre-deux-Mer) and realized that the Latin translation means from the two rivers that flood due to the tide! We quickly poked our heads out the tent, and seeing the water very close discovered firsthand that, despite being sixty kilometres, from the ocean the area is under tidal control. In the pitch black we broke camp in record time. The next morning we woke in a farmer’s field and headed to the river for breakfast, which was now lower, greener, and flowing in the ‘right’ direction!

Despite a hectic night we were prepared for a full day, which included a visit to an organic farm that specialises in ancient legumes, a visit to a wine cooperative, lunch under a tree in a farmer’s field, two winery tours, and a night sleeping beside an eighth century chateau. We enjoyed learning about the wine from this renowned area. The Bordeaux wine region has over 120,000 hectares and 8,000 chateaus (vineyards that are often very bourgeois). The first grapes were planted by the Romans in the first century and the area has since popularized many of the grape varieties, such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Bordeaux wineries really pride themselves on being unique and thus 57 different “appellations” have developed, which allow the wine to be very specific.

It was nice cycling along the quiet roads and through the small communities throughout the Bordeaux region and this has continued for us throughout central France. The towns have become much smaller and possess a more medieval feel. Central France is probably the most pastoral section of our trip so far and we have absolutely seen more cows than cars. An interesting part of the area is that it has attracted many British who enjoy the tranquility. We have met quite a few Brits as of late, but we must give an honourable mention to our new friend Cathol (Irish). As we were pulling in to a little fairy-tale town, Cathol ran out of his restaurant to let us know that he had the same bike as us and that he wanted to buy us a drink. Cathol’s family had moved from Ireland four years ago to run this little restaurant and, after they generously offered us one of their spare bedrooms, we enjoyed an evening in their tavern. Our night included delicious food and lots of complimentary drinks and cheese! We also were lucky enough to enjoy a small jazz concert by two Parisian musicians who had nearby cottages. It was a wonderful night!

The next day we hopped back on the bicycles in much excitement as we knew we would ride our bikes to Stephanie Hewson’s house! Stephanie has been teaching English classes for public schools in the town of Saint-Amand-Montrond for the past six months. We arrived at her home and were greeted with much happiness and enthusiasm; reunions are always wonderful but to reconnect with such a good friend is truly priceless. Stephanie is the first “old” friend we have visited since spending time with the Graz crew in November! We have felt very comfortable and relaxed ever since arriving at Stephanie’s, and are happy to see that we were able to pick up our friendship exactly where we left off.

The good company has been augmented by delicious food. Stephanie has fed us wonderfully, and one of our highlights was a dinner of traditional French crepes paired with cider; these savoury treats wrapped up eggs, ham and Emmental cheese in doughy goodness, and we followed this up with sweet combinations for desert. And of course our time with the oh-so-French Stephanie has allowed our taste buds to further explore French cheese, pastry and wine. This country is dangerously delicious.

We also enjoyed meeting some of her teaching colleagues. Gabe (American) and Frederica (German) are both very interesting people who we were able to share quality time and conversation. It is always interesting to hear other foreigner’s perspectives on a place. We were also happy to meet Annette, who is Stephanie’s supervisor from the government. After an absolutely delicious lunch prepared by the friendly Frederica (thank you so much again!) Annette drove us to a small town renowned for pottery, with over 80 potters from all over the world. We have gotten the sense that central France has a very artistic vein running through it, and places like this are certainly a large source of that movement. A highlight was the “cathedral” we visited which was a mosaic garden masterpiece that took 25 years to create. Other cultural highlights of our time with Stephanie include a guided tour of the very large fortress in Saint-Amand-Montrond and a climb up a cathedral bell tower (granting us an incredible view) in the neighbouring city of Bourges.

But as is life, all good things come to an end and we are going to say aurevoir to Stephanie today, but are excited to explore the famous Loire Valley (and Stephanie is excited to begin some more explorations herself as she soon starts six weeks of European travel). In a few days, we will be meeting up with Claire, another Canadian friend who has also spent the year teaching English in France. With good weather in the forecast, many extravagant castles to explore, kilometres of bike paths, and passport documents in the mail, this will no doubt be a good week!

Be well,

Alec and Caitlin

and a slideshow for your viewing pleasure!