Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cycletrip Day 6: Forges - Laon

At a last minute suggestion of Tac's, from our cosy little blue room in Forges, we booked not one, ladies and gentlemen, but two possible accommodation spots for the following night. Laon was the next big spot for us to hit up, but we thought perhaps we wouldn't make the 70+kms successfully in the one day. Perhaps sanely is more the adverb we wanted to be able to employ, thinking back on our washed out, blown out, exhaustive first day from the Netherlands to Belgium. It would be nice to get to Laon, but we didn't want to blow a fuse doing it. So we hedged our bets, and booked two places. One in the slightly-out-of-the-way Marle, because it was the only spot between Forges and Laon we could find, the other in the Big L itself. We would ride the first 30 or so kilometres, then make the Marle/Laon call, at Besmont. This picture shows the process:

Annie and Olivier gave us lots of extra bread to make up some sandwiches to take on our way. Just after 9am we took off. The exit from Forge involved a few big downs and ups and then, with open fields around us for the first 10kms or so to Forges Phillippe, the wind really hit us in the faces. I said to the weather gods that we would perform some sort of naked thank-you dance that evening if things stayed as they were and wind was all we had.

Just after Cendron we crossed the border into France, then headed into the Foret Dominiale de St Michel, which was a beautiful, quiet, leafy green escape from roads. Just look at this picture, though, taken in said forest. I had spent the past 7 days thinking this headband I took from Taco's Dad's house to wear was pretty cool. Practical and warming, yes, but I also felt a bit funky. It was with horror, on examination of this photo later in the day, that I realised I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

How wrong I was
But no matter, headbands do not maketh the woman. We rode on through Montorieux and Martigny, Taco's two favourite towns. In the latter we stopped for a bananabiscuitbreak. It was starting to spit a little, but, without wanting to commit until we were at Besmont, we were both pretty sure by here that we had the drive to get all the way to Laon. And at decision time, we went left!

The wind was still with us. At Agnicourt we took the wrong road for a few kilometres, and cursed on the return to the deviation point, pushing up hard against the wind. The right road, once we were on it, was windy (quelle surprise!) and by this time of the day had quite a bit of traffic. There were a few shitty moments with cars and trucks- when the wind and the rain are a bit fierce, their passing can cause a real, unwanted whoosh on the bikes- and by the time we were in Pierreponds, it was pissing down. Lucky we'd had our final energy-booster petit pain sandwiches before that big old stretch. We stopped in a town about 10kms from Laon, and confirmed that, although we were soaked through to our undies and beyond, our waterproofing system for the karretje (bubble wrap + garbage bag + backpack cover) was holding up well.

We entered the outskirts of Laon and got a wonderfully-comprehensive hand-drawn map and set of directions to our booked hotel from a nice lady at a bar. Feeling pretty awesome as we squelched into town, our mood was slightly dampened (pardon the pun) at the sight of the hotel. It was called Hotel Welcome, but that was not really the vibe. It smelled of petrol and there was no-one to be found at the reception, only a woman living upstairs who couldn't speak French, and many many children. It felt dodgy, so we treddled on down the road to the Hotel Des Arts. They had a room for us, and also a proprietor who was really into her sponge-painting, evidently, making the hotel live up to its name.

Washed and warmed, we high-fived a bit, then wandered the streets of the lower section of Laon. You get the impression it's not the sexy half of town; this title is reserved for the old city (known in Celtic times as Lugdunum, or The Mountain of Light), located high up, and easily-reached by a funicular(!) called the POMA. Well-deserved beer and dinner were had in a little first-floor restaurant with a very cheery waitress. The return to our room, full of wet things hung up around the place, was a soft, warm, smelly smack in the face, but with a window open, we slept like babies under a sponge-painted sun.

Day's stats
Forges, Belgium - Laon, France
Left 9.05am, arrived 5.50pm
Distance travelled: 95km
Conditions: Wind wind wind. Bit of rain. Bit more wind. Shit loads of rain.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Cycletrip Day 5: Romeree - Forges

It was a grey morning. But it was dry. We took our time getting ready, had a little beggar's breakfast in our bedroom of bits and pieces we had with us, then rode towards Mariembourg, as the rain started to lightly fall. The warm lights of a boulangerie drew us across the town square, and as the rain got heavier, so did our bellies, with fat, fresh, filled baguettes and buttery pastries. These we ate sitting outside the bakery. Then we popped around the corner, bought some clementines from the store and sheltered under its awning as it pelted down like buggery. Also held the leash of a lady's dog while she did her shopping. That was nice.

