#Europe 2013

#The Gear

Malta Tour: Deuter TransAlpin 30l, Vaude Bivi tent, Meru Ultralight sleeping bag, Thermarest mattress, Kindle, Sony Cybershot, some clothing.

Tunisia Tour: Same as above, plus Asus EEE PC and warmer clothing.

Kiev Tour: Quantec SLR Racing Bike, 2 Ortlieb panier bags, 1 dry bag for camping gear. Golite Eden 2 tent, Thermarest mattress, Nordisk Down sleeping bag, lots of ski clothing and rain gear, heavy multi-part gloves, balaclava, gaiters, Kindle, EEE PC, Sony Cybershot, and still no stove. I added dynamo and lights to the bike, because I will do a lot of night-cycling on this tour.

#The Countries

Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova & Ukraine; Malta; And Tunisia.

#The Story

That year was filled with different, smaller tours. The trip to Southeast Asia is large enough to merry its own post, but the three others I will put into this one: A one-week hiking tour on Malta; Five weeks in Tunisia; And a one-month tour from Budapest to Kiev by bike, following the Danube for a great bit, in mid-winter.

First things first, Tunisia: The idea behind this tour was to see North Africa. Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The problem was that I never got the visas for Algeria or Libya, and got a little stuck. It allowed ample to time tour the country, see the second largest colosseum in the world, the medina of Tunis, the ruins of Cartage. A lot of time was spend reading books as well, because I quickly ran out of destinations after I had been to Djerba and back. All in all it could have gone better, maybe I get the visas next time. :-)

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After Tunisia and the Southeast-Asia tour, I managed to find a cheap flight to Malta, and took my chance to finally see this somewhat remote European island state. A tiny state, consisting of Malta and Gozo, small enough that you can walk everywhere. With very pleasant weather and so much cultural history and architecture and arts and the oldest building in Europe, the Gigantija Temple, there was plenty to see. The St. Johns cathedral was one of the most impressive churches I have ever seen, and the Knights of St. Johns, also called Maltesers, still own many buildings on Malta. I spend most of the day hiking and camped 5 nights, while spending 2 in a hostel near Valletta, the capital. Quite different from my usual tours, this one week holiday was really pleasant.

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And last on the list: Another bike ride, this time in winter. Always trying to learn new things, I decided to go with the worst weather possible. Eastern Europe in winter, with only a few hours of daylight, lots of snow and rain, and temperatures as low as -18° at night. This finally allows me to actually wear all that nice clothing I accumulated over the years. I was curious how well it could go to bike in sub zero temperatures, what you have to think about when you need to melt snow to get drinking water, and how to cope with so little light available to you. I took a train to Budapest, which is a place I cycled to a few years ago with a friend of mine, and continued with the bike along the Danube.

The Euro Velo 6, a very long bike path, follows the river all the way to the black sea. I took it to Belgrade, and detoured of it to get to Sofia. At that point it was snowing and cycling became a problem. Not because of the temperature, but because of traffic. You cant see the lines on the road anymore, cars slide along, pass you and throw large amounts of ice cold sludge at you. At some point in the mountains going north back to the Danube, I decided that its too dangerous to continue by bike. Dark, wet mountain passes covered in snow, with cars passing you, and the occasional tunnel? No thank you. I rather took another train, which brought me much closer to Bucharest, a very pleasant stop. I stayed in a community house of local students and artists, thanks to warmshowers, and they were very enthusiastic about cycling.

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When I finally left, the snow was gone. It was cold, around -10° at night at this point, but the sky was clear and neither rain nor snow slowed me down. I headed straight to Chisinau, Moldova, trying to avoid the carparthian mountains. Everyone told me that they are very beautiful, but maybe rather for a summer tour, not in the deepest winter. After 5 days I arrived in Chisinau, which was ... very Russian. At least what people think of as Russian. The colonial architecture of Sofia or Bucharest was replaced with sowjet style. The town square had a large chessboard, with 1-2 dozen people standing around it at all times. None of which spoke English, but it was great fun playing against the entire group. Lots of discussions in Russian, and handshakes and smiles in universal body language.

My last longer stop was in Kiev. At that point there were large demonstrations (Mid December 2013), but it was still no problem to walk around. Maidan, the city square, was pretty much closed for business, but nothing seemed threatening. On multiple occasions people approached me and started discussions in broken English, and even the policemen smiled when you took a picture with them. My time in Kiev was spend walking about the massive sprawl, collecting information about Belarus and Chernobyl. Since Christmas was close I was running out of time, and I decided to go to Chernobyl, and come back for Belarus at another time. The tour to the sowjet nuclear reactor and the city of Prypiat was very well done, with eerie sights and abandoned villages along the way. They did close of access to buildings in 2011, no one was allowed to go inside anymore, but a very interesting tour nonetheless.

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I ended up finding a bus for 100$ that went straight from Kiev to Cologne, my home town. Very surprising, and they even took my bike for free. It took 32h, with a long stop at the polish border, but I could not have hoped for anything better. After a month on the road, it was as easy as loading in my bike, sitting down, and get out at home. Brilliant. And now I am already thinking about snow bikes, maybe Alaska, or rather the North Cape in Norway? Who knows, but do not count out a large bike tour in the snow.