Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A hike through Southern Europe: The plan and preparation

This hike is the first part of a trip from the Southern most point in Europe, Tarifa in Southern Spain, to the Northern most point, the North Cape in Norway. The entire distance is almost 10,000 km and therefore I decided to divide it in two separate hikes in two different years. Hiking the whole distance in one go would mean to end up in places at a very wrong time....  It seemed to be easiest to do a flip flop. In my case I'll start somewhere in the middle and and hike South one year and the other half in another year.

Where to start exactly was a bit of a random decision. But as my hiking friend Werner has inspired me with the idea of the whole trip it seemed appropriate to visit him at the beginning and start from there. And as Werner lives near the river Rhein this will be the starting point. Although I'll start end of August with summer weather I'll be hiking into fall and winter. Therefore I want to hike South as quickly as possible. So no "obstacles" like high mountain ranges, please! The biggest obvious problem are the Pyrenees, especially since I'll get there end of October at the earliest. But I found a crossing close to the Mediterranean Sea that is so low that it can be done year round.

Like with my recent bike trip I want this hike to be a leisurely trip. I have therefore chosen relatively easy terrain. On my hike through Western Europe last year I have intentionally included a lot of the high mountain ranges like the Vosges, the Jura, the Pyrenees. This time I try to avoid alpine terrain, although this is definitely not going to be flat walking. I have also learnt from last year's mistake and have no fixed finish date. The hike can take as long as it takes. After reaching Southern France there are no seasonal restrictions any more and the route is hopefully so low and so far South that it can be hiked year round with the appropriate winter gear. I also have no other trip planned right after that.

According to my trip planning tools the distance from the river Rhein to Tarifa is about 3.800 km. But I've learnt last year's lesson and know to look at these numbers with a grain of salt. As this number is based on the unknown accuracy of downloaded GPS tracks the real distance might be quite a bit longer, probably more around 4,000 km. Still, I expect to arrive in Tarifa around end of January.

The planning process was quite easy this time. As I have just done a hike through the same countries the year before I knew exactly which internet resources to turn to.

The part through Germany is very short with only about 250 km and was quickly put together with the help of wanderbares-deutschland.de.

For France the general planning was done with the IGN overview map 903. I then downloaded most GPS tracks from GR-info.com. A special thanks to Werner who gave me a lot of his old maps for France.

In Spain I'll be mostly following the GR 7 which is also the European long distance trail E4. Only the Pyrenean crossing was a bit tricky as I had to deviate from the GR 7 in order to find a lower mountain crossing. Rutasyviajes.net was the best resource for downloading GPS tracks. As there are no special map guides or strip maps for the GR 7 I had to create my own map set for the whole GR 7 by downloading the free maps for Spain from the IGN website, patching them together with a graphic programme and thus creating a strip map that consists of 118 DIN A4 pages. A special thanks to John Hayes, who had hiked the entire E4 and whose blog is a great source of inspiration and to Juan Holgada who patiently answered my questions about winter hiking in Spain.


                     

Friday, August 23, 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: Conclusion, tips and equipment


Cycling on the beach in Denmark
I had chosen Scandinavia because I wanted an easy and relaxing bike trip. Scandinavia seemed to be perfect because of its usually flat terrain, little traffic and the easy free camping based on the every man's right. Now after the trip I must say that Scandinavia has not only met my expectations but has by far surpassed them. This has been one of the most enjoyable trips I have done. It has by no means been the most exciting, challenging or adventurous trip, but definitely one of the most leisurely and enjoyable - a real holiday. I liked it so much that I will soon be back for a similar trip in Scandinavia. I cycled roughly 5.500 km in 2 months and 3 weeks including about 10 full rest days. About 400 km in Germany, 2.000 km in Denmark, 2.500 km in Sweden and 600 km in Finland.

But was has made this trip such a success?

First of all I think that the Scandinavian countries I have visited, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are a cyclist's paradise. The terrain is indeed usually pretty easy and your only problem can be a strong headwind. My biggest personal problem is that I am scared of heavy traffic and this has definitely not been a big problem on this trip. I usually followed bike routes that kept me off the main roads. And free camping has been as easy as expected with the designated campsites in Denmark as an unexpected surprise.

Rune stone in Sweden
I have met surprisingly few long distance cyclists in Scandinavia and most of them were Germans. The only "crowded" stretch was the bike route Berlin-Copenhagen. The easy terrain seduces a lot of cyclists to do big miles and I have met several guys who claimed to average 200 km per day. I averaged about 85 km and had several rest days. I can see why most cyclists do high mileage here but I also want to recommend Scandinavia for a leisurely trip like mine. What made my trip so enjoyable were the little things: the refreshing swim in a quiet lake, the half  hour stop for raspberry picking, the little side trips to see rune stones, churches and yet another lake shore or beach. If you are looking for a relaxing holiday, Scandinavia is perfect.

I have very little negative to say about this trip. Cycling Scandinavia is not exactly cheap but I had expected that and shopping at my beloved Lidl made the living expenses bearable. But whereas Sweden and Finland are just a bit more expensive than Germany prices in Denmark are outrageous. The biggest negative surprise was that even culture was expensive. Usually I just visit about every museum and castle along the way but here I had to consider carefully what was still within my average daily budget.