It cleared up a bit, and we continued on our way, across some more shoddy surfaces that we took on foot- we are still a bit like overly-protective parents when it comes to what our darling karretje can handle in his slightly-damaged state. In addition, I could feel Kev starting to struggle a little bit. As everyone who does a bit of fixing on him remarks, he is an old Raleigh (and luckily not too sensitive about comments regarding his age), and suspension ain't his biggest asset. I frequently try to put him at ease by telling him that wear and tear on the joints is a natural part of that ageing process, but it's difficult to have that right in your face as you are forced over gravelly paths and quaint-but-crap cobblestones. So sometimes we just walk.

There were a few problems with directions- I felt a little bit let down by our man Paul Benjaminse (of the 'Cycling to Paris' book fame) with slightly dubious directions where normally he is so right-on in his guidance! It definitely wasn't our fault that we took a wrong turn somewhere after Dailly and ended up having to go on a little detour with a big dip down and up. Anyway we got to Baileux, and that was the main thing. From here it was onwards to Boulers, and we stopped for lunch in the sun, after, what was it, golly, a hard 30kms? It was our shortest day, but only because from our research, Forges had turned up as the last place with accommodation before Laon (another 70kms), so we accepted today would be a light one. It felt like more though, really, because of the uppy-downy-ness of it, and the “huh?” moments in finding our way.

From Boulers we peddled on up the hill to Forges, and found our resting place for the night. It was a really sweet little house, and the section put aside for the chambre d'hote was just beautiful. The whole place was like something out of Country Life or Vogue Living- all blue hues and love hearts and artfully-arranged pieces of wood and glass. Our hosts were Annie and Olivier, a couple who really looked after us, even driving us in the pouring rain to a town a few miles away so we could dine at the cosy little restaurant there. Claire tried the specialite de la maison, a cold fish dish called l'escaveche, Tac had a steak, we had lots of frites, and some vino! Yew! The place was tiny, “like being in someone's lounge room”, said Taco, and there was nothing else around it, but it was bustling, and the waitress looked a bit stressed, but did a stellar job. We flopped into bed, tummies full.

Day's stats
Romeree, Belgium - Forges, Belgium
Left 10.15am, arrived 4pm
Distance travelled: 38km
Conditions: Cloudy; steady, light rain; lots of ups and downs and directional conundrums

Some pics NL and Belgium

Tac, Claire, Caz and Auk

Interesting conversation

Marjan, Maartje, Ellen and Jojanneke 

Ghis and Tac

Record party

Oma and Tac

Walking in Antwerp

Sitting in Brugge

Nice beer

Cycletrip Day 4: Namur - Romeree

We cycled a looong way next to the river the Meuse (Maas), the road was very hobbledy and we also had a vicious wind in our faces, but the beautiful views made up for it. We crossed a few castles and many abandoned Grand Hotels where the tourists loved to go but nowadays are no more then storage places. We passed the Leffe Abbey (we had a couple yesterday) before we came into Dinant, the place where the inventor of the saxophone was born. Just a funny fact.

After Dinant we stopped at a place to buy some more pieces of wood and crocodile/gaffa tape that would support the broken karretje a bit more. We chose to cross the river not by ferry, but just went over the bridge, easy as that. A few kilometres further we had to cross back, also over a bridge, to continue our road on a long straight way, away from the Meuse. We felt that the energy was running a bit low so we stopped several times to regain this by eating cookies, bananas and chocolate.

In Romeree we had a nice finale up a hill that seemed like the alp dhuez (Claire, reading over this entry: should I know what that is? Is my knowledge of big mountains really poor?). Luckily there was a very nice massage douchecabin (Claire again: that's not a naughty cupboard for idiots, it's a shower) complete with chair so that warmed us up. We also warmed up our lasagnas in the microwave, and had a little game of Yahtzee. After dinner we spent some time, too much for our liking, finding a place to stay the next day. Before we went to sleep we watched an episode of our replacement of Homeland, Breaking Bad.

Day's stats
Namur, Belgium - Romeree, Belgium
Left 10.00am, arrived 5.15pm
Distance travelled: 62km
Conditions: shitty surfaces at start, some showers later on
Funniest bits: accidentally put the aluminium bowl with lasagna in the microwave, sure there were lots of funnier bits, can't think of a specific one at the moment.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cycletrip Day 3: Diest - Namur

I think we held our breath for the first few kilometres. As we rode along the paths leading us away from the town, some of which were a little bumpy, we crossed all our bits in the hope that the work of Mister What's His Face with the Nuts and Bolts would see us through. At least today. Just give us one day, little cart. At his bike shop, we had also taken the step of buying some pannier bags to go on Claire's bike, so as to offload the overworked and slightly-disabled karretje.

