Köln was a place of rain and little wifi but the enforced stop and decision to extend the trip was wondrously good for my head. I slept, I ate lots of vegetables and although my homecoming got further away, the route became easier and a lot less pressured. I wound my way up the Rhein to Dussledorf, stopping by the Chocolate Museum in the morning to pick up some samples…unfortunately dogs were not allowed inside. The day was dry but cloudy and cold and it would have been nice to cuddle up inside with a hot chocolate but…ho hum; no dog, no deal. I grabbed some Lindt balls in every flavour and a bar of something and kept trucking; it was pretty early after all. I’d met possibly the third English cycle tourist of my trip – Paul – that morning who was heading to Oktoberfest and then Australia (that bit not by bike) and was enviously lightweight in terms of baggage. But he was heading south through Germany and, I think, likely to experience some pretty hideous weather along the way…that was one reason against postponing my return – Winter is coming, guys. I guess south is better than north with regards to that but Germany for me had been pretty chilly compared to anything further east. I took my time wiggling north, Scout trotting along beside me on the lead, leisurely as anything and then hopping in so we could make better progress but without any pressure to make a certain distance. Dusseldorf was in sight and when I looked at the map I realised that Holland was not very far away. I’d planned on following the Rhein there but it was so close now – just off to the left – and the Rhein hadn’t been anywhere near as enchanting as the Donau…I actually wanted to change it up a bit – I looked at my previous route taking me to Holland…it wasn’t even that hilly, it would be something different. I looked at campsites on the route and realised it would be best to push for Holland in one day and so I camped just north of Dusseldorf, sky threatening but never breaking over us, excited to think I’d be sleeping in country number seven the next night.
The campsite was right on the low, wide banks of the Rhein, and as a result, prone to flooding. Everything was on stilts or easily moveable including the toilets, reception, fencing and the power points. However, it stayed dry and there was no need to move to higher ground in the night. I was joined by a Dutch/English couple, Neil and Margit who had just arrived from Venlo – exactly where I’d planned to cross into Holland and was buoyed to hear their journey had been easy enough. They had a palatial tent, an extra tarp to extend their real estate and have more room to sit and cook and relax and those Heliox chairs I’d seen throughout my trip. I was only a little jealous. They were chasing the weather after some bike-related delays in the UK and Holland and looked to have a pretty fun adventure ahead of them.
We sat and ate together and Margit gave me a stroopwafel – my second Dutch cyclist to give me one and it tasted like home. Not only because I was getting closer to Holland and therefore the UK but because of good old Tregroes waffles from Llandysul in Wales, which were a popular treat in Tenby and then compulsory cupboard items when my parents moved to Llandysul itself, around about the time I went off to school in Africa – coming home was invariably a waffly affair. Neil even uploaded their GPX track to get me to Venlo the next day and I followed it contentedly without any of the self-doubt that badgered me every time I encountered a woodland track or gravelly path on the routes I’d made for myself. I knew for a fact that this route worked and would get me to the Maas river within 60km. It was really very lovely – thank you Neil and Margit! Follow their journey here: Neil and Margit on a bike.
The weather, unlike the route, was not very friendly. It was a cloudy morning although it had stayed dry in the night and after stopping to let Scout have a run along the grassy banks we were about to leave behind the rain started and, to my recollection, didn’t really stop. Oh, it varied in its intensity, but was most definitely riffing on the general theme of wet. So I was wrapped up in all my plastic stuff the whole day, sweating and getting cold again…I mean, it wasn’t my favourite day. But I did cross into Holland and there was even a helpful little border monument and brick line so there was something tangible to photograph. I faffed about in the rain, ate my last German laugenstange and headed into the land of liquorice and waffles and windmills. It was early afternoon when I reached Venlo and experienced how easy it is to cycle in Dutch cities! It was bliss, roundabouts have clear bike-only bits in a shade of red I have come to find incredibly comforting, and the signs are regular and almost all have destinations, not just a vague arrow. Pretty cool if you ask me, the woman who’s got lost on a bike in 6 countries so far.
I set up camp in the rain but as luck would have it the campsite I chose had a communal recreation area with wifi and sofas and, most crucially, a roof. It turns out I’d used my waterproof shoe covers a bit wrong and stuffed my trouser legs into them to keep them close to my calf in true cyclist style which meant that I’d basically created little channels through which all the water running down my legs could soak happily into my shoes. That coupled with the fact that the bottom cleat piece was bending out and creating a watery entrance from below meant I was pretty squelchy by the time I reached the campsite. My shoes were absolutely sodden. So sodden in fact that I couldn’t wear them for two days and had to don my crocs (to my abject horror) not only for walking around camp and towns but for cycling as well. I’d read countless good reviews of this option in very hot or very wet weather but I am not at all convinced. It was pretty rubbish in fact; I was slipping and sliding off the pedals and my toes kept pushing against the ends. Nope. Not for me, thanks. Although it was. It had to be. For two days. It was at least, not too cold – they are remarkably insulated somehow so my toes were chilly but they didn’t fall off so there’s that. I guess. On the other hand (or foot) I got a blister from the croc with the heel strap still attached…Scout saved me from two blisters by removing the other heel strap a while ago. I should have been a little more grateful at the time I suppose.