Dirt road in Sweden
I have already written a lot about the specific countries so here is only some overall advice:

As the terrain is quite easy you don't need a specific bike. But you'll be on a lot of dirt roads and it helps to have relatively broad tires. I had a lot more wear and tear on my chain and brake pads than I had expected from a pure road trip - and that despite the very little rain. But other than oiling the chain occasionally I had no serious bike problem in the whole three months, not even a single flat tire. Only the chain is totally worn out now.

Maps were my biggest concern in preparing the trip. I highly recommend downloading the free maps from velomap.org. They were fantastic for Denmark and Sweden and showed the whole respective national bike route system and a lot of regional routes. Only in Finland they could have been better and lacked huge portions of even the big national bike routes like the Via Finlandia. I don't want to rely on my GPS only and carried paper maps, too. As a cheap comprehensive solution I bought the Freytag & Berndt road atlas for Scandinavia. This option brought mixed results.

The road atlas is almost useless for Denmark. The scale is too big to show many of the little roads that are used by the bike routes. Instead I recommend the 2 Denmark maps also from Freytag & Berndt at 1:200000. Unfortunately neither shows the bike routes but you can remedy that by getting the free overview map of Denmark from the Danish Tourist Information Board. And of course don't forget the book "Overnatning I det Fri" for the designated campsites.

Sverigeleden sign post
For Sweden the road atlas was actually quite ok, although it does not show the bike routes. There are three big and detailed guidebooks for the whole Sverigeleden system but I personally don't think they are worth the money. They are too big and heavy, the maps more detailed than necessary and the whole thing is in Swedish only. I did not purchase any of them although I saw them quite frequently in stores.

In Finland I only cycled the 600 km Via Finlandia and was lucky to get the outdated guidebook for it in Sweden which was more than adequate. For longer trips I highly recommend the Finnish cycle maps that cover the whole of Finland in 6 maps. But as each map costs 17,60 € even in Finland this is a pricey option for long trips. But these maps are great as they also show you the type of road (dirt road, minor road or separate bike path).

My bike on the island of Aspoe
Compared the almost every other cyclist I met I had very little baggage - but for me being an ultralight hiker I travelled in overwhelming luxury. Like on all my other bike trips I had just two back panniers and a drybag. No front panniers and no handle bar bag, only a map holder. In hindsight I think I have brought almost too much stuff. I definitely had too many clothes and never put on the long johns or my balaclava. But I think I have experienced an extraordinarily good summer and will bring warm clothes next time as well. My rain gear was inadequate: the eVent jacket was leaking like a sieve and my rain pants that are fine for hiking were too restrictive for cycling. One whole pannier was dedicated to food and cooking and my MSR Dragonfly petrol stove worked without any hiccups.

My sleep system consisted of a full length TAR Prolite and a BPL 240 quilt and was more than adequate. This summer a lighter quilt would have been enough but considering my usual weather luck this was not to be expected. The full length TAR Prolite lived up to my expectations and started delaminating exactly on the last day of this trip! I know that it usually takes about 6 months before delamination starts and had chosen this mat accordingly. As I had already used it about 3 months on other trips I expected it to last just long enough for this bike trip but when it was so conveniently punctual it even surprised me.

BA Fly Creek 2
An unknown factor on this trip had been the tent. Instead of my beloved Tarptent I had taken a real double wall tent, a Big Agnes Fly Creek 2. I had pondered this decision a long time and was a bit doubtful about it but the BA Fly Creek turned out to be a good choice - for this trip. The 2 person version was really spacious and although I wondered wether it would be high enough for my 1,84 m it was just about ok. The material looked rather flimsy but survived 3 months of constant use with only one problem: the seams are taped and the tape covering the vestibule zipper is now starting to come off. I think the problem can easily be remedied by seamsealing it. It proved to be completely waterproof and was easy to set up. Its biggest drawback though is its design: it has a front entrance and when the front of the fly is open for getting in and out or for cooking it rains directly into the front of the tent. To make things worse the upper entrance frame is directly above the head space. If there is heavy condensation it will drip directly onto your pillow once you open the fly. It did not rain much on this trip and therefore the tent construction did not bother me too much. But keep in mind that cooking out of this tent in heavy rain is almost impossible. The vestibule is rather small and for me it seems too dangerous to cook in it with a big petrol stove that flares up when primed, although cooking would be feasible with a small canister stove. I sort of solved the problem by half closing the fly and placing the stove outside. This way it can't rain in directly and the stove is outside the vestibule, but this solution is a bit awkward and would not work well in wind and rain.

I carried 7 litres of water capacity. 3 litres in bottles attached to the bike frame and a 4 litre Ortlieb water bag. I have not used the water bag a single time.... The water bottles were sufficient. I had brought a little Silnylon day backpack which was very useful on town days when I left my panniers with my host. And I should have brought more elastic bands. They tend to disappear but are incredibly useful for closing all sorts of food packages.