Gradually we stopped looking at the connection every two seconds (although any chance in surface we took very slowly), and began to enjoy what was going on around us. The path was pretty flat and straight for the most part, and the sun was shining across the green fields of the Belgian countryside. We stopped for a snacky here and there (Marjan's sandwiches still going strong), and found the route we needed pretty easily, following the bible book and the various knooppunten along the way. Knooppunten are little numbers inside green circles, and each one has arrows pointing in the direction of possible following knooppunten that one might be searching for.

Lunch break, Jodoigne
At Jodoigne we stopped by the side of the road to have a lunch break under some trees. Lads in lycra who had stayed at the same hotel as us the night before road past, zooming along on their way to Barcelona doing double our speed, but with about a quarter of our weight and more fancy-schmancy but less lovely bikes, obviously. They were jealous of our sandwiches and chocolate too, I'm sure.

There were moments of pure joy along the straight straight path all the way through to Namur. Sun through trees and smooth paths guided us. There was a brief torrential downpour, but we were conveniently located near a bridge under which we could shelter and put on our sexy rain gear. I felt like I was becoming some sort of weather-reader-woman (which of course I wasn't), judging the movement of clouds and making silent bargains with them, most of which they didn't seem to come at.

Ten kilometres from Namur we were both going at snail's pace against the wind. We remarked to each other that energy levels were feeling pretty low, then the Dutch In Lycra came past again, with some positive, peppy words of encouragement about how close we were to Namur. I'm not sure they helped too much, but our stop for a stretch and the winning banana-chocolate snack attack combination certainly did. The last few kilometres were lovely.

We reached a busy highway in Namur, took 5 to re-orientate ourselves, then found our way down to the river (not before another spectacular fall off the bike from Claire- it's hard when your feet are numb and the bags on your bike are heavy). The surface of the path along the river was a bit bumpy for our liking, so we walked a bit of it. It was a very pretty stretch along that river, old houses either side and numerous quaint cobbled bridges. We came up from the river path in order to cross one of these bridges, just as the rain started to pour again. Taking shelter under a car park entrance, I watched a woman watching the rain from a window a few storeys up on the other side of the street. She looked at me, and did three quite similar movements with one of her hands, and I nodded. It was easy to understand the message being conveyed: “Dear me. Look at this rain. It's a bit crap.”

As the rain slowed, we hopped on the bikes again, and just a little ride down the way found our resting place for the night- a nice hostel overlooking yet another river. We washed up and warmed up, and felt really pleased we had made it. The beers in the bar downstairs were delicious (and can I say I bloody LOVE how everywhere in Belgium gives a little bowl of something salty with your drinks- it feels like such a bonus!), and we were pretty buggered so even ate dinner there like lazy buggers. It did have nice views of the river outside as the sun set, though, and we could have a laugh at the 25 Dutch kids hassling the woman behind the desk about their washing every 17 seconds.

Day's stats
Diest, Belgium - Namur, Belgium
Left 9.30am, arrived 6pm
Distance travelled: 83km
Conditions: nervousness giving way to pride
Funniest bits: "But... do we have to go through Longchamps?" becoming the catchphrase; a million questions about washing from the kids and increasing frustration from the poor lady working

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cycletrip Day 2: Hoogstraten - Diest

Alright, alright, so the first day of our cycle trip hadn't gone entirely according to plan. But you know what, we survived it. We felt kind of awesome for surviving it. And we followed up a day of rain, wrong turns and occasional despair with three days of wonderfulness with Marjan and Patrick (Taco's Mum and step-dad) in Belgium. That first night was total bliss: Marjan's home-cooked food, a foot bath, wine, showers we could have lived in forever, and beautiful beautiful sleep.

Bicycle break: 3 days with the folks in Belgium...
On Wednesday we woke to the smell of freshly-squirted espressos, courtesy of Patrick and his magic machine. After enjoying a Dutchy-goodness breakfast of fresh bread and cheese and spreads, we headed for Antwerp. The city was quiet (a little too quiet, according to M & P, who lived there previously). But it was nice to wander and ogle pretty things in shops, as well as learn a bit about the city. It has a large Jewish community, apparently due to many of them being spared the fate of other Jews during Nazi times, and I learnt that Friday is Jewish peoples' day off, so it's school on Sunday for the kiddies. The men wear those cool hats with curls, and the women wear wigs (?!). We had lunch in a veggie cafĂ©, including their famous hot, frothy, ginger tea (verdict: Marjan and Claire- “delicious”; Patrick and Taco- “blergh”). Marjan sneakily bought us a box of finest Belgian chocolates (and DAMN, they were FINE!), which were to be scoffed over the next few nights. That night we feasted on Marjan's cooking with Ingrid, Patrick's daughter, and her beautiful baby (who, at roughly 4 months old, apparently isn't such a fan of meatballs and lasagne just yet- we ate her share). The following day we visited the lovely old city of Bruges (full of bridges!), drinking Belgian beers, walking the cobbled streets and visiting the Begijnehof- this is essentially a convent, and not uncommon to many old cities in Europe. I need to do some high-quality (Google) research on it still but I understand these places were sort of havens for single women in times when they were at risk of being in danger within communities (slash wanting to find God, I suppose). The Begijnehof is a little walled city within itself- tiny houses in a circle around a main square, this one grassy and filled with daffodils, which would have been lovely to skip through, were it not for a sign forbidding it: sad face). We popped inside the little church and were lucky enough so be able to listen to some of the nuns praying in sing-song form for a little while. The next day was spent doing errands and getting ready for our departure on Saturday. We dined on big, fat, fresh asparagus and smoked salmon, and played Dutch/English Scrabble.

