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Luca's Tour. Days 1 to 6.

Day 1: 17/08/03
To: Braintree

Set off at about 1,30pm being waved off by my sister Nadia and her husband Deano. The first couple of miles were, as I expected, wobbly. I didn’t have time to give my fully laden bike a trial run so setting off on it was a bit like riding a bike for the first time again. After about an hour I had got well accustomed to the weight of the bike and was through Ongar and Fyfield in no time, after which I turned off the main road and in to the quiet and picturesque Essex countryside, which is totally underrated for some reason. Having spent a month or so planning this adventure in to the wilds of Europe it seemed weird to start it riding along roads I’ve ridden literally hundreds of times before. In about 3 hours I was at Siobhan and Lengo´s house - Lengo is a life long mate of mine who lives with his partner Siobhan, half way between my home and Harwich International, where I’m getting my ferry tomorrow, which is pretty handy for me right now!

After catching up they both treated me to a meal and a few glasses of vino - a last taste of luxury for a few months. Despite the headwind I still averaged 21km/h today - I´m more than happy with that. This puts me on course for a safe 100km a day in Holland - I have to get to Minden in Northern Germany by Friday to meet Smithy, another long time friend who will be riding to Prague with me.

Day 2: 18/08/03
From: Willows Green
To: Reeuwijkbrug (Near Gouda - if thats any help)
Ferry from Harwich Int´l to Hoek van Holland
Distance: 140km
Weather: Bright and warm. Headwind in England, tailwind in Holland

Up and out by quarter past five to make sure I got the 10.40am ferry. I wound my way through the back lanes just outside Braintree as the sun came up, surprising the hundreds of rabbits bouncing about on the silent roads. Heading east at this time of the morning makes navigation easy - basically just head for the sun. Checked my map to minimise the amount of time spent on the grim A120 to Colchester. From there I got the A137 and then the surprisingly hilly B1352, though this did mean I got some nice views of the Holbrook bay from up high.

Sitting at Harwich writing this, I can´t believe how ordered everything is. There´s a lane and a place for everything. No where near as much fun as the mayhem you get at Greek and Italian ports that provides great entertainment for bored travellers with an hour to kill…

The boat trip was as tedious as hell. Did give me the chance to "refuel" with whatever food I could get my hands on. Bike touring does that to you. You can never eat enough and need to pile in the calories to give you the energy to keep going strong.

On arrival, followed signed bike paths to Delft about 20km away where I bought some maps. I knew Delft was roughly the right direction – I needed to head North East to eventually pick up the LF4 cycle route which should take me right to the German border. Regretted not having more time to pass in Delft, a beautiful little town of canals, cycles and chilled out cafes.

Went on to a massive lake called Aa-Nord where I got a bit lost before finally finding the LF4, which, onece on it, was well signed and easy to follow (this proved to be the exception rather than the rule for this trail though). Dead flat around here so despite tired legs managed to get about 70km dusted before finding a campsite at about 8.30pm.

Day 3: 19/08/03
From: Reeuwijkbrug
To: Arnhem, via Utrecht
Distance: 116 Km
Weather: Mild, broken cloud, slight tailwind.

Legs felt ok after finishing a pretty big day late yesterday. Getting back on the LF4 the path ran right next to Oud Rijn, a wide river with sweeping bends that made for some beautiful scenery. Pressed on to Utrecht. When I got there I couldn´t get out quick enough. I don´t think that it was a particularly grim city, I´d just got too used to the peace and quiet of the rural Holland. One thing that made me laugh was the way that bike lanes were used for any form of transport from scooters down, so when waiting at lights a bike lane will have any number of people on mopeds, rollerblades, skateboards, recumbents and all types of cycle queued up. They certainly love their alternative forms of transport over here.

Unfortunately escaping the city wasn´t that easy as the signposts were useless. Eventually managed to navigate my way to Bunnik and from there I rediscovered the LF4, which took me through some atmospheric old forests to Austerlitz.

After there it was through Ede and up through the De Hoge Velume National Park, its bleak and desolate landscape reminding me of Dartmoor, and then a drop down in to Arnhem past many war memorials and on to another campsite just outside town. Generally, in this part of Holand at least, there is little need to plan where you are staying as there are countless campsites scattered all over the area.

I’ve now stopped humiliating myself by attempting to speak the 5 words of Dutch that I learn’t, only to receive a reply in perfect English. Its all far too embarrassing.