Cycling Finland: Conclusion and tips

Civil war memorial
Finland is a bizarre country and I mean that in a very positive way. It did not fit my image of Scandinavia at all. In fact, Finland resembles more an Eastern European country than the picture book image of Scandinavia. But its history and mentality are fascinating. Finland became independent only in 1917. Before it had been occupied by either Sweden or Russia and each country has left its traces. And Finland's fate in Second World War can fill a whole book. Although I am not a fan of war museums the one in Helsinki is definitely worth a visit and explains Finnland's turbulent history in the 20th century from the declaration of independence in 1917, the ensuing Civil War of 1918, Finnland's alliance  with Germany in Second World War up to the treaty of Friendship between Finland and the Soviet Union of 1948. Knowing about Finnish history explains a lot about Finnish mentality. There is not much to see in the way of castles and churches in Finland but the experience of a Finnish sauna and compensated it for me....and I am fascinated by Finnish history.

Finland is not as bike friendly as Sweden or Denmark. There is a national bike route network but there is not much information about it on the internet. The routes are only marked on the 6 bike maps covering the whole of Finland. The route I took from Vaasa to Helsinki is called via Finlandia or National bike route 3. There is a very outdated guidebook for it with pictures of happy cyclists right from the 80s and town photos that look like a Russian Intourist advertising. Even the format is slightly too big for a standard handle bar bag. But although the tourist information in it was completely outdated the maps were accurate and a great help. In the field the bike routes are marked but the markers are not very consistent and so old and bleached out that you can hardly see them. Plus it seems to be a Finnish pastime to turn markers into the wrong  direction. So a good (GPS) map is essential. Unfortunately the OSM based velomaps show the bike routes only partially but I hope that over time it will cover the whole Finnish bike route system. The Via Finlandia route was great. It almost completely keeps you off the main highways. I was usually cycling on bike paths next to highways, minor roads with little traffic or very good dirt roads, so I can highly recommend the route. But although there are plenty of bike lanes and paths in Finland they are in bad shape compared to Denmark and Sweden. Lots of potholes and at road crossings the curb very often has not been lowered so that you have to get off your bike or risk damage. I hardly saw any other long distance cyclists in Finland.

Finland is about as expensive as Sweden, but again shopping at Lidl helps to cut prices and I did not find Finland to be a particularly expensive country. Finland has the only Lidls with slot machines! Yes, you are legally allowed to gamble in supermarkets and therefore you can see housewives gambling at slot machines at 10 am in the morning in a Lidl. Free wifi was relatively easy to find and all libraries offered free internet access even to tourists. Free camping was as easy (or difficult) as in Sweden although in Southern Finland the terrain was very easy. My usual strategy of using cemeteries for water resupply worked but unfortunately there were not too many cemeteries in sparsely populated Finland.

I highly recommend visiting a sauna in Finland. Every public swimming pool offers a sauna and entrance fee is about 5-6 € only. Usually men and women go naked, but in separate areas. Therefore you don't need a swim suit. There are plenty of lakes, too and designated swimming areas offer ladders for easier water access and/or nice sandy beaches. Maybe I was just lucky but the mosquitoes were not a big problem. They did not bother me at all while cycling and only became a nuisance in the evening when I set up my tent and tried to cook.

Despite the warnings in a German cycling guidebook I did not find cycling in Finland boring. Yes, there is a lot of forest and it all looks pretty much the same but there also are a lot of lakes and beaches for swimming, plenty of berries to pick and a lot of saunas to visit..... Just be prepared that Finland won't fit your typical Scandinavian image, find out about its history and you'll find it a fascinating country. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will definitely be back soon for a longer trip.

Cycling Scandinavia: Tampere to Helsinki

The last leg of this trip was dominated by the weather. I had three days to get to Helsinki and I wanted to arrive as early as possible on the third day to do some sightseeing. The forecast for day one was good, continuous rain for day two and sunshine again for day three. I therefore had to make most of the distance on day one - which was the day when I left Tampere. Experience had taught me that I never get an early start after a town day. Sleeping in a bed, internet and Lidl are too tempting and as expected it took me till noon to get away from my host's lovely house and Tampere's city Lidl. On the whole trip I have cycled more than one hundred kms per day only four times - and this day was one of it despite my late start. I cycled till 9 pm and was so exhausted that I skipped a cooked dinner but I made it. I ended up in a nature reserve close to Hämelinna which looked good on the map but was a bad choice. Being so close to town it was a popular spot as I could see from the huge parking lot. But it was too late to look for another place. And althpugh I heard mountain bikers and runners pass my tent in the morning no one disturbed me.

Haeme castle
Hämelinna's most famous sight is the huge castle but just this weekend a huge mediaeval fair was taking place - and cost 15 EUR. I decided to skip it but still enjoyed all the dressed up people in the streets. Only Jehova's witnesses who had a stand next to the fair looked a bit out of place.... But the sky was turning greyer and greyer and I pressed on. Exactly as forecasted the rain started in the afternoon and was as bad as expected. But despite having to wait out particularly bad spells under bus shelters I still made almost 100 km that day and ended in the last big forested area along my route before Helsinki. I cooked my last dinner in Finland (fried zuccini with couscous and tomatoes) and looked forward to Helsinki.

Experience also taught me that cycling in and out of a big city is a pain and takes forever. Helsinki was no exception: Although the distance was only 40 kms it took me over for hours to get to Helsinki centre. This was a Sunday and my only chance of doing museum sightseeing because everything would be closed on Monday. I visited the Ateneum art museum and the National Finnish Museum and because they were both rather small compared to their Danish or Swedish counterpart I made it before closing time.