Back on the bikes...
Saturday we were up, croissant-ed and packed by 9-ish, ready and excited to hit to the road Jack. Marjan and Patrick waved us off from Hoogstraten. I was feeling pretty stylish in my waterproofs (pants as well as the jacket, ladies and gents!). It was a little cloudy, yes, but we were ready for it today. And all went swimmingly. The sun shone, the attractive waterproof pants were shed, directions were easily followed and some nice little towns were ridden through.

All went swimmingly, yes, and at 40kms in, just after a snack and loving life, we had only 15kms or so to go until we reached our destination for the day- Diest. The two of us were, we later confirmed, about to turn to each other and suggest we maybe go a bit further today! And as Claire turned to Taco, there was a horrible sound, and Claire's bike went a bit wobbly, and felt a bit lighter, and we turned to see a broken fietskarretje. The bar holding the bicycle cart to Claire's bike had snapped clean in half. We stared. Blinked. Said a few swear words. Then burst into laughter. What were we to do? Really, what the hell were we to do?! Long story short, what we were to do involved a lot of gaffa tape (am I actually an Aussie male, do you think?), elastic ties and a handbag strap, all of which we had on us. We timidly rode on. Just get to Diest, that's all we need to do. The cart was wobbly, but wasn't moving thanks to the aforementioned 8687678m of gaffa. We got about 10km like this, before the hail came and we took shelter in a horse stable. After the bad weather passed, we rode on a little, and, coming across a man and his dog, we asked for some directions. This man was Luke, who turned out to be our Saturday Saviour. He suggested he could take us, and the karretje into Diest in his van. We walked back through some fields with him to his car, and drove to a bike shop. A dude from the shop came out to inspect the damage and whether it could be mended. He scoffed and told us it couldn't be fixed, good luck getting to Paris. But there was another man. Another man in a bike shop with much crap at his disposable- he connected one broken half to the other with a bit of hollow metal pole he had, screwing it all together as Dutch crooners sang out from the radio behind him, and we held our breath in anticipation. He did it! It worked! (We hope!)

Luke said he would drop us, and our down-but-not-out bike cart in Diest. Beforehand, however, we needed to pop by his place as his family might have begun to worry over his whereabouts. We ended up being fed Flemish food and meeting said-family, who were all very lovely and welcoming. After calling nearly every accommodation place listed in our little book, and finding them all full, we eventually found a spot in the slightly-beyond-what-we-wanted-to-pay-but-beggars-can't-be-beggars French Crown hotel in town. Luke dropped us off. We thanked him and promised him our first-born in return for his extreme hospitality and extent to which he saved our asses. We showered, walked around Diest, located our starting point for the next day, watched some football in the pub, then crashed into bed. Things could only get slightly more normal.

Day's stats
Hoogstraten, Belgium - Diest, Hoogstraten
Left 9.30am, arrived 6pm
Distance travelled: 57km
Conditions: weather ok, bike cart not so good but fixed, plenty of Belgian hospitality
Funniest bits: the cart breaking- the sheer "what the fuck" and timing of it

Cycletrip Day 1: Barendrecht - Hoogstraten

After all the preparations (not that many) we were ready to leave Barendrecht at 10.30am. All the stuff fit in the cart so off we went. The first bit went very smoothly and before we knew we were in Dordrecht.

After a short break we had to go over the Moerdijk bridge: shittabrick, the trouble started there. What a wind, it almost threw us off our bikes. On the other side we decided to change route, following the green signs instead of the red ones. Bad decision.The green ones take you along the scenic route, wich probably is beautiful when you are not cycling with the wind in your face. Focking hell what a wind. At times we drove 8 kmph (shown to us on our last minute buy, a basic bike computer a.k.a.odometer).

