Category Archives: Europe

The Christmas Letter 2014

It’s that time again when I try to remember where the year has gone and what I’ve been doing. Once again it’s been a rather varied year – with only a couple of lows in between numerous highs.

As the closure of the synthetic rubber factory where I worked for almost three years in the south of England loomed, the first half of the year was rather quiet on the travel front as I tried to save money for the approaching unemployment. While I was never too concerned with how I’d cope with losing my job (other adventures & parts of the world beckoned), it turned out to be very difficult seeing the demise of a plant that had been going for over fifty years and about one hundred and thirty people lose their jobs. The last few months after production ceased were particularly tedious – but I enjoyed throwing myself into my study of the Italian language (which I’d started learning at work at the end of 2013).

The exception to the difficult first seven months of the year with little happening (except riding bikes – I was still doing that, of course; the highlight was finally riding the South Downs Way) was May. Mum visited for almost six weeks and Adele was also over for three weeks of that. There were plenty of little trips here & there, as I tried to show Adele a bit of Europe and a holiday that didn’t include some sort of extreme adventure. Highlights were a long weekend with Mum in Barcelonafive days in Paris with both Mum & Adele; a rushed weekend showing London to Adeletaking Adele up to Scotland to visit a friend and do a little bit of hiking; and finally, a fantastic family wedding in Tuscany – with plenty of enjoyable time with extended family, some sightseeing, great food & wine and some hiking in the Chianti hills.

Tweed RunWe came across the Tweed Run in London. It was all rather odd, but looked a lot of fun.

Glasgow – I was pleasantly surprised to be so impressed.

Ben NevisOn top of the UK – most of the way up Ben Nevis was really nice, it was only a little bleak at the top.

San GimignanoBack in San Gimignano.

Work finally finished at the end of July – I promptly moved back to (the ever dependable and hospitable) cousin Trish’s in London the following day and took ten days preparing for three months of bikepacking (backpacking on a bike – minimal luggage carried compared to traditional cycle touring to enable more off-road riding) of west-Europe, with two months touring Italy being the main goal. I had hoped to do a big cycle tour of Europe in 2015 before moving back to NZ, but with work being what it was the timing changed.

In the end I only managed three weeks and two-thousand kilometres of touring, as I found the wet August and mud in Belgium was not much fun – after a week of that I was getting tired of solo-touring. Having said that, there were plenty of good times and highlights – including some of the people I met along the way; visiting a huge old ironworks in the Saarland (sad, I know); my birthday spent in Strasbourg; the Jura mountains (in France, near the Swiss border) and best of all: crossing the Alps into Italy over the same pass my grandfather rode over on his Euro cycle tour sixty-five years before me – that was a very special & memorable day.

All ready to leave.

I quite liked what I saw of Antwerp.

Another night, another forest, another wild-camp-site.


On the shores of Lake Geneva.

Pretty happy to be at Great St Bernard Pass – four hours of steady, but rarely difficult, climbing.

I’d organised (about a week beforehand) to stay a week working on a vineyard in the Aosta Valley (the most north-west province of Italy, in the Alps bordering both Monto Bianco & Monto Rosa) – in exchange for my labour, I would get food & board. I enjoyed the food (so much pasta, cheese, wine, grappa & all manner of things from the garden); the work (it was harvest season – so we mostly picked grapes and I learnt to make wine); trying to practice my Italian speaking; mountain scenery & lifestyle; hiking in the Alps; and most of all, the wonderful people I met and got to know. Although I left to see more of Italy, after a day by myself it seemed rather pointless leaving such good friends (& food) to have to worry where I was going to put my tent each night as the autumn weather deteriorated – so I returned to the vineyard. I ended up staying almost four weeks in total.

A day spent looking at Monto Bianco while we hiked.

If I ever got bored of the work in the vines, the scenery was always worth looking at and appreciating.