Helsinki cathedral
The next day, my last full day in Finland was just perfect. The rainy morning I chatted away with my CS host and as soon as I mounted the bicycle to go into town the sun came out. I strolled through Helsinki centre and saw the famous imposing cathedral (that is almost empty inside), the interesting and free Helsinki city museum and a bookstore where I studied guidebooks and maps for my next trip to Finland. And what would be a fitting end of my last full day in Finland? A visit to a sauna, of course. My host had suggested a public swimming pool close by and this is where I went. 6,30 € buys you entrance to several saunas, a huge swimming pool and even a warmer fun pool. Who says that Finland is expensive.... It was so incredibly relaxing in the sauna that I came back to my CS host beaming with joy.

Sunset seen from the ferry
On August 20th, my trip came to a slow end. I took the ferry from Helsinki to Travemünde in Germany. In hindsight this was probably not the cheapest option although it sounded very good first. The ticket for a passenger in a seat only is 155 €. But then it all ads up: Bringing a bike is 30 € extra. The ferry trip is 26 hours and therefore you either have to buy the expensive food on board or bring your own. Then the ferry arrives in Travemünde after dark, so wild camping is difficult and you have to pay for a hostel or campground. Plus I still had to pay for a train ticket to Berlin. But the ferry trip was quite nice (there even is a sauna on board) and I did not have to deal with bike boxes and disassembling the bike for flying. And most importantly there is a daily ferry and there is always space for a single passenger with a bike whereas you have to plan way ahead to get a cheap plane ticket.

In the end the ferry ride was quite ok. I chatted a lot with two German cyclists, spent a lot of time in the sauna and read two books - but was glad when the long trip was finally over. Still it was a Grande Finale when the huge ferry slowly turned into the bay at Travemünde, turned 180 degrees and docked. By the time cyclists were allowed to leave it was already 9.30 pm and pitchdark. Luckily I knew from previous research were the campground is. Actually this campsite is very convenient for ferry passengers as it is less than 2 km away from the port and even signposted on the bike path. As they are used to ferry passengers reception is open in summer until 11 pm. According to their price lost it costs 12 € for a one tent and a bike but the owner only charged me 10 € because "he was in a good mood." Although I think that this campground is the best solution for late night ferry passengers it was not a very pleasant experience and reminded me why I usually avoid commercial campgrounds. The ground was hard, cigarette butts lying around everywhere and when morning commuter traffic started at 7 am on the nearby highway I could not fall asleep any more. After a hearty Aldi breakfast I wanted to take the train to Berlin. But, bad surprise: the train was late, I missed the connection and arrived in Berlin later than expected.  Welcome back to Germany!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: Vaasa to Tampere

Vaasa coast
I spent half the day in the public library in Vaasa, but it was just too good. Unlimited internet access and I could even upload pictures onto my blog. It was 3 pm when the library closed and I was thrown out. After a late lunch on the bench in front of the library I had to face cycling again - my first cycling in Finland. The way out of Vaasa was very nice and offered fantastic views over the bay of Vaasa. I still made good kilometres before I turned off the main road onto a dirt forest road on my usual quest for a campsite. Because like in Sweden the forest is rocky and overgrown. My strategy worked in Finland as well as in Sweden. A short ways (and several raspberry picking stops) into the dirt road an overgrown track branched off and offered decent camping plus an obscene amount of mosquitoes. But the real problem arose in the morning: After packing up I pushed my bike back onto the main dirt road when I suddenly twisted my ankle on the rough overgrown path. What an irony: I never sprained an ankle on a hiking trip, but now it happened on a bike trip! Well, I probably did not sprain it, but it hurt like hell and is still hurting now, 4 days later. But I have 10 more days before I start my hiking trip so the foot should heal until then.

Although the weather was not quite as bad as expected, the endless days of glorious sunshine were gone. The forecast was for rain and it did indeed start raining on and off in the afternoon - after I had taken a wonderful swim in a lake. I still did over 90 km before calling it a day in a very forested area. Same procedure as every day. Turn off the road onto a forest road, look for an overgrown trail - but in this case it was a newly sanded track that ended abruptly after 100 metres. Great! This was completely flat albeit hard camping and the sand would absorb the rain perfectly. My timing was perfect. As soon as I had set up camp it started to rain very hard - but I was dry in my tent watching intently if it was completely waterproof. It seemed so.

Next day I needed internet to confirm my arrival to my couchsurfing host in Tampere. I did not find wifi, but free internet in the public library at Parkano. Unfortunately I checked to weather forecast and it was bad, bad, bad. I decided to cycle as far as possible that day because the next one would be rain the entire time. I had hoped to make more than 100 km but of course this was the day when the route was on dirt often and the landscape was rolling hills. I struggled to cycle 90 kms before 8 pm but I had to seek refuge from the rain a couple of times, too. That night I found the campsite of all campsites, the way I had dreamt camping would be like in Scandinvia. In a light pine forest the ground was flat and soft and mossy. No rocks! I could not believe it. There weren't hardly any mosquitoes!