Finally we came into Breda but from there we didnt have a route, so in the rain we had to check on the roadmaps beside the road to work out where to go to get through the city. Pfff, what a hell, and what a wind, or did we already mention something about the Dutch storm? Once we crossed the border into Belgium it took a bit of a search again, but it was pretty easy from there although we drove for a bit on a road that also was used by massive trucks. Anyway it took a bit longer than expected before we arrived, soaking wet and chilled to the bone in Hoogstraten, it must have been around 20.45. Just in time to see the semi-final of the champions league ;-)

Day's stats:
Barendrecht, Netherlands - Hoogstraten, Belgium
Left 10.30am, arrived 8.45pm
Distance travelled: 88km
Conditions: bloody bloody wind and rain
Funniest bits: Claire falling over while Taco asked for directions; Claire travelling at approximately 4kmph over the Moerdijk bridge; Taco saying as we came into Meerhout, realising we weren't yet in Hoogstraten, in a very sad-serious 5 year old voice: "It's the next village, isn't it?"

Friday, April 20, 2012

Family Times, Part Two: The Land of Cheese and Chocolate Sprinkles on yer bread

Dutch cows

Two weary travellers arrived at Chez Kees (Taco’s Dad) around 11.30pm on Tuesday night. The plane ride had been smooth in that all bags were present and accounted for, but not so smooth in that, with C & T forced to sit in separate seats, Taco managed to find himself in the middle of a group of school children obviously quite excited to be travelling to the Netherlands, all with perhaps a touch too much sugar in their systems.

Our first full day in the Netherlands, we hung out like cool kids in the town, Claire got excited about the sun and wore shorts (then got sniggered at by the actual Barendrecht cool kids for pretending it was summer already), and we began ticking off the list of Boring Stuff That Needs To Be Done for Taco. In the evening, we were picked up by the beautiful man himself Kevin, and watched his indoor football match. And what a match, ladies and gents! A dramatic but ultimately disappointing game for Kev’s team. After this we headed to Jur’s place and watched Feyenoord  play against Roda: equally disappointing, but less dramatic.

The next few days we slept in, caught up with friends, and began to organise The Bicycle Trip: The Netherlands to Paris on our fietsen, which Tac’s Mum had so kindly driven all the way to London to bring back to the Netherlands for us. We found a book called ‘Fietsen naar Parijs’ ('Cycling to Paris')- with that in our hands we figure can find the way blindly.

Before we knew it was Saturday. Family day. In the afternoon we went to Liesforrest where we had high tea with Tac’s Mum's side of the family, later that day we went to an uncle of dad’s side where we had a little boogie to the LP music. On Sunday we went to the Rotterdam marathon to support Taco’s friend Daan (and his dad) to the finish, but it was so busy that we missed them. Poo. So without meeting up, we went to IJburg to visit Auke and Caz. We all felt a bit like zombies for different reasons so we just chilled on the couch watching the only Dutch cycling classic, The Amstel Gold Race. Back in Barendrecht we went to The Dijk (Taco's second home) to catch up with some more family and by the end of the day we were so tired that we slept for a million years... well not really, we slept for a night, but you get the idea.

Our final day in Barendrecht was spent grabbing supplies for the bike journey, picking up Kev (Claire's bike) from Handy Dandy Robert who had given him a fixing up, then having a lovely extended afternoon tea with Oma, complete with many many Speculaas biscuits and multiple cups of tea. We had a delicious dinner with Daan and Tessa, ooh-ing and aah-ing at Tessa's beautiful baby belly and their sexy baby room (all Miffy/Nintje styled!), before heading back to Chez Kees for some last minute preparations surrounded by the Barendrecht boys and girls. 

Claire woke up bloody early on Tuesday morning with the excitement of the trip ahead. Sandwiches were made, our little fietskarretje was laden with bags, and we shook our fists at the sky in the hope that we would keep the rain away...

Family Times, Part One: The Land of Leprechauns and Lots of Tea

Irish Cows

We last saw our intrepid travellers weary from running and cheering and the end of the Connemara Marathon. (For those of you out there who care for numbers, Claire did the marathon in 4hours21minutes59seconds.)

The day after the big run we went for a little hobble in Clifden. Claire’s legs were doing fine, we even climbed up a hill to have a 360 degree view from the top. Back in the centre we went to the post office to send some things to Oz and Holland. (Taco still owes Claire 82 cents for that.) We picked up the bags from the B&B, quickly used the WIFI to book a hostel for the night and walked to the bus that took us to Dublin. Claire went to the back row and had a little snooze while Taco read the Irish post with the marathon results in it.

In Dublin we went to the hostel where we booked into a dorm. We decided after we dropped our stuff that it was a good idea to switch to a private room the next day.  If you are not in the backpacking travel mode, a dorm is maybe not the most comfortable or relaxed room to be in. We had dinner at a restaurant that Colleen recommended to us, Neon. It was Asian street cuisine- really nice food that we enjoyed while playing a game of Yahtzee.