All of sudden October was free – so I hastily arranged for another visit to East Africa and close friends Adrian & Carmen, as it’s so much easier & cheaper to visit from London than NZ. Biking around Kilimanjaro was fantastic and we went up to Kenya to visit friends – the camping trip was unusual. I’m still not sure what scared me more – camping with ten children under the age of five or the injured lion we had resident in our campsite for much of the weekend.

Our lion friend for the weekend.

Back in England for November, it was a mixture of winter cycle touring saying goodbye to friends & family in the south & south-west and trying to pack my life up to move back to NZ. It was great to see so many people that have been a big part of my life for the last five or so years, sad to say goodbye of course.

As of December, I’m back in NZ – hopefully for good. For now, I’m enjoying the sudden change from northern winter to southern summer (if you think twenty-four hours in a plane counts as sudden), being with family – especially for Christmas, getting plenty of riding in (it’s easily been my biggest year on a bike ever – approaching 7000 km on my mountain-bikes [of which, I now only have one left – the big heavy touring one]), and generally reacquainting myself with life in NZ.

I’ll slowly start looking for a job in the new year, hoping to find one that means I can live in a large town/small city that has easy access to good mountain-biking – I think then there would be a chance I may be able stay still for a while and not spend so much time and money on travelling…

Thanks to all that were along for the ride (literal or figurative) this year – whether providing food, a bed, travel opportunities, quality mountain-bike rides or simply time. Merry Christmas & a great 2015 to all.

Five and a half years

Well, my bike is packed up in its bag again, most of my possessions were collected yesterday for shipping back to New Zealand and, really, I’m a bit bored of packing. I leave London for NZ – five and a half years to the week after I left to see a little bit of the world – curious if I can settle back in a beautiful country far at the bottom of the globe. At the least, I should get a good summer of riding in. Over dinner with Trish at our favourite local Italian pizzeria the other night, there was plenty to reflect on – many excellent things, only two or three not so great happenings, all memorable.

So excuse me while I try to remember most of them and jot them down for posterity. Naturally I’ll start with the highlights in no particular order, as there are many.

As I delve into the archives, this is proving more difficult to narrow it down than I expected, …

My first port of call was the States – little did I know that would be the first of four visits and about six months in total in the country, it turns out the west is fantastic for scenery and mountain-biking.

A west-USA road-trip with plenty of mountain-biking was always a pipe-dream for when I was in my forties or fifties – thanks to living in Canada & the company of my aunt, Valerie, it became a reality much earlier.

The best biking holiday was my return to Moab last year – fantastic trails, great company & beautiful scenery – click on the photo above to watch the video Megan put together.

I also never intended to visit Africa four times, but somehow that happened. Each of the four safaris were quite different, but all excellent.

But the first one in the Masai Mara was the best.

Seeing the Pyramids on Christmas day was excellent – not very crowded either.

I only briefly went to Asia, on a visit to Turkey:

Gliding over the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia in a hot air balloon is indelibly in my memory.

Five weeks’ vacation almost five years ago in the Canadian Rockies saw me learn to ski, a bit, and then all of a sudden, living in Bow Valley for a year of mountain-biking in the summer and skiing in the winter.

Returning to the UK, I managed to settle into a job that I quite liked – that was, until the rather horrible drawn-out experience of plant closure & many redundancies. It was a good base for travels near & far while it lasted – the long, dry & hot summer of 2013 was especially good with many mountain-biking trips around the south-west. Always good to visit Taunton & also ride with my Somerset riding buddies, the Combe Raiders – whatever the weather.

That summer saw me enter a few biking events too – a six-hour solo (nice trail, but boring riding round & round the same thing for six hours), a couple of marathon events, & culminating in my first multi-day stage event.

That event, as you can probably tell from this photo taken while riding along, was in Africa.