But of course I woke up to rain. I packed my tent in rain. And when I was just about to leave, a guy in an electric wheelchair and a dog showed up. I don't know how he managed the forest trails but he did - and was very much surprised to find me there. First he asked me something in Finnish, but changed to fluent English. He even invited me to stay at his place next time - which even includes a sauna. A nice prospect with a day of constant rain ahead. The weather proved the forecast right. It rained the whole day turning it into the most miserable day of the whole 3 month trip. My rain jacke was leaking, everything was soaking wet and I was cold. I only had to cycle 60 km to Tampere but it took forever. When I sought refuge under a bus shelter people waiting for the bus showed up! Totally unheard of! I thought bus shelters are for cyclists.....

When I finally made it toTampere I was a bit too early to go to my CS host and therefore I decided to warm up in a museum. The first museum on the way was the workers' museum and although being very interesting it was the complete wrong choice for my purpose: All the building were open air and unheated! Luckily there was a nice and warm cafe were I sat for half an hour drying off and reading the English exhibition translation. Coincidentally I sat next to a large group of German speaking middle aged ladies who were talking about Finland and gave me some nice (and secret) insights as I did not show that I could understand every word they were saying. I learnt from the museum guide that Tampere is an old industrial city - and therefore even has another workers' museum that I would visit next day.

But I was off to my CS host now who greeted me with "Would you like to go into the sauna?". Yes, I liked to indeed and two hours later the world looked much nicer. I had eaten, showered, sauna-ed and my clothes washed. I felt like a new human being and started looking forward to visit Tampere. My host Sanna generously let me use her computer and I could finally plan out and book the rest of this trip in the morning before embarking onto more sightseeing. Sanna had recommended to visit Moomin-Valley, and that did not ring a bell with me. She then patiently explained to me the Moomin world: The Swedish Finnish writer and cartoonist Tove Jannson had invented the fantasy figures for a comic cartoon in 1946 and they became widely popular all over the world. The moomins are round shaped hippopotamus looking figures who live in Moomin valley together with other fantasy creatures and of course stumble from one adventure into the next one. Tampere has a Moomin museum and of course I had to visit it now! I was immediately intrigued by the Moomin world that not only attracts kids but has a deep philosophical meaning underneath it. Unfortunately photography was forbidden in the museum so I can only show the exhibition poster.

Swimming at the sauna
In the evening Sanna took my to another Finnish highlight: The public sauna in Rauheiniemi. I had thought that I am a hardy sauna type because I had visisted saunas a lot when I was still working in Germany. But compared to Finns I am a wuss! The sauna was a great experience: Very cheap for only 5 EUR, but also rather basic. Men and women go into the sauna together but wear swimsuits. The sauna is huge and despite the fact that people are constantly coming and going outrageously hot. You stay 5 minutes in the sauna and then go outside to swim in the ice cold lake. And then repeat that 5 to 10 times..... After 3 times I was already exhausted and after 5 times nearly dead - but felt incredibly clean and relaxed. Sanna (and everyone else) did not seem to suffer, whereas I just thought of how to survive.... Finnish people are strong!

My bike trip is coming to an end now. I only have 230 km left to cycle to Helsinki from where I will take the ferry to Germany, the train to Berlin and then embark onto  my next adventure. It is about time to leave: The weather is turning bad with more and more rain every day. I would either have to stock up on better rain gear - or go back. But I am not sad about leaving soon: I am pretty sure I will come back to Scandinavia next year....

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: Vaasa

It was fascinating to see how the ferry from Umea to Vaasa was boarded by trucks and cars. Cars can drive straight in and go around the corner inside the ferry so that they can drive straight out again. But some trucks are too long for that and they have to back into the ferry - with all the waiting passengers watching.... The ferry ride was uneventful and I did not even get sea sick as expected. My CS was already waiting for me at the harbour to pick my up. He had also come with his bike: a 50$ Indian bike he had bought in Nepal. It was quite a sight. My hosts turned out to be very interesting. Together with 3 of their children they had travelled a whole year in India and Nepal and become Buddhists. Of course this caused me to ask millions of questions and we spend the first evening talking about Buddhism which was quite enlightening for me. Next day was quiz hour for Finnish history and mentality and again I learnt a lot. But the definite highlight was an evening trip into their home sauna. I had nearly forgotten how refreshing a sauna can be and felt totally rejuvenated. I enjoyed the warm atmosphere in their family tremendously and again I was amazed what generous people you meet through Couchsurfing.

Next day brought another social visit. Hendrik Morkel, the author of the blog Hiking in Finland is living in Vaasa and had invited me to meet him. Meeting point was the famous statue on Vaasa market square that reminded me more of the Soviet Union than of Scandinavia. As outdoors people Hendrik and I had a lot to talk about, first at a coffee shop and when breakfast hour turned into lunch time we moved to a Sushi bar before eventually moving to the library to get a bit of work done after so much talking. I even manged to squeeze in two museum visits before I returned to my CS hosts. The weather that had looked like a total disaster on the forecast had turned out to be a slight rain shower only followed by sunshine.... Hopefully it stays that way.

I have now also planned the rest of the trip. From Vaasa I will follow the Via Finlandia bike route via Tampere to Helsinki from where I will take the ferry to Travemuende in Germany and then back to Berlin. I will come back earlier than expected but I rather start my upcoming hike earlier than dink around here - because I know I will soon come back....