After a night where Taco was woken up by some roommates who left not very quietly in the middle of the night to catch their flight, we checked out and decided to look for another place during the day. We had a long day in front of us. First spot we wanted to go to was Phoenix Park, and it took us a good hour to walk there- our ears froze off our heads because of the cutting wind. The park was nice but even nicer was the walk away from it (this sounds a bit negative but I don’t mean it) knowing the next stop was going to be the Guinness factory! There was a really good setup, you could walk through the factory and be your own guide. We spent a good chunk of time in here. The pub after the visit was cosy and good to give the legs a bit of rest. In the tourist office we used the internet to look for another hostel, but ran out of time as the office was closing and we hadn’t found a hostel yet. On the streets we walked into a few hostels but the prices were pretty high and we decided it was maybe a better idea to stay at the same place: we would survive another night in a dorm. As a result we checked in again and ended up in an empty 4 bed dorm. One of the beds was a (semi) double bed so that was cosy. During our walk earlier in the day we saw some posters advertising a play, Alice in Funderland,  that was going on in the Abbey Theatre, not far from our hostel. We bought tickets online and had to go straight there to be in time for the start of it. It was a funny play but not all of it was understandable for Taco as some of the actors talked and sang with a really strong Irish accent.

The next morning we went for another little explore before we took the bus. Our impression of Dublin was that it was a lovely city, and someday we would like to come back. Then it was off the the north- McEvoy country. The last time Claire was here was 8 years ago, as just a wee bairn of 17. In Castlewellan, Oliver was waiting for us at the bus station. He is the husband of Ann who is the daughter of Hugh, who is the brother of Claire's grandfather. Capiche? They made us feel at home straight away. Dinner was ready and after that we had a cup of tea before they took us for a stroll on the promenade in Newcastle. Once back we talked the night away with the football on television on the background.

The area around here is as you would think when you think about Ireland.  Hills (with snow on top), beautiful lakes, castles, and massive open areas of grass complete with the sheep and their lambs. We enjoyed the sunny day outside and the highlight of the first full day was the visit to Hugh, the brother of Claire's grandpa. The 97 year young man was full of stories that he told us in his kitchen.

We spent some more cosy times at Oliver and Ann’s, drinking cup of tea upon cup of tea, walking for miles, and having a bake-off in the kitchen- in his retirement, Oliver has turned his previous joiner hands to baking, with great success! The smell of apple and rhubarb pies wafted through the little kitchen, and greedy taste testers concluded that the man’s pastry was spot on! It might have been due to the inclusion of freshly laid eggs, provided by Oliver’s harem of hens, who live a pretty sweet life, and in return give excellent eggage. In return we whipped up a carrot cake, which also went down pretty well.

The next day we moved camp, to Dominic and Kathleen’s (more second cousins). Their cosy home was to be ours for the next few nights, in the truest sense of the word. We were swept into the house and into the heart of the family, enjoying Easter with lovely Dominic and Kathleen, as well as Andrew, their son, back for the holidays from his job in England (so he would be Claire’s second cousin… once removed? Or is it cousin once removed to the power of 3 multiplied by…. GAH!). Big family feasts, “chilling out” on the couch (which Kathleen instructed us to do several times an hour), visits by other family members, including Maureen and Therese, learning the rules of Gaelic football- these were all some highlights. Another was the walk we did with Dominic up the Slieve Donard (sounds a bit rude, really, doesn’t it?!), which is the biggest mountain in the area. The walk itself isn’t too long, but my-oh-my it does get high. Steep, I mean. Claire Quick-Steps hurried along behind the long-limbed lads Dominic and Taco for a good chunk of the way, trying desperately to keep up. As the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, we reached The Saddle, and Dominic was off and away, the two of us left sweating, yet freezing, muttering a little “f#$@ me this is tricky” every few metres, until we reached the summit, enrobed in cloud with not a sight to be seen- this was insignificant, however: we had got to the bloody top! Yee-ha! Crazy people from the region run up and down this hill once a year in a race. Dominic informed us the current record was something in the vicinity of 55 minutes to the top, 17 minutes for the way down. I think our stats were only slightly off this.

