It’s our human nature to feel connected to places or things that we understand on a personal level, or to the things we formed a memory around. On a quest of exploring new horizons, meeting new people and learning about new cultures, I’ve decided to go beyond the scope of the daily routine keep and to seek discomfort through taking new challenges that will help me grow and become a stronger version of myself.
With all the new, scary experiences I have opened myself up to, throughout my life I’ve always been rewarded with many wonderful memories. As the American actor Will Smith said: “On the other side of maximum fear, are the most blissful things in life”.
While sitting on the couch one cold April morning in Berlin with a warm coffee in my hand watching videos on Youtube, I stumbled upon video of cyclists attempting to do a long bike tour of thousands of kilometers across Europe. I never thought about traveling by bike before and I wondered if crossing countries by bicycle was even possible. What if I cycle all the way from Europe to Africa, or from Germany to Morocco, is that doable? 4000km only with a bicycle fueled by muscle power, pain and commitment and no other means of transport. The only way to find out is actually to go out and do it.
I never traveled long distances by bicycle before, hell I don’t even own a bike. Would I be able to keep cycling an average of 150km every day for a month without breaking my legs? What are the chances of getting hit by a car or a truck if I’m on the road 10 hours a day? Is it dangerous to be alone on the open road at night? Despite these worries, it turned into one of the best experiences in my life.
Planning for the trip was very simple and straightforward. I couldn’t afford most of the gear a professional cyclist would buy, so I tried to find the cheapest alternatives. Here’s my complete gear checklist:
- Bike (259€)
- Saddle (18€)
- lights (15€)
- Cargo rack (20€)
- 2 Panniers (80€)
- Lock (50€)
- 2 Water bottles and cages (15€)
- Spare tubes (5€)
- Pump, multi-tool and Lubricant (10€)
- 2 External batteries to charge my phone (50€)
- 2 t-shirts
- 2 shorts
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 2 pair of socks
- Foam roller (10€)
- Sunscreen (5€)
- Lip balm (3€)
My pair of sneakers, for example, was not in the best condition, but it was all I could afford. It was okay for the first few hours of wearing it but my toes would go numb the entire second half of every day, which proves it’s not always about the gear but the commitment.
I also brought a lot of my camera gear with me: my MacBook Pro, my Sony A7ii, microphone, timer, Gorilla Pod, ND-filters, memory cards, 2 external hard drives, the DJI Mavic Air and, of course, a lot of spare batteries and cables.
I hoped traveling by bike would help me see the world from a different perspective. I would get to see and feel not only the cities but also every single meter separating the cities. I also wanted to see how the landscape, weather, culture, language, and traditions would change between each destination on my trip.
On August the 8th, 2018 at around 6 am, I left my apartment’s doorsteps in Berlin heading into the unknown. It was a beautiful warm morning with a clear sky. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going. I had a very good idea on what direction I should head and possible cities I would cross if everything went right. Each day’s exact route was to be thought out a night or two before depending on weather conditions (rain, wind…) and my level of fatigue. Magdeburg would be my first stop. The ultimate plan was to head west towards the coast of The Netherlands since it offers amazing flat bike roads, and then start heading south until I reach Morocco.
That means I would have to cross through Belgium, France, and Spain.
Step 1: Germany
The first 48 hours of the ride were the toughest for me. 15 hours of riding in pain and hunger (160km). I didn’t know how to pace myself right, or when I should take a break and eat. The second day wasn’t any easier. I planned to do 220km but was hit by a storm and lots of wind after 90km of cycling, so strong that some trees near the road even collapsed and fell down. I didn’t have a rain jacket or warm clothes so I decided to cut my distance to about 150km and cycle to the nearest city in the opposite direction to where the storm was heading.
Timelapse of the sky I took after I arrived at my hotel
The first 2 days proved that this trip was not going to be easy. It wasn’t just about cycling but more about going against my will to stop cycling and take a break. It rained 5 days out of 7 for the first week and I encountered 2 more storms during the rest of my trip (who knew August would be so cold). But the sunset at the end of everyday made it all worth it.
Germany was mostly flat, or at least not steep and that helped a lot. I managed to cycle 180km on the third day and little over a 100km on the 4th one. I am not sure if it’s the excitement that’s causing this or something else, but I haven’t had any severe muscle pain or felt any strong fatigue. I woke up every morning excited and wanting to push myself even more and cover more distance than I previously did. I’ve got to see a lot of funny things like this one horse wearing a zebra coat and an actual street called Beer Street (Bierstraße), how German is that.
It took me 4 days and about 600km to reach the border of The Netherlands, opening a new chapter in my trip.