Vaasa has already made me very happy - not only by all the interesting people I met. Of course there is a Lidl here! (No Aldi again in Finland....) I spent a whole hour shopping and comparing prices and to me great relief it is not more expensive than Sweden. Finland will not be cheap, but it will be doable on my budget. Chocolate is affordable, thank God! So now I am off to do my first bit of cycling in Finland.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Cycling Sweden: Conclusion and tips

Sweden and I did not have the best start: I had just come from Denmark which I had liked tremendously and compared everything with. Plus Southern Sweden where I had arrived is not exactly easy when it comes to free camping. But the longer I stayed the more I liked it. In fact I like it so much that I consider coming back next year for another cycling trip. Very often on this trip I felt like being in a tourist brochure. This has been the picture perfect Swedish summer! I can't say which country I prefer but Sweden has some advantages over Denmark.

Ystad
Most importantly Sweden is a lot cheaper than Denmark, but keep in mind that this statement comes from a compulsive Lidl shopper whose diet consists mainly of chocolate and no alcohol. Sweden of course is more expensive than Germany but with my lifestyle the difference is not too big. Shopping at Lidl helped a lot to keep costs down as it is a lot cheaper than other Swedish supermarkets. And also drinking no beer or alcohol helped as well. I spent about 20-30% more on food than on a similar diet in Germany, but Denmark would have been double the price. My most interesting culinary discovery was "Filmjölk", which is a sort of thick butter milk sold in 1 litre cartons. I drank about 1 litre per day and it is very refreshing.

Another positive aspect is that free internet was widely accessible. Every visitor centre I visited had free internet and/or wifi access. The same goes for libraries. Plus lots of local free wifi hot or the odd open wifi in the middle of nowhere. All this helped a lot with staying in touch and planning the trip.

Also my usual church and cemetery strategy worked out well. Swedish cemeteries usually have water taps although some don't have potable water so watch for signs. In summer a lot of churches were open such provided electrical outlets and even toilet facilities. And for washing up the many lakes and fjords were fantastic for a refreshing swim.

Although my guidebook recommended against going in July because the is the high holiday season I did not find it to be a problem, maybe because I was free camping all the time and did not rely on booked out accommodation. On the contrary: in July all the sites were open at maximum hours, all ferries were running - and the weather was absolutely perfect!


Cycling was great, too! With the exception of the Höga Kusten, the High Coast north of Härnösand, the terrain was mostly flattish. It helped to stay mainly on the Sverigeleden which avoids busy roads like the E4, but is usually very scenic and brings you to a lot of minor attractions that you would probably miss otherwise. The Sverigeleden and other bike routes are marked, but do not rely on that. The marking is not consistent, has often been tampered with and is often not seen easily. I did not use the Sverigeleden guidebooks because they are heavy, expensive and in Swedish only. I don't think you really need them as I managed very well with the velomaps in my GPS and the Freytag&Berndt road atlas. Velomaps show all parts of the Sverigeleden which is a great help. There are not as many designated bike lanes outside the city as there are in Denmark, but there is so little traffic on the smaller roads that it did not really matter. Sometimes the Sverigeleden routes you over dirt roads but these were never ever as bad as the ones I had to take in Denmark. Mostly you are cycling on quiet paved country lanes.

As this is the resume I want to say some words about free camping again. Theoretically you can camp almost everywhere because of the every man'a right. In practice this is a different story. Southern Sweden is very populated and agricultural so you'll have problems finding a suitable and discreet spot all the time. In the North there is forest everywhere but it is so rocky and overgrown that finding a flat spot adhering to LNT principles is very difficult. I usually ended up on old forest roads. I don't want to say that free camping is impossible. I never had a huge problem finding a spot. I just want to emphasise that it is not as easy as you might deduct from the every man's right and you can't expect to find a suitable campsite at once. It usually took me at least half an hour and the ground was usually rather bumpy and uncomfortable.

I found Swedish people to be very friendly and helpful. Almost everyone spoke English. Several times people came running after me because I had something forgotten in the Lidl checkout and several times I was invited to stay at people's homes. The drivers were surprisingly polite - in one month I got only honked at once! By the way: Swedish people seem to love oldtimer cars. In no other country have I seen so many of them driving around beautifully restored. One last word of warning: I experienced the perfect Swedish summer. In one month I had to cycle in rain only twice. The wind was very moderate and it was almost hot. I don't know if I had had such a great experience last summer when it was cold and rainy all the time.

Bottom line: I'll be back soon!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: Sundsvall to Umeå

Härnösand open air museum
Härnösand did not sound like much in my guidebook but I still made the slight detour from the Sverigeleden bike route to visit the town. It had the usual amenities which for me consist in a Lidl supermarket and free internet at the visitor centre. The internet came in very handy indeed as I coincidentally found out that on Thursday when I wanted to take the ferry to Finland the ferry schedule was different than normal. Instead of 7 pm the ferry departed already at 2 pm. That would have been a very bad surprise to find out on Thursday.... It was Sunday and Härnösand was basically dead. There weren't even hardly any other tourists. But my guidebook promised a county museum cum open air museum and the visitor centre promised it was free. I love free stuff and decided to go. Good choice! The museum turned out to have a really good and very modern local history exhibition and the open air museum was huge. But at 4 pm everything closed and I was on my way again to get in some more kilometres.