It was with heavy hearts (and tummies, thanks to all the feasting) that on Easter Monday we drove to Belfast with Kathleen, Dominic and Andrew, saying goodbye first to Andrew at the airport, then to the lovely D & K, but not before a posh drink at the poshy posh posh Merchant Hotel in town. The following day, we explored Belfast as much as the rain would allow us, escaping anything to do with the Titanic if we could help it, which is the focus of everything and everyone in this 100th year anniversary. We tested some cosy pubs, checked out some churches, and towards the end of the day, threw our backpacks on once again and headed for the airport, ready for some Dutch gezelligheid.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Marathon day from Claire's point of view

I felt a bit nervous on Sunday morning. I'd felt nervous the day before but for a different reason- realising I didn't have any running gear with me and that running the marathon might not be a possibility gave me a funny feeling in my stomach. But Sunday morning, new shoes firmly tied on my feet with timing chip attached, I had the pre-race jitters. I hadn't really had that feeling since primary school days of old, driving in the bus to inter-school athletic carnivals, scoffing Allen's snake upon Allen's snake. Sunday morning I side-stepped the sweeties for a good hearty muesli and coffee (hoping my insides wouldn't regret the caffeine later). I caught the bus out to the starting point with Marcus, a lovely Irishman staying in our B&B with Colleen. Marcus calmed me a bit with his assurances of “It'll be grand” and similarly-casual approach to training and pre-race prep.

It really was the most gorgeous day, all blue skies and sun. the starting point was a modest little stretch of road with a beautiful big lake to our left, and some little rocky hills on our right (perfect for the guys to clamber up and relieve themselves on, leaving the Portaloos for the ladies). Thankfully there were no horrible group warm-ups or pep talks at the start line, although a fair share of silly garbage bag-like warming devices and intimidating stretching routines were on show. Runners were primed to go into battle against Low Energy, some of them sporting an almost magazine-like line-up of gels and power bars around their bodies. Still, some people looked pretty casual, human- none more so than a gentleman walking around in his thick spectacles, Levi's and a t-shirt atop his running shoes; I expected these to be stripped off, revealing a Superman-like athletic suit underneath but no, there he was a mile in (and at the finish line!) in the very same gear. I chatted with an enthusiastic man from Oxford running his ninth marathon who kept up the light-heartedness I needed in order to not feel compelled to do 46 nervous wees before the start whistle. About five minutes before the marathon began, the world champion of the ultra marathon came absolutely gunning past us- the dude was aiming to beat his own world record in running the 39.3 mile ultra in less than four hours.

Once we were off, I just kept a steady, comfortable pace up, and soaked in the sun and rolling hills, knowing that at some point I might not be able to enjoy the scenery quite so much. I got talking to Siobhan, who was running her second marathon, having decided last year at age 45 to take up running. This marathon was part of her training for an Ironman (Ironwoman?) challenge later in the year. We spent quite a bit of the race together, and she gave me lots of encouraging words and stories along the way. She was also rocking some amazing hot pink compression stocking on her toned calves. I met a man from Toowoomba, also running his second marathon, his first being the Gold Coast one last year just before turning 50.

Around the 12th mile I gave one of those sexy energy gels a crack. It was tastier and less goopier than previous ones I'd tried (cola flavoured!), and I did feel like it gave me a boost, although this was accompanied by a bit of a funny feeling in the tum-tum. There was a lovely long hill that swept down towards the lake outside Leenane. Past lots of lobster and crab pots we came into the town and over the 13th mile mat, which recorded our half-way time. Siobhan gave a big cry of "We're on the way home, now!" and I felt buoyed. Soon after this point came a gentle but present upwards climb for about a mile, and along here I met Tim from near Galway. He too was a first-timer, and we spent the best part of the next 12 or so miles together, chatting away and occasionally running with knees up or feet-to-bum to prevent too much stiffening up. In our training the furthest either of us had run was 18 miles, and as we passed this marker, Tim said "Well, it's all unknown territory from here!" and we dorkily gave each other a high five (but with our knuckles- what DO you call that? High fist doesn't sound right...). It was so nice meeting someone who felt like a similar person to me, and be able to get through what might have been the tough bits without really feeling the distance. Ah, the power of distraction and good conversation!

Somewhere near the start of what they call 'The Hell of the West' we met another first-time marathoner, a Mum of four, and the three of us conquered that hill with really not too much drama. A lot of people had to walk it, but to be honest, I think I was expecting somewhat more of an extreme incline. Not to pretend at all that by this point (around 22.5 miles) my legs hadn't gone into robot mode in which my joints were those of an 80-something year old, but there wasn't ever a point where I thought my body would turn it's back on me and give up. I thought a lot about Mum and Dad, the runners who spawned me, and Mum's advice to try not to look too pained when running- I think it's true that keeping up a sense of positivity can help things not feel too hard- more muscles to frown than to smile and all that.

Around the top of the hill, the hotel came into view that signalled the finish line. I think I picked up the pace in the last mile, and a few hundred yards from the finish line, there was beautiful Tac. I'd been thinking about how excited I'd be to see him at the finish line, and it was a figurative energy gel, the image of him with his big ol' camera in hand, yelling and towering above the little Irish folk. Tim said to me "Right Claire, when we get to this white sign, we're just going to drop the hammer, alright?" I'd come to learn a few bits of jargon over the past four hours in the company of runners, so I knew he meant "Go really fast to the finish line". And we did! It was like finishing a run back home with Mum and somehow finding that last bit of energy to use the legs of my father to overtake the little Energiser battery woman on the last sprint up Clapton Road.

