The world through the eyes of a cyclists: getting to Catalunya

Passing through the 3-dimensional city of Genova
Short break in the 3-dimensional city of Genova

I’m back. Actually, I’m writing this on the day I was supposed to come back. I’ve been back for over a week and as “real life” gushes back in, I’d like to round off this trip of mine.

It started on a Saturday morning, greeted by heavy rain, the most persistent rain of the summer. As if being really late with packing wasn’t enough (after having packed the entire evening before and the morning!), I had to scramble to dress up in full rain gear and rush to the train station down slippery roads, through brimming puddles, no mudguards. “I’m gonna miss my very first train, I’m gonna miss the train! There’s no way I’ll be at the station on time…what on Earth was I thinking, leaving this late…” was what was racing through my mind, when I wasn’t fully focused on traffic and pedalling as hard as my legs and lungs would let me. I arrived at the station maybe 4 minutes before the train was supposed to leave (an actually amazing feat, given how late I set off), only to see that it was delayed 10 minutes and that I’ll manage to buy a ticket and board without rushing. And then suddenly another shock, a serious game-over moment when I opened my backpack at the station and my documents and money were not inside! A minute later I found them in one of the panniers (a weird place for them to be in), so overall I got off easy: just stress and no time to buy something to eat on the train, but I managed to get going.

From the train, leaving Zagreb
From the train, leaving Zagreb and the rain

— Slovenia —

I crossed my first border – the only one I would pass on board a train – and waited for passport control. The Croatian border control team had just inspected and commented the weird bike-thing hung in the bike compartment. 🙂 On the train I met a woman from Latin America. I sat across from her, we talked in English first, then switched to Spanish as I listened about her life in Slovenia, how it compares to back home and so on and so on. I ask if it’s “easier” to live back home or in Slovenia and she says “…easier? It’s easier back home. You work less, you have less, you eat less, dress less. It’s definitely simpler.” I ask where she’d prefer to live and she finds it difficult enough to respond for the question to get lost in the conversation. I ask her if she plans to go back to Latin America, and she says “yes, I think in a few years”. “A few little things to get sorted out…?” “Well, more like big things”, she replies and I nod, confirming that it makes sense: “if they were little things, you wouldn’t need years.”
She is pleasant company – and by the way, stunning – and I enjoy having made her laugh a couple of times. After maybe half an hour, an acquaintance of hers appears in the wagon, they greet each other and the older woman sits down and the two of them carry on in Slovenian?! I participate in the conversation within my rather limited knowledge of the language until the younger woman leaves the train, leaving me and the older woman across each other for a few more stops. The conversation rolls on and she mentions in passing something about the husband of the younger women and their kids. I think nothing of it at the moment, but later on, it dawns on me that the way the younger woman spoke about her next few years in Slovenia before she goes home…it sounded almost like she had somehow almost already given up on her life in Slovenia – family and all – just hinting at it to me, a stranger on a train…I don’t know, I might have gotten the wrong impression.

An unexpected welcoming committee: Roko coming to pick me up at the station
An unexpected welcoming committee: Roko coming to pick me up at the Nova Gorica station

I arrived in Nova Gorica late in the afternoon and Roko, a very good friend of mine, came down to the station to greet me. He previously kindly invited me to sleep over at their apartment and I accepted gladly, not least because it was kind of like being at the last friendly outpost before venturing into the unknown. I got a nice dinner, we went for a walk and drinks in downtown Nova Gorica and I slept comfortably (for the 6 hours that I had). A really gentle first stop!

— Italy —

Gorizia railway station
Gorizia railway station, after I missed my train

There’s definitely nothing quite like the sight of your train/bus/boat leaving without you. Apparently, I learned nothing yesterday from the frenzied rush to the train station. This time around, I got to the Gorizia station while the train was still there, but it left while I was at the counter. My reserve plan was to cycle to Civigniano – a 2 hour ride through supposedly nice, flat countryside in the early morning – and catch the connection there, but it turned out not to be necessary: there was another train in 30 minutes so I sat and waited.

Slovenia and Italy set the tone for the rest of the train trip: difficult, but doable. A long series of trains, rides no longer than 2 hours at a time, changeovers sometimes comfortable, sometimes as short as 5-6 minutes, occasional jams and so on. I ate what amounts to an insultingly small lasagne serving in Milano (“11 Euros, please…”), had a break to walk around the very colourful and 3-dimensional city of Genova and all in all arrived at the Ventimiglia station at about 10 PM.