Trainline next to E4
The Sverigeleden here usually parallels the busy E4 costal motorway but occasionally even uses it - mostly when there its no other choice. Crossing the Storfjärden and a 3 km long bridge was one of these situations. When cycling up the bridge things still looked good. There were 2 traffic lanes for each direction and a half way decent shoulder on my side. But then I saw the construction work sign. One side was completely closed off and traffic in both directions was routed over two very narrow lanes - and I was cycling on the tiny shoulder next to all this. The E4 is the only traffic artery going North here so all the traffic uses it including huge multi trailer trucks and tourists with caravans. They could not give me any berth because of the oncoming traffic. I wondered what would happen if two trucks passed each other with me being next to them. The result did not look good for me and I basically started to cycle for bare survival fervently praying for no trucks. And I was very lucky indeed: the whole 3 km only small trucks passed me but no multi trailer trucks. I had to stop immediately after the bridge and have a break because I was shaking from fear and exhaustion. I had probably set a speed record, at least a personal one.

It was already getting late by the time I had made it out of earshot of the busy E4 and had found water at a cemetery. I took the first deserted looking side track and found myself at a nice grassy area next to a rickety bridge. Unfortunately there was no tree cover but I was tired and set up camp. I had just settled into my tent when I heard voices coming down the deserted path which might not be as deserted as I had thought. A mother with her young daughter was on her way to an evening swim - across the rickety bridge was a good swimming spot they told me. But I could not be bothered because I was already cooking dinner, although I was relieved that the two late visitors did not make any problems. Next morning I woke up at 5 am because the sun was relentlessly burning down onto my tent turning it into a Swedish sauna. I know why I usually camp under tree cover. At 6 am I gave up and decided to get up and have breakfast - and then remembered the swimming spot. I walked over the decrepit bridge and for sure there was a nice rock with a pontoon bridge and a ladder. To say that this early morning swim was delightful is an understatement! I was all alone in this beautiful lake, the water was refreshing, the sun was shining in a prefect blue sky - this was the picture perfect Swedish summer morning.

Whenever I had a swim on this trip I had the same feeling of happiness - and I had a lot of swims! It had been very hot the whole month and whenever I had the opportunity to swim I did it. Luckily there are lakes everywhere and usually I could find a deserted spot for a quick skinny dip. There are also a lot of official swimming spots that are signposted off the road often with toilets and even changing rooms! It feels incredibly good to submerge yourself into the refreshing water on a hot day and  wash off all the dirt and grime.

Next day brought me back to the E4. The Sverigeleden uses it for 12 km and the cycling wasn't actually too bad on it. Two car lanes each side plus a nice and wide shoulder for cyclists. Unfortunately this seduced me to stay on the E4 when the Sverigeleden leaves it for a much longer detour. Big mistake! The nice and wide shoulder disappeared and I was left with only a 30 cm wide strip of pavement right of the road blazes. To make things worse the blazes were not only painted but also washboarded to wake up tired drivers swerving off the road. Things were still tolerable going uphill as there were two lanes this direction and drivers could give me a wide berth. But I was already nervously eying the other, downhill side of the road. Just one narrow lane for cars and trucks and the 30 cm "shoulder" for me. What could be my death sentence was a road barrier between the two directions. With no second lane drivers could not give me a berth even if they wanted. I was doing something unusual for a cyclist: I prayed that the uphill would not end... but of course it did after 6 km. I was now facing a 6 km downhill on the "death lane". Although I was scared shitless there was nothing I could do. There was no alternative road and even turning around was impossible because of the road barrier. Luckily there is not much traffic on the E4 and you get passed by one maybe every 10 minutes. But whenever that happened I expected to die. (But as you can see from this post I didn't.) My German bike guide says that the E4 is pleasant to cycle on and say something about a 3 m wide shoulder.... Forget it: At least up to Umeå the E4 is more like a death trap for cyclists and I now understand why on long stretches it is actually forbidden for cyclists. The Sverigeleden joins the E4 again for a couple of km and I had the same scary experience. No more experiments for me: I stayed on the Sverigeleden although that meant tremendous detours. But it also offered safer and much more scenic cycling. Did I mention the swimming spots?


Snow shoes in the ski muesum
So finally I reached Umeå and the end of my trip in Sweden. The cities of Northern Sweden have one big advantage: most of the sights and museums are free! This was also true in Umeå that had the usual county museum including the ski museum and the usual open air museum. But it also offered free English city tours. Of course I joined but Umeå is not that exciting, although it will be cultural capital of Europe next year - which explains why the whole town resembled a huge construction site. The weather forecast for Finland did not look good and as I needed a rest day anyways I tried to figure out accommodation for my next stop Vasa, Finland. But alas, no hostel there and no luck with Couchsurfing. Have I mentioned that the CS website is crap? On older browsers it does not display correctly and you can't even log in. The mobile version is mostly useless, too. So even with internet access at the visitor centre and the library I could not get into couchsurfing. But in the end everything worked out. I spent my last Swedish crowns on a crappy Thai AYCE buffet, found free wifi at Mac Donald, got accepted by a CS host and made it to the ferry to Finland. Bye bye, Sweden - I'll soon be back.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: Falun to Sundsvall

Forest road in the rain
Out of Sundborg I met another solo female cyclist. It turned out that she was German as well. In fact, all the other long distance cyclists I have met on th e road in Sweden were from a German speaking country. I know that Sweden is very popular with German hikers but apparently the same is true for cyclists. Anyway, we stopped and chatted a bit and of course commented on the fantastic summer weather. Big mistake: only 15 minutes later a big downpour began. Luckily I was in a little town then snug under a shelter. While it was raining cats and dogs outside I was happily writing a new blog post. No wifi though but it can't always be perfect. 


