The trouble with Europe is that the countries are too small. In a week and a half I spun my pedals in five different countries. It's great for getting a strong sense of progress but as soon as you have learnt to say "hello" and "sorry, I don't speak your language" in one country, you're into the next one and have to try to learn to say what is resoundingly obvious all over again! There are other issues which arise as each country runs things differently. For example, Hungarians don't seem to believe that bridges provide a sensible way to cross rivers, therefore once you have found a ferry to take you across, waited for the crew to finish their lunch, found out that you need a ticket (only available from a shop hidden across the road), waited for the ferry to finish crossing the river and return again as by this point you have missed it, waited for the crew to finish their next coffee break, you are able to progress across the short stretch of water. The Croatian Trades Description Act seems to be sporadically enforced as pizzarias don't always serve pizza yet some bars have signs advertising 'lousy music' which is certainly more accurate! However, each country brings it's own charm with the beauty of the Slovenian mountains, the fast flat roads of Croatia and Hungary, with the good old horse and cart, and with the occasional main road displayed on my GPS which fades into just a farm track. I am delighted that Central and Eastern European citizens seem to appreciate ginger beards and lycra as I am becoming increasingly stared at wherever I go!
I recently arrived in Transylvania and so far the closest I have come to a vampire was a dead bat at the side of the road. There was no wooden stake through the heart so I'm guessing it was either sunlight or a lorry that finished it off! Just as a precaution, I am currently doing my research by reading Dracula whilst relaxing in a beautiful, newly refurbished hostel to myself. There was a mix up with the booking as it's closed this week, but the owner left me with the key, a guitar, an 11th century church building and the freedom to listen to Miles Davis at full volume!
My journey is going to take a more restful turn over the next few weeks as I take a break to apply for my Russian and Chinese visas so don't worry if you don't see much progress, I'm probably not dead!
Finally, the rumours of me being a bit of a jessie are gathering strength as I have discovered just how much I hate creepy crawlies! The bugs are becoming increasingly prevalent and larger in size the further I head east. The time taken to strike my tent in the morning is growing as a result of me performing larger and more extravagant flappy dances to get them off me and my tent!
Yesterday I completed the 4,000th kilometer of my journey so far and I encountered the most expensive tin of beans I have ever seen at €2.33; ridiculous and definitely now off the menu! After a few days cycling along the Italian lakes, I've arrived in Treviso for a few days of being spoilt by my mum as she has come out to visit. Since my last update, it's continued to be a warm and pasta filled experience.
After leaving Genoa, I headed north towards Italy's fashion capital. The brown shading on my map suggested it was going to a tough start to the day but the climb seemed easier than the one up to the hostel in Genoa I'd been staying at. My legs felt fresh and light for once so I managed to put in the longest day of the trip so far, breaking the 100 mile mark for the first time. To celebrate this milestone, I managed to get my wheels stuck in a set of tram lines in Milan whilst paying too much attention to the crazy traffic and performed a victory dive off the bike in front of a busy Friday night crowd. I aim to entertain!
After enjoying a day in Milan amongst the immaculately dressed and groomed population (complete with lycra and tan lines which as mentioned previously are all the rage this season), I decided to stop being such a total jessie and head up to Switzerland to take on the alps. After grinding my way up to San Barnardino, I was devastated to find that just a couple of kms from the summit, the mountain pass was closed. I tried to go up it anyway but the snow was so deep and the hill so steep that I wasn't going to make it. I could have carried my bike and bags up, shuttling back and forth, but once I was over this pass there would be others which were closed so it wasn't an enticing prospect. I could have waited there for two months before the pass was opened but am not sure my mum would have been best pleased if I didn't show up in Treviso, so to remain in her good books decided to head back down the 1600m decent, back round the 32 hairpin turns together with countless other bends as the road wound it's way back to the foot of the climb, past the goats still ringing their bells and the workmen still sitting in their vans having another coffee break. 45 minutes later and 20°C warmer I stopped to remove the defeated look from my face and the layers of winter clothing I was wearing. One for the Swiss suggestion box: Perhaps placing a sign at the bottom of the mountain saying the pass is closed would be helpful! No longer a jessie but not yet a conquerer. I will have a chance to redeem myself many times along the way to Korea with Slovenia up next looking a little brown on my map. Bring it on!
I have passed many cyclists on my journey so far and each country I have encountered has produced a slightly different breed:
The British Road Cyclist: Dresses practically and greets other cyclist with a slight nod, a simple hello and may sometimes stretch to a small wave of the fingers. Has a strong desire to survive and will be found wearing a helmet and often reflective clothing.
The French Road Cyclist: The most friendly and happiest of cyclists studied (probably due to the perfect road surfaces and the most respectful drivers that pass by). Will always greet with a jolly 'bonjour' and will often slow down for a chat. Will wear long sleeves and 'tights' in all weather.
The Swiss Road Cyclist: The most serious of all cyclists, always dressed in full lycra and pays absolutely no attention to other cyclists (perhaps because they are always grinding up a mountain with their head down, or flying past at great speed as they race down to the bottom again).
The Italian Road Cyclist: Treats the road like a catwalk with immaculate team kits; high speck, spotless bikes; largely avoids helmets to preserve the greased swept back hair; and provides the widest variety of greetings to fellow cyclists from ignoring them completely to waving with both hands and shouting various unknown Italian phrases across the road (to which as a British cyclist I give a polite nod, say 'buongiorno' and may even stretch to a small wave of the fingers).