Apart from the redundancy experience already mentioned, only two other notable low-points are worth bringing up. The mugging incident in San Diego the day after I left NZ is still the best if I ever have to tell one story from my travels. The ongoing shoulder dislocation saga was painful in a different way – but after four dislocations I had surgery and it’s been fine ever since.

With all the trips to North America & Africa, I perhaps didn’t see as much of Europe as I originally hoped. But I managed a fair few trips – with Italy being the most visited country, five times now I think. I also loved the time spent living in London wandering around all parts of the city & delving into the history. Due to the demise of work, my bikepacking tour of western Europe was brought forward to this year & shortened (& then shortened even more when I got sick of travelling alone in the August rain & mud).

Straddling the German-Belgian border somewhere.

One of the most pleasing & proud parts of the trip was crossing the Alps over Great Saint Bernard Pass – because my grandfather did the same on a bike sixty-five years ago.

Somehow I ended up spending four weeks living & working on a small vineyard in the north-west of Italy – eating a lot, hiking a bit, making new friends & thoroughly enjoying myself. Learning a second-language, Italian – thanks to work, was something I never thought I’d do – but it turned out I really enjoyed it.

Hiking near Monto Bianco.

Oh, almost forgot the whirlwind two-week trip back to NZ (the only one) for some friends’ wedding, and coincidentally my thirtieth birthday & many celebrations with friends & family all over the country. Hectic, but most enjoyable.

The visit also coincided with my shoulder being declared fit – so after six months of no biking, it was great to be active again – here skiing near Wanaka.

I’ll be back with these fine folks next week – hard to believe we’ll have our first Christmas all together since 2006.

That’ll do for unashamed self-indulgence – thanks to all the family & friends that made all this possible in many different ways (usually providing somewhere to sleep & plenty to eat). Biggest thanks goes to cousin Trish in London for repeatedly opening up her home to this often-vagabond – all this would not have been possible or lasted nearly as long otherwise.

Stockholm weekend

Way back when I was in Italy for a month somehow I ended up booking flights to Stockholm for the weekend just past – as Bea was going to exhibit at a trade-show & invited me along. At twenty pounds each way, it wasn’t too much of a big deal if I couldn’t or decided not to go. This time last week I was still undecided, but ended up booking accommodation & therefore I was going. Flying from Stansted also provided a good opportunity to continue the bike-touring farewells to extended family – this time with not quite as much riding.

I set off across London aiming further west than necessary so as to connect to National Cycle Route 1 alongside the Lea. Within long I was under the Thames & riding along the Greenway – a very straight raised cycleway/footpath. I was pleased to discover I was riding on top of Victorian industrial history – the North Outfall Sewer from the 1860s. After visiting Crossness a few years ago I recognised Abbey Mills Pumping Station pretty easily – also an impressive building considering its designed use.

It was a perfect winter’s day for cycling – still & crisp.

Eventually I had to leave the river & cut back east to Carol & Barry’s. First I found this little village:

And then I found the Matching church a couple of miles away, the possibility of bad puns is obvious.

I made it before dark and was warmly welcomed and plied with vast amounts of food – a sure way to make a cyclist happy after fifty-odd miles. Conveniently, the airport is only a short-hop on a local bus away; I had plenty of time to get stuck into War & Peace again. This weekend has been my only experience of the much-maligned Ryan Air – but when a return trip to Stockholm for about the same price I’ve paid for a eighty-minute off-peak train journey in southern England, one really shouldn’t complain too much.

By the time I was on the coach into Stockholm, the sun was already starting to set – this was going to take a little getting used to. After meeting Bea & her friends, then meeting my airbnb host & settling into the vast rooms I’d somehow got for a very reasonable price (in a lovely period apartment block) I was back out again. To my surprise we (me & the Italians) ended up taking the metro some distance out of the centre and before I knew it I was in an extensive indoor-climbing gym watching a Swedish bouldering competition with a couple of hundred Swedish climbing enthusiasts; I am still unsure how that happened.