Step 2: The Netherlands
The Netherlands has amazing bike roads across the country – separated, smooth, and well-maintained. Throughout the entire country, I never had to share the road with a car, which is incredibly safe, and made it a lot more fun for me. On the crossing between motor roads and bike roads, those in cars have to give way to bikes. I, funnily enough, didn’t trust the cars enough in the first few days and caused delays in the roads since I waited for the cars to pass first.
What excited me even more than the flat bike roads in The Netherlands are the Windmills. I had to visit Kinderdijk. So after crossing the border, I headed first to a small village near Arnhem called Elst (155km), and then to Rotterdam the day after (120km), which is located just half an hour‘s ride from Kinderdijk. Nineteen windmills, built around 1740, stand as a part of a larger water management system to protect the land below sea level from floods.
On the way to Rotterdam, I passed this surreal terrain during sunset that looked like I am doing an African safari. Kilometers of golden yellow sand mixed with dark green grass and few of what looked like swamps, the red sun setting behind the mountains, then all off the sudden I see a pack cows moving towards the middle of the road blocking it, while looking at me weirdly (do cows have facial expressions? Well, I could certainly feel their deadly looks) . I remember joking to myself that it would be funny if my trip ends here because I was attacked by a pack of wild cows.
Earlier that day, I passed by this sign and I remember thinking how funny is the picture, but now I know: the cows in the Netherlands are definitely crazy and that was my warning.
In Rotterdam, I took my very first one day break and finally got to sleep until 11 am in the morning before I went out to get some delicious Indonesian food and explore the city.
Coming this far by bicycle was an incredible achievement that made me enjoy the break even more and see it as a reward for all the hard work. So far, I have done about 800km, which meant I still have about another 200km until Belgium. I decide to ride along the coast and pass across the Oosterschelde Barrier. A nine-kilometer-long barrier design to protect the Netherlands from flooding from the North Sea. Not only that, it has stunning sea views and a unique smell of fresh sea air while riding the bike. A breathtaking ride on a cool day that definitely made me forget the length of the road, as I didn’t even realize that I was in Belgium until few kilometers after the border.
Step 3: Belgium
At this point, I have picked up a good stamina and fully understood how to pace myself and when to take a break. I cycled more than 1000km so far and enjoyed the sights of two different countries, which was exactly what I needed because the roads starting from Belgium were not as flat as before, which meant I needed much more strength and endurance.
Belgium isn’t as big as Germany, it took me less than 24 hours from the Dutch border to the French one, crossing Belgium, so I didn’t get to explore much of the country, but I got to see the famous town of Bruges, which was awesome.
Step 4: France
The terrain in France is hilly for the most part. The country roads where cyclists are allowed were very narrow and there were no bike lanes at all, or at least none that would go along the routes that I took. Nevertheless, the landscape is some of the best I’ve seen so far. Riding in old villages that looked like preserved medieval site dating from the 11th century, through magnificent wine farms, and 2,000-year-old Roman bridges boosted the sights I saw on my trip to another level.
France is a big country, and I had more than 1000km to go until I reached the Spanish border, so I knew that it was time to slow down my pace to 50-70km per day. I started from Lille, famous for its 17th-century brick townhouses to Arras (60km), Amiens (70km), Beauvais (65km) and finally to Paris (80km) where I took a well deserved second one day break.
For the most part of this trip, I was staying in Airbnb homes every night. One of the reasons I went on this trip, is to experience being immersed in different cultures, and Airbnb helped with that. A lot of the listings are in local neighborhoods rather than the city center where you have local bars, coffee shops, bakeries, and supermarkets and also get to be a part the local life. The hosts are amazing people who are always interested in meeting others and share stories and local tips with them rather than act as a receptionist of a hotel. One night, while I was preparing the next day’s route, this cute cat jumped on my bed, gave me a few cuddles then laid down next to me, giving me the best kind of company (I chose homes with animals whenever possible and the listing is under my budget, I just love animals).
The other great thing is the fact that I can use the kitchen to cook a fresh healthy meal at the end of the day to compensate for all the calories that I burned while cycling. During the day, I eat a small meal every 2 hours and I get all my food from the supermarket. It consists for the most part of a lot of bread, cheese, peanut butter, sandwiches, juices, a bunch of sweets and sometimes I throw some healthier snacks in between.
The funny thing about eating on the street is how people react to it. I try to find a silent corner in the shadow to sit, preferably not far from a bin, but the people who pass by always give me this weird indescribable look of how dare you to lay down on the street like this and eat publically. I always made sure to clean after me and not leave any tracks behind.