Day 4: 20/08/03
From: Arnhem
To: Haaksbergen
Distance: 95 km
Weather: Warm, broken cloud

Legs totally stiff and heavy on waking up – no doubt the last 3 days are taking their toll. Clearly my training ride from the outskirts of London to the centre and back again along the Lea Valley and Limehouse canals haven´t been enough! Hoped I´d feel a bit better on getting going and warming up but no such luck. Shame as I was soon in the Rozendael Park which was full of great biking trails. Eventually got through the park and dropped down in to Brummen where I got hopelessly lost and wasted about 15km or so.

Pushed on to Haaksbergen still feeling pretty grim. Would have liked to get further but it wasn´t really happening today. Have still done enough to make it to Minden by Friday night I reckon. In fact I’m starting to remember how me and Smithy randomly chose Minden as a place to meet. We measured out the distance from the Hook of Holland to there in 100km blocks with a scrap of paper and deciced that it looked about 300km as the crow flies. Add about a third to make up for twists and turns and that makes 400km in 4 days on flat terrain. No problem. Hmmmmmmmmm.

Nice campsite I´m in anyway. Typically its full of families in caravans but I´m in a little quiet wooded part, lounging in my hammock, writing this and watching the sites many red squirrels in search of food carry out death defying leaps between different trees, which is strangely relaxing, almost theraputic.

Day 5: 20/08/03
From: Haaksbergen
To: Aller See (Near Osnabruck)
Distance: 125km
Weather: Broken Cloud, mild

Impressed myself by getting up and out by 9 again. Got a great little off road bike path from the campsite for about 6km or so before getting back on the minor roads heading for Germany. Not sure at that point I crossed the border – I love the way countries on the continent effortlessly merge in to one another. Took the main road 10km or so from Gronau to Ochtrup where I picked up the excellent “100 Schlosse Route” – a dedicated bike route, meaning no cars. This was signed really well and I followed it to Rhiene as it wound its way through some fantastic countryside. There I picked up another good trail to Horstel and from there on to Mettingen (all these routes are clearly marked on the “Randwanderkarte” maps covering the Munsterland region that are available for 6 euros from tourist info offices).

Started to get a bit knackered. The only campsite within striking distance was at Alter See. This was a very, very bizarre place. It is full of caravans that are obviously here all year round. They all have canvass extensions, sheds, satellite dishes, gardens with tables and chairs, gazebos, and picket fences surrounding the lot. People must treat this site as a home from home, a little retreat that they come to in the summer and for other holidays. Not my idea of “getting away”, in fact, my idea of a nightmare, but each to their own I suppose. Thing is, it’s hemmed in on one side by a two lane A-road, and on another by a busy motorway, and another by a trainline. I can see the logic in having a campsite catering mainly to caravans fairly near a motorway, but literally a stones throw away? The noise is incredible, and then you`ve got a train thundering by every 10 minutes! Please, why do people come here?

Having said that, there is a nice lake on site and I`m lying next to it now in the hammock that I’ve slung up between 2 trees. This would be perfect, if it wasn’t for the 40 tonners hanmering past about 50 yards away. On the way back to my tent some extremely bored and desperate looking teenagers asked me something in German. Probably for drugs, and who could blame them for being dragged to a hell like this for the summer.

Day 6: 22/08/03
From: Alter See
To: Minden
Distance: 120km
Weather: Overcast, windy

Got an early escape from the campsite from hell and picked up a bike route that took me in to Osnabruck, an industrial town, on some very green canal towpaths similar to my commuter route through east London back home. Its amazing how, even in highly industrialised and urbanised landscapes you still get real natural beauty imposing itself on an otherwise drab environment.

Once through Osnabruck. I worked my way eastwards on the country lanes passing through Rodinghosen and Lubbeck where I got on a canal-side path that took me straight in to Minden. As I’ve been heading due east all the way so far the sun has been rising in front of me, passing round my right side before dropping over my right shoulder. I’m sure by now I must be tanned more on one side than the other! From now though, I’ll be heading due south on the Weser river.

Have met Smithy at the train station. There is no campsite in Minden and the hostel was full. This was a blessing in disguise though as I checked us in to a twin room at a superb hotel for only 69 euros for the 2 of us. So tonight I’ve enjoyed the luxury of a proper shower (rather than a dire coin operated campsite effort) and will have a proper bed to sleep in.

Smithy is in good form as ever. After 5 days of near solitude (I deliberately avoided touristy and traveller areas) it’s great to chat away with him. He lives in Minich with a German girl he met in London so knows Germany fairly well. Apparently, Minden is the German equivalent of somewhere like Harlow (?!), being a satellite town to a much bigger city, Hannover. I think that’s a bit harsh, or at least I hope so as we are about to go in to town for a few beers!

From now its on to Prague.