Cerbère. Inhabitants: 1363. Elevation: 0-643 m. The place that probably left the strongest mark on this trip. Ivo and I reached it and dismounted next to its tiny main square on one windy, sunny afternoon. We had just crossed the border into France and I felt like the language barrier suddenly erected around me could easily stop winter from coming. A local twenty-ish-year-old girl serving fast food in a coastal town didn’t know enough English to even attempt to sell a sandwich. Go figure.
Ivo and I planned to go to Can Decreix – the degrowth experimentation farm/property/place where I slept over on my way into Catalunya a week and a half earlier – and ask if we can stay the night again. Imagine my surprise when I turned the corner in town and almost bumped into Charlie, the Polish girl that was our kind host the last time I was there! She was busy finishing a mural in a peculiar intersection of two stairways, so we let her work and promised to come back in a few hours for the grand opening.
Cerbère felt a bit like home turf. Ivo and I hooked up with the Can Decreix crew and their friends – Christo, Mercedes, Paula, Xavi and the others – and found ourselves a bit later on a small dock next to the beach, dancing to eclectic music: maybe 10 people, all eyes closed, a playful dog relentlessly nudging one dancer or the other to play with him… The music was clearly audible, but refreshingly not blaring, accompanied by gentle splashing of waves against the dock. The air was full of the smell of the sea. I love the smell of the sea. I danced for well over an hour, maybe even two – after having cycled 80 km, rounded off by a decent string of hills and climbs. As night fell, we packed up, walked back to the little central square, got some food and took it to the beach, where we ate, drank and chatted until people wanted to go to sleep. I would have stayed up until dawn if the others had stayed, but alas, things last while they last, not while you would like them to.
I had trouble finding a spot to hang my hammock in Can Decreix and barely managed to set it up above a drywall between two garden terraces. In spite of our hosts’ hospitality, it turned out to be one of the most difficult nights of my trip. It was windy and it was impractical to tie down the tarp properly, so it would either flap around or not provide cover or both. The huge train station below the steep hill was busy all night, shifting wagons and locomotives almost non-stop, wheels piercingly screeching against brakes and rails. Most importantly, at that point, I was quite sick: my throat was not at all well and I was concerned if it would worsen further by daybreak.
I managed to shake off the lack of sleep in the morning and my throat was bad, but not horrible, so I sucked on one throat-soothing sweet after another and Ivo and I pushed on through what remained of the stunning coastline where the Pyrenees dive into the Mediterranean. The morning was perfect for cycling: about 20-25°C, mostly overcast, no wind and dry. It took us quite some time to cross the remaining hills and arrive at Argelès-sur-Mer.
Afterwards, we pushed on along the glass-flat, sandy beach coastline towards La Palme. I didn’t care much about what I experienced as the dreary, bleak part of the French coast. It probably has something to do with me being sick or tired of being on the road so much, but the scenery didn’t help. A perpetual haze seemed to drain everything of colour, the marshes on the inland side of the beach were bleak. The beach didn’t seem alluring at all: no shade anywhere, grated by wind and waves…not that swimming was an option: I was well aware that the sea was off limits for the remainder of the trip, as far as my throat was concerned.
We arrived at a camp we had kind of targeted and climbed a short, but steep access road, only to see that it was a nudist camp site. Neither of us was in the mood for nudism. We rolled back down, pushed on and arrived at another camping site just late enough that we couldn’t get to a shop to buy more food, so dinner was whatever we had in our bags…which turned out to be enough.
The second day in France was when I gave up. Two days of riding along this thin, pale coastline punctuated by unremarkable towns which seemed like they would turn to ghost towns come September, having ridden about 40-50 km with a headache, fever and sore throat, I decided it was time to stop. Another 10-20 km and Ivo and I sat down to have a quick meal next to a roundabout, said our final farewells and went our own ways.
I called 5 nearby camp sites with almost no success (one was willing to host me for 25 Eur(!), the others not at all), found that I could get a hotel room for 35 Eur and set course for Béziers. That day I cycled 80 km and I entered the city via one of the most beautiful city entrances I’ve ever seen: the road is flanked by a very long treeline of massive, 20-25m trees, forming a natural canopy, making me feel like a dwarf as I drove far beneath the branches. I finally settled into a modest, weird, but neat hotel in Béziers, intending to take the train back towards home in the morning. The night in the warm hotel room, in a cosy bed did wonders for me and I felt much better in the morning: my ears and forehead were no longer burning, the headache was gone and I was somehow more at ease with myself having made the decision to go home, so the train trip to Milan was calm and mostly pleasant, not least because of the company I had on the train.
I arrived in Milan almost at midnight. The phone guided me to the hostel and having felt better, I wanted to give Milan a shot: maybe spend a day or two hanging out with whoever I met in the hostel, seeing the sights and so on. However, I arrived very late, sleepy, I didn’t really click with the people I talked to that evening and decided to go straight home. After barely 4 hours of sleep I was making my way across northern Italy again.
By about 3 PM I reached the Slovene border, in the twin cities of Gorizia and Nova Gorica. Gorizia was the most risky stop on the way, with just 30 minutes to get from one railway station across the border to the other and I needed to catch the next train if I was to get to the Croatian border by 10 PM. I raced like a madman (13 minutes for 5 km through a city center!) taking advantage of a slow Sunday afternoon with precious little other traffic. Two more trains and after nearly 20 days I would be home again, but the conductor just shook his head at the bike and said “it won’t work: the rail is under construction up north”. “What?! You don’t get it: I have to catch the next train in 3h!”
And as it seemed that the European railway system would finally fail me after having changed 20 trains already, it turned out that the replacement bus would take my bike: had to detach the seat to get it to fit, but otherwise, not a problem. Ironically, it turned out that it would have been better if I simply cycled the 25 km to the connecting train: it was a very pleasant, sunny afternoon, I was in the most beautiful country I had been during my entire trip and the bus was really, really slow, struggling to visit each train station via very narrow winding local roads. It would have been much faster and more enjoyable cycling. Live and learn!
When I reached Dobova, night had already fallen. I disembarked the last train of my trip – the 22nd overall – and cycled the last 40 km home from there, going back into Slovenia towards Brežice for several kilometers and then doing a U-turn to follow the local road through Bregana towards Zagreb. The idea was to cycle back into town, but avoid the horrible, abysmal road from Zaprešić to Zagreb, which serves as a monument to rampant Croatian car culture (and an insult to all tax payers wanting to cycle from one city to the other).
18 days after the day I rushed outside of my apartment into the pouring rain, I was back in Zagreb, behind my building, my bike temporarily locked to a post, all my gear on the ground next to it. All in all, I did about 3000 km by train and a 1000 km by bike.
I entered the apartment and it was overwhelming: my own bathroom and shower, a couch to slouch on, a fridge, running water, electrical sockets to my hearts desire…mind-boggling luxury! Every night for the next 3-4 nights I would still dream of being on the road somewhere, waking up in the morning confused, unsure where I was, unable to recognize my own room for a brief several seconds…but the never-ending stream of daily events inevitably pushed aside and toned down memories of the trip, which is as it should be. It will be great to set off again next Spring!