3 mins

The biggest surprise about cycling across Europe

Our freewheeling blogger takes a break in Austria and gets her biggest surprise so far on her epic ride to Istanbul...

Silhouette of cyclist (Shutterstock)

“I need to go to the Doctor’s in the morning, then we’ll head to a local outdoor shop in town where you can buy the camping mattresses and sleeping bags you need,” Maria said.

My son Jamie and I had left the Danube temporarily at Passau and over two days we’d followed two smaller rivers, the Inn and Salzach to our friends in Oberndorf bei Salzburg. We’d been cycling for seven consecutive days and we were more than ready for a break: we knew from experience that we’d receive the ultimate in gastfreundlichkeit with our old friends Chris and Maria.

After that, we would have to start camping. I couldn’t use the cool spring weather as an excuse for not sleeping out in the open any more: the temperature was soaring into the 30s. Meanwhile, my husband Tom promised to post our lightweight tents to Oberndorf.

Chris and Maria hadn’t changed. Tom and I had experienced the ultimate in pampering with our friends over the years: lazy weekends; brunches that stretched into afternoon kaffee und kuchen; hot afternoons dozing in the hammock; long, balmy evenings on their terrace with good food and wine.

“I’ll be back sometime after eleven,” Maria said. “Oh, and here’s your bikeline books Tom sent in the post.”

“What about the tents?”

“Not yet,” Maria said. “Maybe you’d better stay in the house this morning in case the postman comes with them. You’ll need to sign for them.”

“No worries,” I said to Maria. There was nothing more I wanted to do than sit on the terrace with a coffee and the bikeline books and re-plot our route along the Danube after Passau. I was worried about the tents though. “Are they going to get to us before we leave Oberndorf?" I messaged Tom. “I’ll track their progress,” he said. Then, “They’re in Austria. They should arrive any time”.

I hadn’t noticed Maria’s return until I heard her shouting for me. “Helen, your tents have arrived. The postman’s at the gate. Can you go and sign for them?”

I wandered down the grassy path and opened the gate onto the street to see – not a postman – but Tom my husband, standing with two suitcases.

“Your tents,” he said, holding up one of the cases. “Mattresses and sleeping bags too." I stood with my hand over my mouth and laughed and laughed. In all the days and weeks, Tom and Maria had been scheming together – and I hadn't suspected anything.

Five weeks earlier Tom and I had spent our last night together. He’d cried. “I don’t want you to go,” he said, “but of course you must. You’ve been planning for this trip for so long.”

Tom had always encouraged me in my dreams and plans. Now the reality of what he’d agreed to was sinking in. He too worried about the pack dogs further east; the opportunist thieves; the thundering lorries on narrow roads and the isolated villages miles apart – just as I did. But while I would be there to deal with it and take the decisions, he’d be hundreds of miles away – and everything that would happen to Jamie and I would be beyond his control.

So Maria had not gone to the doctor’s as such, but had gone to pick my Doctor of Philosophy up from Salzburg Airport for a short weekend visit. The time went by too quickly. We walked along the river; drove to a nearby lake with Chris and Maria; drank local beer on a hilltop above the Salzach; were treated to a fine meal in a monastery garden. We dozed again in the hammock and ate long brunches that stretched into the afternoon.

All too soon, Tom was gone and Jamie and I were on the train back to Passau with the bikes. We cycled to the campsite and pitched the tents. As soon as the last peg was knocked into the ground, the storm began. Jamie and I were holed-up in our coffin-sized tents, not even big enough to sit up in. All through the night the thunder crashed around us and the rain came down in torrents. I prayed the tents wouldn’t leak – or that we wouldn’t be struck by lightning… and dreamed of the all too short weekend in Oberndorf with Chris, Maria and Tom.


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