The next day, it rained on and off; Holland is flat enough that you really can see the weather coming and I became quite good at stopping in time to get the shutters down, as it were. I took a brief windy and sunny opportunity to dry out the tent as much as possible as clouds loomed in front of me, packed up before the weather could undo the work and finished the job later in the afternoon after a stubborn ice-cream stop…it was officially too cold and windy for ice-cream but I’d not had any in Holland yet and was quite adamant about it. It was good but nothing beats Austrian ice-cream so far. Over my picnic lunch on a wooden river boardwalk, two fathers out with their young daughters chatted with me, one thrusting five euros into my hand because he knew he’d forget to go online later and do it. My god, everyone has such great English here, and the people are getting top marks for sure. If the weather could sort itself out, I’d be in heaven.
Speaking of the people, my destination that evening was the home of the lovely Dutch couple I met in Passau who invited me to stay with them within about ten minutes of us chatting. We were camped next to each other and the first thing they said to me was ‘Hello neighbour!’ Hans and Carlie are retired with 6 grandchildren, 4 bikes and a camper van and it’s safe to say that they’re two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They welcomed us like old friends and sent us on our way almost like family. I honestly felt so cared for and loved that I had tears brimming and a hammering heart as I pedalled away after my stay with a packed lunch, treats for Scout, full tyres, a fixed spoke and a doggy passport signed and stamped by the local vet. Hans and Carlie’s neighbour, Tineke, had lost her old dog just two weeks ago and she insisted on paying for Scout’s final checkup at her vet’s. Her husband had died just 8 months ago and when we went over to thank her she told me in her rusty English that when her dog died she’d asked her husband why he’d had to take their dog too. It must be very quiet in that house for her now. We fought our tears and I hugged my thanks and Scout got some treats.
That day was horribly rainy and I could not have been more smug to have a bath and a warm bed and a dry tent and clean, dry clothes. Even my shoes were dry when I left this morning and although I was promised a dry day with only a drop of rain at 5pm the weather played silly buggers and I was alternately showered and shined on throughout. It would pour it down and I’d hastily stop to wrap up and roll down Scout’s waterproof windows and within ten minutes the sun would peak through and I’d eventually decide to de-wrap and five minutes later I’d be under a hideous dark cloud with blue sky either side and wiping rain from my face. I had to refrain from taking it personally but it really did seem beyond a joke. And then the wind. My old mate, back again, screaming across the wide open plains of Holland. The windmills are clearly not just an quaint traditional aesthetic…Holland can blow. Which becomes pretty demoralising eventually, until you finally roll into camp and set up with time enough to cycle into Dordrecht without your luggage and along a path that Scout can exhaust herself on and sit in town with a hot chocolate (finally) and write your blog….So yeah, it’s ok really.
At some road works I stopped and chatted with one of the men and he said I was the second person he’d met making a huge journey this Summer – the other was a guy he’d met in Germany cycling with a dog (!) from the North of Spain to the Black Sea (I think) – I wanna be pals with him. And then there was me – we talked about Scout’s passport and how she needs vaccinations, a microchip and medical checks to get one and then I can safely take her in to the UK without losing her to quarantine for months. Scout has an EU passport and once again the embarrassment of the Brexit decision nearly made me cry (I think maybe I’m quite tired but this issue gets me good). He said it had been a real shock for the Netherlands (as it had been for me). I told him that underhand tactics were used, people were lied to, people didn’t know enough facts….But beyond all that, 52% of us made a decision to be selfish. And that is why I am embarrassed. That is why I am devastated. That’s why I am so full of shame to be British in Europe right now. What’s the point of screwing over your neighbours? Isn’t it nice to have friends? Who wants to live on a street and never speak to any other residents, never help anyone else, never be helped? Since when has living selfishly and isolated ever, ever made for a fulfilled and emotionally prosperous life? Why would we stop being a part of the community that is Europe? Even if there was an economic edge to “leaving” (which I don’t believe there is), I don’t care because we are always stronger together. The UK is one of the stronger EU nations, so, yes, we help out weaker ones but we get so much in return and who knows when we might need help too? I don’t want to live in a world that will not help its neighbours. Hans and Carlie were my neighbours for one night and extended generosity to me I can’t repay, but it benefited us all – there is no selfless act – giving is one of the best feelings in the world. If you’re reading this blog then you probably already know that because you’ve donated to this project. Thank you for that; no matter how big or how small, your donation means food, or a passport, or a vaccination, or a kennel for our four legged neighbours in Bulgaria. Thank you, kind stranger, together we’ve raised over £10,000. And now I’m coming home.