At this time of year the press will be in full retrospective mode, looking back over 2011 and declaring which musician made the best album of the year, who wore the best dress or shot the best film. Shamelessly jumping on the passing bandwagon I present the inaugural Ride Round Awards, to highlight the very best of my European journey. There are five awards, each covering a different aspect of life riding a bicycle.
An elite panel of experts recently convened in a secret location to debate and deliberate who should win one of the coveted awards, vowing not to emerge from their self-imposed exile until agreement had been reached. With maximum secur… OK, all of that is a load of rubbish. I thought this nonsense up while picking olives in Greece. Anyway, here they are.
The Bun In The Oven Award for best bread.
Awarded jointly to Serbia and Macedonia.
Cheap, filling and versatile a good loaf of bread is my staple food. Nearly every morning involves hunting out the local bakery to get my daily ration. Stored safely in a pannier bag a cooling loaf is ready to be smothered with sardines in tomato sauce at lunch time, dipped in the spicy sauce my instant noodles boil in or wipe my pan clean after a satisfying meal of pasta and tomato sauce before bed.
The Panel’s comments.
With France on the shortlist this award was always going to be tough for another country to break through. And while the country is to be commended for its commitment to quality, fresh bread and the near omnipresent boulangerie it fails to take the award.
The Panel instead award the honour jointly to Serbia and Macedonia, where huge rugby ball sized lumps of delicious warm bread can be found every day. The Serbian and Macedonian bakery also offer a smogersboard of treats to go with a daily bread fix, perfect for that mid-morning snack. Particularly recommended are thick slices of pastry stuffed with cheese or grated potato, or the Daddy of them all, a sausage encased in pastry with mustard already piped into the case as a filling.
The Hip Hops Award for best beer.
Awarded to a German beer in Germany.
Spending a wonderful night perched on a bar stool in a dimly lit German bar I was served a tall glass of superb beer. I’ve no idea what it was called, not because I was pissed, because I wasn’t paying attention. I can remember asking for a dark beer though, and savouring every drop of it, including the second one.
The Panel’s comments.
As producers of the best beer in the world (self-declared), Germany offers a bewildering range of beers to tempt the cycle tourer from handlebars to hangover. No other brewing nation posed a serious threat to their dominance. Even a last pint of Taylor’s Landlord sipped on the night before leaving England failed to make the shortlist. It is disappointing that the beer cannot be named to allow others to enjoy its medicinal qualities, but, just like the Turin shroud, when the world will end, or how Maradonna got away with scoring that goal at the world cup it will remain a mystery.
NB When judging this award next year The Panel would like to make it clear that they are open to any form of persuasion by breweries or drinking establishments. Free samples are particularly welcome.
The No Hander Award for best road.
Awarded to an unnamed road from Kiveri to Skala, The Peloponnese, Greece.
I cycled this road on my last two days’ cycling of 2011, a fitting end to the first leg of my trip and a tease of the mountains to come in Central Asia. It has that wonderful combination of coastal and mountain scenery, very little traffic and plentiful opportunities to stop and gawp at your surroundings.
The Panel’s comments.
Macedonia could be forgiven for thinking it had secured this award by offering the magnificent E75 at the end of October. While its delights are surely not to be missed there was only one serious contender this year.
In only 130km this simple road, so modest it appears not to have a title, offers road travellers a pick ‘n’ mix of the finest elements that make up a good day in the saddle. The first half offers a smooth stretch of asphalt that weaves along a notch cut into the mountain side, ascending and descending past villages and sandy beaches with the sea and mountains beyond a constant companion.
Cutting inland it leaves the coast behind for a stunning twenty mile climb through a rock strewn landscape, where the only sound you’ll hear beyond your own breathlessness is that of goats devouring whatever flora they meet. Peaking at a pretty mountain village the road then drops away, the asphalt poured down the mountain side in the form of thrilling hairpin bends and descents that force water from your eyes.
Finally it reunites the rider with the sea, still warm enough for a swim, just choose your own beach from those that dot the coast.
The Clear Skies Award for best camp-spot.
Awarded to a building site in Fotina, Greece.
