Being surprised each day is one of the reasons we love travelling. Discovering new landscapes, hearing different languages, confronting ourselves with other customs. In short, getting surprised by novelties, seeing them as bizarre before finally get used to them and finding them normal. Accustomation. After five months on the road, let us tell you what has astonished us the most so far.
- In the Netherlands, bicycle hasn’t always been the king
- Tobacco makes itself known in Germany
- Displaying your private life in your garden, Austria and Slovenia
- Croatia is a country cut in two
- Montenegro pays in Euro despite not being an EU member
- In Albania, people are nice
- In Greece, pedalling on the highway is neither prohibited nor recommended
Forty years ago, as everywhere in Europe, the car was a queen. Too many children killed on the roads pushed people to go down the street to ask for a change. Since then, urban planning has evolved, roads are designed to guarantee maximum security for all. The bike path network is national, sign posted and efficient. The distance from one point to another is always shorter for cyclists than for motorized means of transport. Each crossroads is equipped with signage. The signs show place names alongside accurate, reliable distances. Any work on the pavement is reported and a clear diversion is set up if necessary.
In short, a cycling paradise. Well, almost… In the capital, tourist improvising themselves as cyclists are not much appreciated. If you are planning to pedal in Amsterdam, everything you have to know is in this video.
Bus shelters, noise barriers, huge signs, supermarkets… In Germany, tobacco adverts are everywhere. Whatever you’d like to be, posh, adventurer, hippie, happy couple, you will always find a brand that corresponds to you…
These displays often come alongside a system facilitating access to the product. Pretty much everywhere and rather where least expected, vending machines allow oneself to restock, day or night. A bit like the machines distributing bubble gum and sugar to children.
Austria and Slovenia are both countries that we could think of as very different. There is a strong shared history from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their common tradition of openness in the community particularly surprised us. For example, when a recently married couple moves into a new house with an unpainted facade, it is usual to tag the exterior walls “just married” next to the date of the ceremony. Simple, right? Next, when a child is born, a statuette is made (usually a stork) with a sign showing basic statistics, name, weight, date of birth etc. Not too complex. Finally, each person celebrating an important birthday, must let the neighbourhood know. To do this, anything goes. Installing a 30m tall tree with only it’s final branches remaining and a traffic sign to indicate your age is a minimum. Tricky.
Thanks to Janez, a Slovenian Priest who gave us hospitality and a warm shower, we can unveil more of the puzzle. If you celebrate your fiftieth year on the earth for example, you have to invite the entire village for a feast. Each guest brings something to eat, drink or just helps you organising. On the day of the party the pre-cut tree is hoisted proudly into the air and will remain in place for fifty days, at which point another party is organised to take it down again. This advertising of important events in everyone’s life is a way to strengthen links in the community. It’s so ingrained and widespread that the authorities have been forced to take measures to reduce the theft of speed limit signs.
For more funny and surprising signs everywhere in Europe, click here.
The well-known city of Dubrovnik was for a long time an independent Republic. In 1699, a 12 kilometres coastline front was sold to the Ottoman empire in exchange for protection against the Venetians. When Yugoslavia was dissolved, Bosnia kept their access to the Adriatic sea, leaving Dubrovnik in the Croatian southern enclave. The only way to reach the city staying in the country is by territorial waters. That’s how we ended up spending a night in Bosnia-Hercegovina, on the beach of Nium.
After briefly using the Deutsche Mark between 1996-2002, Montenegro adopted the Euro despite not being a member state (as of 2010 it has candidate status). It is the only country allowed to use the currency sanction free, despite both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina showing later interest. Bad news for those who appreciate a little national pride minted on their coins, Montenegro does not mint it’s own coinage – hence there is no distinctive design.
Montenegro, it’s also breathtaking landscapes. Photos are here.
Welcoming. A concert of horns, “welcome to Albania,” children run after us for a high five. The shy ones still wave warmly.
Cautious. Driving in Albania is a real challenge. Overtaking horse and cart, avoiding sheep, goats, cows and children running around whilst zigzagging between potholes more abundant than tarmac. Motorists, used to the chaos, deal skilfully within these constraints and never put us in danger.
Generous. Sylvain asks for water in a hotel next to where we wild-camped. He gets a free coffee. We arrive at the gates of a closed campsite at 9pm after finding nowhere else to hide away. The owner lets us make camp wherever we want for a price we decide and opens a cabin for toilets and a shower. The next evening, it’s free raki and we end up dancing in a round, hand in hand with some young locals. We order three pizzas in a local restaurant to recover from the night before that has left Adam with a visible cut on his hand. The waitress disappears for a moment and comes back with plasters bought at the pharmacy next door. Adam wakes up with a nagging pain in his knee making it impossible to even walk. We are in the middle of nowhere wondering how to manage the situation. Builders restoring the ruins next to us arrive, park how they can around our tents and start work. When we ask if they could drive him to the nearest town during the day, they don’t hesitate for a second. One of them drops his tools, ties the bike to the roof of the car and drives the 12 kilometres to the next village with a big smile on his face.
To go from Saranda, Albania to Meteora, Greece, Google announces 360 kilometres. As Sylvain’s departure approaches, we have given ourselves four days. In Igoumenitsa, the gps tells us to go left. Care free, we obey…. Here we are on the highway! We turn back, settle for the night and reconfigure the gps : avoid highways, avoid tolls. Same itinerary. There is nothing we can do, that’s the way. Looking at it closer with the map, not taking the A2 to Ioanina would extend our journey by 200 kilometres. Mountains and very few roads are the explanation…
The decision is taken to leave at dawn and pedal to the max. No tolls. No sign forbidding cyclists. Very little traffic. A lot of climbs, those that break your morale because it looks flat but you never average more than 8km/h. Quickly comes a tunnel. Then a second. And a third. Each time, a red cross replaces the green arrow on the right line. We realise that it’s for us, to ensure no one will overtake too close in the dark. Thumbs up, we wave at the camera at each exit. By morning snack-time, we expect to be stopped by the security service. But no, the yellow truck that parked warning lights on at fifty meters from us leaves. In the end, cycling on the highway is not so bad… but after seven tunnels and 50 kilometers, you get to the toll. “It’s the highway here, it’s not for bikes. It is not prohibited but it is dangerous, we have been forced to close all the tunnels for you since this morning.” Oops. “No problem, we’re sorry, we’re taking the next exit.” We pass between the barriers and leave the A2 without knowing what to do. We reset the gps: avoid highways, avoid tolls. Same again. We would have to go through two more tunnels to avoid adding a day. No choice, we get back on our comfortable two meters of hard shoulder, pedaling faster than ever. Except this time, they do not want us anymore. The yellow truck waves us out. A plainclothes policeman stops across the road to shout out. We end up gaining a police escort for a few hundred metres to make sure we do not come back.
Whatever, we succeeded. 60 kilometers instead of 180, nine tunnels that saved us at least 3000 metres of climb. It was not prohibited, just not recommended!
As a bonus if you have 5 minutes and fancy a laugh, you can check us out in the video we made for Flo’s 18th birthday (Noémie’s sister).