Have you ever repeatedly listened to a favourite song until it suddenly lost its spark? Or become weary of a great, danceable rhythm simply because there wasn’t enough variation? I have, and this experience is similar to my perspective on life. To truly appreciate it, I occasionally need to pause, change track, or move in a different way.
That’s the short story of why my love and I took a break and jumped out of the happy-settled-and-with-great-jobs comfort zone and onto our bikes - from Athens to Lisbon mostly along EuroVelo 8 - Mediterranean Route.
All About the Rhythm
I'm a strategic bicycle planner by profession, but it wasn't my expertise that led us to choose cycling as our mode of transportation. Both having sedentary office jobs, it was rather the emotional sensation of half-walking, half-flying through the landscapes that inspired us. It was the rhythm of the journey, not the instrument, that was appealing.
Equipped with these lightweight philosophical reflections and way too much heavy gear – we soon found out – off we went!
From Silent Helper to Companion
Despite being experienced everyday cyclists, we had never attempted such a long recreational cycling trip before. And the experience was like learning to cycle all over again.
Our bikes were our silent helpers at home, effortlessly taking us to familiar places. On this long journey through unknown territory, they became our companions, allowing us to experience and get to know new cultures and nature in a very tangible way.
For example, we learned that the completely chaotic Greek traffic culture is also very tolerant – if you claim your space, you’ll get it. No matter if you are in a car, walking with 30 sheep, or on a bike. The only non-tolerant beings seem to be the guard dogs(!).
In Albania, the loud honks from the truck and car drivers initially sent shock waves through our bodies, but we soon realised it was their way of greeting us and giving us a sonic high-five. And it was much appreciated when we - two Danes from flat-as-a-pancake-country - were to learn about Balkan Mountains.
We experienced the glory of preserved nature in Montenegro. A healing experience for the body and mind as long as we were not occupied with the struggles of stubborn steepness - up and down and up again.
In Croatia, people were kind, and nature was breathtaking, but the traffic scary and ‘Greek tolerance’ is nowhere to be found. We found refuge on the calmer roads of the islands.
A Path to Mindful Travelling
Autumn was coming, and by going north, the days only seemed to get colder and wetter. So, we took a shortcut with a ferry and two trains to the northwest of Italy.
Got off at the Italian red carpet for cyclists: Pista Ciclabile del Ponente Ligure. An approximately 30 km long bike and footpath following an old railway line along the coast. Car-free and full of cafes, rental shops and mechanics accommodating active sport buddies, parents teaching their kids to cycle, lovebirds on their first date, and the two mesmerised Danish bike tourers. Try it, and if it doesn't make you sing a quiet Händel “Hallelujah”, I don’t know what will.
The wonders of abandoned railways revitalised as recreational paths and quiet roads through remote nature continued in France. And we really felt the change on stretches with little or no motorised traffic. Less strain on both muscle and mind. We finally could enjoy cycling side by side, chatting about the sunbeams through the treetops, ideas for future projects when we would return home, or where to stop and eat the obligatory chocolate bar.
Also, there were EuroVelo signs! Like quiet cheerers, they made us feel appreciated as if we belonged. For two unmoored cycling nomads, that feeling was invaluable.
One of the most impactful experiences of our journey was the Spanish traffic culture. If all people in traffic had a Spanish temper, the world would be a better place.
Although our leg muscles felt like they were transforming into The Hulk every night, we still felt very fragile on the road when drivers overtook us and left no margin for error. So, when Spanish drivers slowed down for however long they had to wait until they were sure to pass with a 1,5-meter distance - never honking, never ‘pushing’ – well, that almost made me cry of gratitude and hope for the human race.
This hope was slightly diminished when we encountered endless deserts of plastic greenhouses and golf courses in southern Spain, prompting us to take a bus to southwest Portugal to experience the nature preserves we hold so dear.
And oh, my dear! Portuguese nature is a drop-dead beauty, and the is traffic drop-dead spooky. So we slowed down and focused on enjoying nature rather than the road until we reached Lisbon – our end destination.
This Old Tune
Now back home in Copenhagen, we are replaying that old tune called ‘Everyday Life’. And although the Danish winter is gloomy and grey, we hum along with a newfound appreciation.
Author: Sidsel Birk Hjuler
Sidsel is an ECF Board Member and the Head of Office for the Cycle Superhighways of Copenhagen Capital Region, Denmark.
Her interest in cycling was triggered in her early twenties when she bought a bike in San Francisco and was asked if it was supposed to be a certain kind of statement. It was not! It was just a way (the most normal way, she thought) to get around. However, it made her think about how cycling is viewed differently in other parts of the world and how infrastructure plays a vital role in this perception. It is this short story that inspired Sidsel to become a strategic bicycle planner.