At the end of a day cycling round Mount Olympus I was offered a safe place to sleep in the form of a building site in a hillside village. My temporary home was in the early stages of construction, a concrete shell with steel reinforcements protruding from its floors, perched on a terrace cut into the hill. Pitching my tent on the bare floor I set about cooking up a classic meal of pasta and tomatoes, but was interrupted by the lady who had offered me the camp-spot who was holding a selection box of food to feed me, and blankets to keep warm.
Using her food as a starter I still had plenty of room for my own, and ate the soggy pasta overladen with raw onion as I sat cross legged on a balcony overlooking the rest of the village. The sun now set behind distant hills I washed up by torchlight and retired to my waiting tent, sliding into my sleeping bag cocoon. My dozing soundtrack was the noise of the men of the village returning from a day felling trees further up in the mountains, the argument of a couple in marital strife and, eventually, the sound of silence.
At dawn I packed up my tent, smoke rising from the chimneys in the village below indicating that my temporary neighbours were also awake, ready for another day.
The Panel’s comments.
The criteria for this award stipulated that a tent must be pitched to be eligible. Therefore nights spent in a house, cellar, empty flat or any other abode not involving a tent, however wonderful, were not considered.
Development of an uncanny knack for being invited into strangers’ homes meant large parts of the European journey had to be discounted. A tent was only pitched once between Vienna and Greece, for example. Nonetheless The Panel were satisfied that the long and shortlists offered a bounty of quality entries.
The eventual winner offered something that any person, from luxury hotel guest to tight fisted bicycle traveller, would consider essential for a memorable place to stay: a mesmerising view. Add kindness in the form of blankets and fresh food, an in house entertainment area (urinating off a second floor balcony to see how far it travels) and a nearby tap for washing up (or your hands after using the entertainment area) and there’s not a lot more someone needs to have a good night’s sleep.
The Soviet Union Legacy Award for best use of bureaucracy in a cycle touring setting.
Awarded to an unnamed official in the Serbian city of Novi Sad.
Before arriving in Serbia I had been a good boy and had checked the FCO travel advice website which informed me I should register with Serbian police within 24 hours of arriving in the country. Dutifully I found myself in front of a plump bureaucrat in Novi Sad police station, holding a half completed form to register my presence in Serbia that didn’t make much sense. The official scanned my form briefly before handing it straight back to me. She informed me I must return to her office with a copy of the rental agreement the person I was staying with had signed to live in her house and her residency papers. “And you only have six hours left to do it.” She said with a faux friendly smile, secretly delighting in my confused look. “And if I don’t?” I asked “You’ll go in front of a judge, be fined 50,000 dinar and be deported.” I left with promises to return.
The lady didn’t know I’d also done some research on that bible of truth Wikipedia. It said this silly little piece of paper was rarely asked for, which was good enough reason not to return, so I never went back. A couple of weeks later I cycled to the Macedonian border. “Your bike looks very heavy!” was the only comment from the border official as I rolled into Macedonia without question.
The Panel’s comments.
Thanks to the European Union and Schengen Agreement there was only one entry for this award this year. That should not diminish the strength of the entry in readers’ eyes, however. The Panel particularly enjoyed the official’s threat of judicial action, a classic piece of bureaucratic bluster straight from the textbook.
With a visit to Central Asia planned for next year, where form filling is the most popular sport in some areas, this promises to be one of the most hotly contested awards at the next ceremony.
So there you have it. If any tourist authorities or bakers’ trade unions want to get in touch to claim their award they can do so by sending me an e-mail.
I’m spending winter in Greece living with a wonderful family, picking olives, working the land and spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the mountains and sea that surround our house. When I originally ‘planned’ this journey I thought I’d be spending winter in Syria or Jordan, events in the former subsequently making that idea unlikely to happen. I then left England with my sights set on Turkey, to find a farm job and wait out the cold weather. That again changed with the offer to work with the family I’m living with. I’m planning on staying here until some point in early 2012, when the worst of winter has subsided. I’ll then cross to Turkey by ferry and cycle east, to somewhere I haven’t really decided yet.
This will be my last blog post of 2011 so I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone, friend and stranger alike, for their support and donations to Macmillan in the early stages of this trip. Without the support of people at home I’d never have got off my arse to start pedalling, and without the constant kindness from everyone I’ve met on the road I probably would have given up somewhere in Northern France (That’s enough award ceremony drivel. Ed.)