Claire at the finish
I was pretty buggered. But kept walking. Walking and smiling. Walking and smiling and finding Tac for a big hug and a banana and some yellow roses! I felt really really happy. I had been worried that a sense of happiness and achievement would only come at that point, that finish line, but I truly was pretty elated the whole way along that run. It was four hours (and 22 minutes) of some of the most spectacular scenery I've ever been amongst, and it made me reflect on some of the other beautiful runs I've been lucky enough to do during my time overseas. The beautiful vineyards and forested hills in the south of France, icy pine trees and glistening roads in Zurich, dusty roads on an island oasis just out of noisy Phnom Penh, sunny weekend London runs along the Thames or through wild Wimbledon Common. Running around the world has been a way of learning a place, meeting people, and having a small sense of routine and groundedness in myself when things are ever-changing. It hurts a bit sometimes but I don't think I'll stop any time soon.

Marathon day from Tac's point of view

Got up at 08.00 on Sunday for a delicious breakfast before Claire was picked up by the bus that took her to the start of the marathon. I had a few hours before I got picked up by the 'crowdbus', in which I had a little stroll and sat in the sunshine reading my magazine while Claire was running the miles away.

In the beautiful surroundings of massive mountains and crystal clear lakes I found myself a good spot to enjoy the event. After watching all the runners struggling on their last few metres before the finish, Claire came past me looking like she just started, almost. (I wanted to say that Claire passed as a 'dartelend hertje' but dont think there is a english equivalent for this.)

When we got back in Clifden we went for dinner and some drinks with Marcus and Colleen who were staying at the same B&B. We ended up doing a little pubcrawl. Had dinner and icecold Heinekens on the first stop, switched to Guinness on the second and finished with some more Guinness in the last. The second pub we were, had a band (Sumbrellas) playing in front of the pub on a parking lot between the cars. They played cool songs on their guitars and violins.

After the beers we went back to the B&B where we watched our new favorite series Homeland on the laptop before falling asleep.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Leaving London


Welcome to what will hopefully be a regular update of our adventures over the next few months. We've been in London for a while, and now we're slowly making our way (back) to Adelaide, our home for the next little?/long? while. Episode 1 is written from a big comfy couch in Clifden, Ireland...

We had a lovely last day in London, in which all preparations leading up to the departure from our home-for-the-past-little-while felt chilled out and easy, and we had time to sit around talking crap with friends and housemates, and eat late-night Chinese on the street under a blossom tree with Sarah A and candles.

This morning we had an early wake-up from a handy online alarm clock- this was needed as we had both rid ourselves of our phones (and most other material possesions) in the past two days; even our bikes were gone, picked up by the incredibly generous Marjan and Patrick last weekend and currently being babysat in Belgium.

London gave us an appropriately-grey final morning, but we both felt "the sunshine in our bodies" (Taco just said that in a super sultry voice sitting next to Claire, currently acting as scribe, on the couch). We had a smooth train ride to Gatwick airport, and an easy flight to sunny Dublin... but then it went a little bit poo.

Taco's brave little suitcase burst forth boldly through the conveyor curtains; Claire's was a bit slow... Quite a bit slow, in fact... Actually where the HELL is the bloody bag?! In London, it might appear, at this stage, although we're yet to confirm that. The Ryanair lady kindly took our contact details ("We don't have any"), instructing us to call at some point later on for news of the AWOL bag. We had a little moment of tears and swear words and questioning what to do. Quickly we decided that we would stick to the plan of catching the only bus that would get us to our destination in the west of Ireland. There remained the tiny issue of lacking any marathon running gear, which was sort of the point of going to the west, but we thought we'd figure it out on the way.

Once in Clifden, we sited a shop that looked promising on the shoe front. It turned out our man there only had hiking footwear.
Claire: "Is there anywhere else that might sell running shoes and would still be open?"
Our man: "Der's a sport place oop de road dere, Gannon's."
Claire and Taco: "Oh! We're staying at a B&B called Gannon's, is that nearby...?"
Our man: "Oh yeah, s'the same place. Gerry owns de sports store and de B&B."
We had a good old chuckle, headed up the road and €130 later Claire is set to go for the marathon tomorrow. Will Ryanair pick up the bill, we wonder?

Off to bed, pores straining with carbohydratey goodness thanks to Taco's amazing pre-race pasta cook-up extravaganza. More news on the other side of 26.2 miles. Hopefully.

Love Taco and Claire xox