For the duration of lockdown, I’m putting out weekly creative prompts. You can join in too here. I send them out on a Monday morning and you have a week to respond in whichever medium you like. Search #adventureprompts for other people’s work.
This week’s prompt was:
“Tell us about a time when an adventure went wrong, but was perhaps all the richer for it.”
It was really tempting to write about last year’s Rhine Source to Sea for this. In so many ways, it was just one disaster after another. But I’ve got that basically written up somewhere, so it feels like cheating. Maybe I’ll post it on Monday. You can read part one, where things start to go wrong here.
High on the contenders list was also my post-uni trip to the Maritime Alps. Smart ex-students think they’ll go out of season because it’s cheap. Everything is shut.
Instead, I’m going to tell you about one of our family cycle tours. As a teenager, family holidays turned into family cycling trips. It might sound a bit unusual to UK readers, but there is a huge family cycle touring culture in western Europe. It’s also a really smart way to stop your teenagers from fighting eachother all day long – you each get some space.
One year, we cycled the length of the Danube from Passau to Vienna. It was the first time we’d not combined cycling with anything else. There was one objective, a linear route and a fixed ticket at the other end. The Danube Cycleway is a really popular route with plenty of towns and places to visit along the way. Following advice from the guidebook, my parents didn’t book any accommodation in advance. We just went, without a tent.
In fact, looking back on it, I imagine many of my parents’ colleagues would have thought that they were nuts. In the kind of way many of mine have thought I’m nuts over the years. We flew to Germany with just hand luggage that needed to last us just over a week. None of us did much cycling in the UK. We had a rucksack each – I took my school bag. None of us had special cycling kit – I remember it being a big deal Dad getting a pair of padded cycling shorts. We hired bikes and helmets at the train station in Passau and rode them to Vienna.
I say all this because there really is no need to get a fancy bike and fancy clothes and know 100% what you are doing. There are very many cycle tours you can do where you just work it out along the way. Don’t be tricked by appearances on the internet.
The Danube, Day 2
Now then, the plan to just rock up and see what accommodation was available worked very well for the first day. We had a lovely cycle, arrived at a place in our guidebook. (We were using Bikeline Guides if you’re interested… although at the time most of their guides were only in German.) They had space, we stayed. Easy.
The next day, we cycled almost our entire route for the day to a town called Ottenshein, intending to spend the night in Linz. I remember being left with my brother to “watch the bikes” on a bench in the sunshine. We were hot and bothered. After what I remember to be hours, my parents came back from the Tourist Information without anywhere to stay. I have written in my journal “… to try to book something in Linz but were being ripped off.” I guess that means there was somewhere to stay but it was way too expensive.
Aside: I’ve been keeping travel journals since I was about 12 years old (when I went on my first international trip). I guess you could say that was the start of my adventure travel writing!
So there was nowhere to stay. I write, “We were about to leave when Mum and Dad decided to try and find some accommodation in this town and the heavens simultaneously opened.” I can clearly remember the teenage frustration of “What you mean you spent all that time in the Tourist Office and you didn’t think to ask about a place to stay here?!”
We were caught in the first torrential downpour of our trip. It was July and most days were hot and sunny followed by about an hour of raining-like-it-meant-it around 4 o’clock each day. My brother and I ran for a nearby bus shelter to sit out the storm. It was pretty crowded under there. We shared it with “a boy scout and a family riding triangular wheely pedally things”. I’d never seen a recumbent trike before.
After the rain had stopped, we were “released from our hiding place only to find there were no rooms anyway, so we had to ride on to the next place”. Maybe it’s just me, but I can really hear the understated outrage in that sentence! Little did I know that in many years time I would be riding uphill through a thunderstorm and trying to persuade my friend to hide in a bin shed for 15min while it blew over…
Nowhere to Stay
We cycled on a bit further. There was only one place left on the map before Linz and then nothing for ages after that. The guidebook had a list of accommodation and there was only one place to stay in this little town. It called it a Gasthof, which is like a BnB in Austria. There wasn’t really another choice, so we went for it, even though it was slightly off route.
“We eventually found it after pushing our bikes up a long hill.” It was in the back end of nowhere. No one we asked had even heard of it and out map wasn’t detailed enough for all the little roads – more of a step by step for the Danube route… and this wasn’t on the route. I remember pushing my bike up this never ending hill going further and further away from town. There were fields on either side and no sign of civilisation up ahead. Except that the road was tarmacked, so presumably went somewhere.
I should also say that at this point in my life, I didn’t really understand how bike gears worked. We didn’t cycle much at home at all – up until university I did more cycling in Europe than in the UK. (It took a little while before cycling on the left didn’t feel weird!) And the bike I had at home didn’t have any gears. So I have a lot of memories of hill pushing while Dad cycled off up ahead but was unable to articulate exactly how to make gears work for us.
Is this the right place?
Finally, we arrived at a farmhouse and stood in a cobbled courtyard surrounded by rickety old barns. There were some other cyclists already talking to the lady who lived here. It was 6pm, so I assumed the other cyclists had beaten us to whatever rooms were here, or we were all in the wrong place (more likely) and that I’d just pushed a bike up a large hill for no reason.
But the Dutch cyclists were turned away by the lady because they had a 7 month old baby with them and she “didn’t have a family room”. Right… So we had somewhere to stay, apparently. This lady – who I remember rather unflatteringly as a crusty old German woman who couldn’t understand any English – said that we could stay and sat us down in the courtyard. She brought out cold drinks for us.
By this point all of my danger sensors were going off. My Dad speaks passable German, but it’s not something he ever uses much. We’d agreed to stay and were now having drinks without any sign of the rooms or where they might be. For all I knew we could be sleeping in a barn tonight. I tried to reason that that might be quite exciting, but actually I was just tired and didn’t trust this person and wanted them to go away. She was very interested in us and where we were from, but every time Dad asked about the rooms she’d say, “in a minute” or “later” or something.
Considering we’d arrived at 6pm – which was normally dinner time for me – I was even less happy. We eventually were ushered into her kitchen for some dinner. It felt like one of those fairy tales where everything goes wrong. All I wanted to do was run away.
Because we weren’t travelling with food or a cooker, we were eating out every night – or often in at wherever we were staying. So we squeezed round the kitchen table on a bench and had open sandwiches. Classic dark bread, ham, salad… which is a very sad prospect if you’re a starving teenager who wants a bowl of pasta or a burger and chips. “Out of desperation I actually ate a radish sandwich.”
Behind the Sheet
Finally, when we’d eaten something, we were allowed to see the rooms. We left our bikes in an open barn on the hay bales and were led to the corner of the courtyard. She took us through another barn, full of old farming tools, round a corner – and I remember looking at my mum in alarm. Then in the back corner, she lifted up a an old white sheet, hanging against the stone wall. She beckoned us to follow.
Behind the sheet was a brand new shiny staircase that opened up into a hotel room. It looked like it had just been finished. There was a plastic vinyl type floor, a newly fitted ensuite and freshly made beds. Everything was gleaming. I could not believe it.
The reason I chose this story is because it really marked a turning point for me in trusting other people. I genuinely thought that most strangers were out to get you – particularly if they were trying to sell you something. I really did believe we were going to have to pay for the experience of sleeping on a barn floor that night. If we’d had to argue to get our bikes back and had to cycle miles without breakfast, I would not have been surprised.
Cycle touring was such an eyeopener for me as a child. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to give it a go. Even if you have kids – perhaps especially if you have kids. All you need is to be able to ride a bicycle.