Arrived to Ventimiglia at the Italian-French border
Arrived to Ventimiglia at the Italian-French border

There are 4-5 camp sites in Ventimiglia, and apparently, all of them were completely full. One offered to accept me if I had a tent (they had no trees for me to hang my hammock from), the last one accepted me because I was with a hammock, because they had absolutely no space for a tent. So, tent vs. hammock, 1:1 and I spent my first night in the hammock, between two sturdy trees on a steep slope above the tents, and it was good. It was also short and in kind of urgent – just like most nights on the road.

Just got up after the first night in the hammock: the angle of the photo hides the 30° slope the trees are on, but the slope was why I was able to sleep in the camp
Just got up after the first night in the hammock: the angle of the photo hides the 20° slope the trees are on, but the slope was why I was able to sleep in the camp

— France —

Earlier I mentioned that the Slovenian-Croatian border was the only one I would cross on a train. This is because I was using regional trains because they accept (fully assembled) bikes on board, but they typically do not cross borders. I therefore cycled the 10 or so kilometers from Ventimiglia, Italy to Menton, France and caught a train there…with less than 10 minutes to spare, so as not to break with tradition. After that, it was mostly smooth and fast to Marseilles and after a short ride around the train station in Marseilles, an equally fast, but very crowded ride to Perpignan, close to Spain. I realised at some point that I haven’t put any music on at all since I left some days ago. I preferred to immerse myself in the the surrounding chatter in French, Italian, English, German and even Portuguese – a soundscape after my own taste. And then as I reached Perpignan, thing started happening…

I met Susanna after I boarded the local train to the last town in France before the Spanish border, Cerbère: a girl with a fully laden bike – acoustic guitar included! – was trying to get on board. I helped (although I’m sure she would have managed by herself), we chatted on the way and basically threw my tour plan out the window by the time we got out. “Zaragoza??? Why would you want to go there??? I mean, for a start, it’s in the middle of the desert…” “Oh, really…? Well then…what do you suggest?” And suggest she did: Horta de Sant Juan, Via Verde de la Terra Alta, the Ebre delta, Tarragona…and so this became “the Plan”.

Can Decreix, the de-growth hub overlooking Cerbère
Can Decreix, the de-growth hub overlooking Cerbère CC BY NC ND Fragend Reisen

In the meantime, we had arrived at a (surprisingly large) train station in Cerbère. “I have some friends here living on a kind of eco-, sustainability-property that I’d like to say hi to and I might sleep over there. Would you like to come along?” And in the open-your-mind-and-suck-in-the-experience spirit of my trip, I did, but I still asked: “how long do you know them?” “Well, I was there once 3 years ago…” (“Hmmm…well, I’ve committed all my code: OK, that’s all right, then…”) At the property we met Charlie, a girl from Poland who was busy watering all the plants in the middle of a long drought: the owner was away for a few weeks and she was taking care of the place. After we had agreed not to kill her (mostly jokingly, but there was a slight serious undertone there, as well), she welcomed us and offered a simple, but clean room for us to sleep in. After 3 days of train travel, I was yearning for a swim, so Susanna and I went to the beach. That’s where I started getting used to leaving most of my belongings on the bike (in sight, but only just). I really enjoyed each deliberate stroke of my swim, each turn to breathe in, feeling refreshed like I rarely have been. When we came back to the house, between 9 and 10 PM, Charlie was already asleep but labouring in the field under the hot sun the entire day didn’t stop her from preparing a delicious meal for her out-of-the-blue guests. Thanks again, Charlie. 😉

In good company in Cerbère, before leaving the beach
In good company in Cerbère, before leaving the beach

— Catalunya —

The next morning, we got up early (surprise, surprise!), at 6:30 to cycle the 8 km to Portbou, on the other side of the border, aiming to catch a train for the last leg of the trip. The road to Portbou is short, but steep and so it took us quite some time to get there. After a very intense 3 days and having travelled so far, at some point I shout out “woo-hoo, Spain, finally!”, to which Susanna just gives me this look and corrects me: “No no, Catalunya.” I would see a lot of this attitude over the next week or two. But back to more immediate matters, struggling to find the way to the train station, we managed to get tickets and get on the train maybe a minute before it departed. Again.

Portbou basking in the morning sun: welcome to Catalunya!
Portbou basking in the morning sun: welcome to Catalunya!

There seemed to be a kind of a nice symmetry in our trips: Susanna was going home after a month-long tour of Germany, Switzerland and France, and I was just starting my month on the road. It felt a bit like she was handing over the baton to me. We switched trains for one last time in Barcelona, boarded the last train and went on our way. The train took her to her home town and in the afternoon of the fourth day of my trip brought me to the end of my train ride – to Lleida.

Last stop: Lleida, inland Catalunya
Last stop: Lleida, inland Catalunya

[Part 2: The world through the eyes of a cyclists: Catalunya]
[Part 3: The world through the eyes of a cyclists: going home]


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