Sundsvall
But I left my cosy little shelter in front of an optometrist shop too early. After 2 km on the road I had to stop and put on all my rain gear including shoe covers. I ended up cycling the rest of the afternoon in more or less constant rain discovering how inadequate my rain gear is. My eVent jacket leaks like a sieve and is no better than Goretex Paclite. Although it was fine when it was new it had deteriorated almost as fast as Goretex and was now basically useless. I have to find a new rain jacket for my upcoming hiking trip and I am not looking forward to that purchase as I am not aware of any real good product that withstand extended use. My rain pants are a pain in the butt but this is basically my own fault. I had bought them on my winter hike in the Appalachians in a small outdoor shop. There had only been a small selection and I had bought those pants because they were the only affordable ones that sort of fit me. Sort of fit me means they were sort of tight. Not a big deal when you are hiking, but when you are cycling you need bigger pants that can deal with the constant movement of your knees. Mine felt incredibly restrictive and very uncomfortable as they were too tight. The only thing that worked were the shoe covers.

But the next morning greeted me with sunshine and quickly all my wet stuff dried. My goal was Bollnäs with a Lidl supermarket and a visitor centre that meant free wifi. There I had to make a decision: Should I continue inland or cut over to Hudiksvall and the coast on my way North. I checked the weather forecast and it predicted more glorious summer weather for the next days. I therefore opted for the coast as I would be cycling inland once I would get to Finland.

Unfortunately the weather had not seen the forecast as it was drizzling the whole next day. As it was still very warm I ditched the rain pants and just cycled in my leaking rain jacket. Whenever the rain stopped I stopped as well for a raspberry break. There are raspberry bushes everywhere and I am feasting on them wherever possible. They are fantastic. Although I had had very low expectations I immediately liked Hudiksvall which is mainly due to the fact that as soon as I had arrived a major downpour started that I could sit out nicely in the free county museum. When that closed and it was still raining I just moved next door to the visitor centre with free wifi. The staff even let me sit in a cosy chair in their staff room right next to an electrical outlet so that I could recharge my phone while surfing the internet. Then a quick stop at the local Lidl and I was on my way to Sundsvall - unfortunately on a very busy road and this was one of the rare occasions when I did not enjoy cycling in Sweden. But soon the route turned off the main highway and I found myself a campsite in the drizzle.

Eventually in the morning weather and weather forecast were coinciding again: Sunshine! I slept in but still cycled 80 km partly due to not finding a decent campsite at night. As usually I had turned off the road onto a gravel forest road and was just exploring the camping potential of a quiet side track when I heard voices. Three cyclist in their Sunday best were coming down my "quiet" side track and were surprised to see me. They told me that this track was actually a very convenient short cut and when I asked them about camping possibilities they just laughed and said "everywhere". I should have known better to believe "civilians" but I followed their advice - and encountered the usual Swedish camping dilemma. Yes, there is forest almost everywhere and you are legally allowed to camp in it BUT: this is not a well kempt German forest, this is wilderness. That means first of all there are rocks everywhere. And when you find a spot without rocks it will be completely overgrown with brush, usually blueberry bushes. And in the rare event that you find a spot with no rocks, no brush and just moss it will be bumpy as hell. Your only chance are old first tracks because they have been cleared and might over some potential.

In my case I could not find anything and eventually had to cycle back to where I had come from to camp in one half of an old forest road. It still looked like it got some use but it was getting late and I could not find anything better. One of my nightmares is that an early rider comes down the track when I am still asleep and the horse can't stop in time when seeing my tent on the trail. But no such thing happened and I had a peaceful albeit buggy night.

Sundsvall turned out to be a huge collection of all sorts of industries lined  up. But when I had finally made it to the centre I was rewarded with one of the poshest and nicest visitor centres in all Sweden. I spent a lot of time checking the internet for options on how to get back to Berlin from Finland. This trip will come to an end in less than a month... When leaving I saw another cyclist sitting in the town square. Of course he turned out to be German as well..... and have me the chance to do my good deed of the day. He was complaining about his Garmin maps that do not show the bike routes and apparently have a problem with direct routing. I had heard the exact same complaints a week ago from a cyclist in Stockholm. But this could be helped as I have the OSM based velomaps that do show the bike routes and I offered them. With the help of my micro SD card to USB adapter and the very friendly ladies of the visit centre who let is use the computer and even stick USB sticks into them we copied the maps onto his GPS. Lessons learnt: Never leave home without a micro SD card - USB adapter. And: Garmin maps aren't always the best choice for cycling - definitely not for Sweden.