Saturday was the first day of the trade-show, so I excused myself from providing Italian-English translation of dubious quality and went to have a proper look around the city. Walking across town the morning was absolutely miserable as cars clattered past with spiked tyres on roads free of ice & snow – dense cloud all around, cold and just plain bleak. I was beginning to regret the decision to go on one last Euro weekend trip before my return to summer next week. Thankfully, I went to the Vasa Museum, was thoroughly impressed and my enthusiasm for seeing new places returned.

The Vasa story is similar to the Mary Rose in that it was a warship launched to much fanfare (in this case, in 1628) and then promptly sunk on its maiden voyage while crowds watched, before being salvaged in more modern times. The Vasa sunk in little more than a breeze (it was too narrow for its height & its high centre of gravity) less than a mile into its first outing in Stockholm harbour before it was brought up 333 years later in 1961. Due to the brackish water & subsequent absence of shipworm to hasten its decay, it’s in remarkable shape at over ninety-five percent intact. At almost seventy metres long and twelve metres across it is a very impressive sight – & looks strangely familiar as the Black Pearl from the Pirates of the Caribbean film series was heavily influenced by it. I easily spent close to three hours in the museum, it was fantastic & the highlight of what I saw in Stockholm, before considering braving the cold again.

Many of the carvings were still discernible – lions on the underside of the gun hatches to intimidate the passersby/enemy.

In a better mood, I found things I thought it was worth taking photos of.

The apartment block that was home for the weekend.

With the trade-show finishing around eight, I popped in & managed not to sample too much wine & grappa before we headed out for dinner with yet more Italians. I expected to hear a bit of Swedish, naturally, over the weekend – but I think I heard mostly Italian spoken; which is a bit of fun trying to work out what is being said, but my vocabulary is still too limited so mostly I had no idea!

Sunday was, to my delight, a bit warmer & a lot brighter. It was a pretty easy day with a late brunch followed by a visit to Skansen – a large historic village with old buildings from all over Sweden that aims to give a sense of how people lived this far north over centuries past. It was nice being outside leisurely wandering around learning a bit; there was also a small wildlife park which provided some entertainment – but I’ve been spoilt by East Africa too many times to be captivated by such displays.

The sun even came out, except we weren’t really standing in its light.

Walking back past the Vasa museum, these replica masts show how tall the ship was.

Once the sun had set the rest of the day was spent among excellent company and conversation (some of which I could understand) in various bars. So that was pretty much my last little Euro trip for who-knows-how-long – it didn’t start fantastically, but I came around and really enjoyed it. I’d very much like to see Stockholm during long summer days – it must be quite something.

Apparently I missed a Sunday of horrendous rain back in England – but Monday’s sunset was worth seeing.

Now that I’m back home, I just have to pack my life up into a few boxes and bags, clean my bike thoroughly for the NZ border and say last farewells. Should be manageable.

Les Granges – through another’s eyes

Sort of a guest post today – well, I’m still writing but all the photos are Zuza’s. Previous posts during my stay here at Les Granges have centred on activities away from the vineyard and winery – mostly because I don’t tend to carry my camera when I work and therefore don’t have many photos to write to. But Zuza likes to carry a camera around often and has somewhat become official photographer for the few of us that have been working together for the last two or so weeks. It’s also interesting to see things that I see every day through another’s lens – plus she’s a much better photographer than I am. So, with minimal words hopefully, here are some of the scenes of my stay here.

Nightly serenade.

Every so often the aged family dog makes an appearance struggling on tired arthritic eighteen-year old limbs.

A little slice of home.

New house (still in progress) and winery on left.

Netting up to thwart the hungry birds just before these grapes are due for harvest.

Cleaning vats in the winery.

Pressing grapes by foot.

Edo and the small vessel used to ferment a little – this is then added to the larger batches of wine to kick-start them.

Pizza night.

And some from our hike to Col de Malatra, near Monte Bianco, last week:

Tasty, tasty ham.