After Paris, the yearning to cross another border and cover more distance were growing daily, so I tried to finish the distance left in France as soon as I could which took me 8 more days averaging 130km a day. I felt good after the break and my body has gotten used to the daily cycling pretty well.
One thing I hated about riding France are the roads. A lot of roads were well maintained, especially in the south. But I had to turn around and do an extra 20km or more on dozens of occasions because the planned route was absolutely non-ridable. The route very often starts in very good condition and then halfway in turns into a cyclist’s worst nightmare which is why France is where I got the most punctures.
What will always stick in my head about France though, is that they put Pringles in the fridge at the supermarket.. As a big Pringles lover, I find this very confusing, but I still love it.
Step 5: Spain
My two-wheeled adventure through Spain started from San Sebastian, one of the most beautiful European cities. From there, I started facing some serious elevation problems, I had the Pyrenees on left, and other steep mountains on my right, the only roads that go between the mountains and doesn’t have an impossible elevation would cut through the rain, and I chose the ladder. The craziest part of the trip wasn’t just the weather. Although It was either pouring rain or blisteringly hot, the elevation was the biggest challenge.
I haven’t really experienced any pain through my body so far, possibly cause I’ve been pacing myself right for the past weeks, but the mountains really hurt, they hurt so bad. I only had 7 gears on my bike in total which made it even harder to climb. Pushing the pedal on my lowest gear felt like pushing against a concrete wall. At some point, my bike was going rather backward and I had to get off the bike and push.
Next, to elevation, the mountains bring few other problems, such as loss of signal (in case I need help, I can’t call anyone) and the fact that I will not find a shop on the way to refill. I had to pack very heavy and bring enough supplies for the day plus a few more in case of something happens and I have to spend the night out in the open. The size of the bag and how much food I can carry before turning my bicycle into a heavy tank were very limiting factors.
Also due to the high elevation and steep hills, it was nearly impossible to find a road that leads straight to northern Morocco. I often had to cycle, in the wrong direction to avoid the steep roads. On my third day in Spain for example, I had to cycle back some of the route of the previous day from Altsasu, as I spontaneously decided to head to Pamplona instead of Logroño in order to avoid a big hill.
What goes up, eventually goes down, the downhills are the best part and going fast is so much fun and redeems all the pain. I am not sure if my GPS tracking app is accurate or not (I hope so), but I’ve managed to hit 130km/h once!
I summited two peaks of 1773m and 1524m on the same day from Soria to Madrid on a course of about 220km (my first summit on a bike ever). On that same day, I broke my backwheel after the first kilometer and had 3 flat tires which makes it the hardest and most special day of the entire trip:
Spain isn’t just about the mountains, it is definitley a country of a warmculture. The spanish are more open and outgoing than any other euopean country I’ve seen so far. The general laid-back attitude, hospitality, and easy-going lifestyle are very attractive to me. You can wander through the streets at 3am on a Tuesday and still find groups of people from different ages groups everywhere on the street having fun. The spanish food is also a treat. I am not the type of person who prefers of big meal but rather a tiny bit from everything, which make tapas a bless for me.
The Spanish beaches are considered among the finest and best in Europe and are known worldwide. It is not for nothing that a lot of visitors come to Spain for the sun and beach holiday. Once I reached Malaga in the south, Idefinitelyitley up for a special treat. I discovered some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen my entire life.
To sum it up, Spain is the country with the most diverse landscape and warmest people. Parts of the north felt like cycling in Bali, Indonesia and parts of the North felt like a hike near Nevada, USA. Best part for a cyclist is the fact that all the roads had a lot of space on the sides for cyclists and the drivers are so respectful of cyclists. The roads mostly looked like a highway:
Final Step: Morocco
This is the payoff and climax to all the hard work, commitment and pain I have gone through.
I took the ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta early in the morning, an 18.5-square-kilometre Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Africa. From the Port of Ceuta, it was a 5km route until I reached the Moroccan-Spanish border, got my passport stamped and then made my way towards my first Moroccan stop: Tétouan. The Moroccan border security was not very pleased with me snapping photos at the border, but I still got one sneaky victory photo celebrating my arrival before they started screaming at me:
Cycling in Morocco is a completely different experience. There isn’t a widely spread cycling culture in Morocco and I was uncertain to how the drivers would behave towards a slow cyclist carrying a lot of bags. That uncertainty faded away after the first few kilometers as there was a large bike lane for the most part of the route and the drivers were very friendly. Very quickly I realised that Morocco is also very mountainous, more than I would’ve thought so.
Also as anyone would guess, Morocco is very hot and there isn’t a lot of shadows on the road.
I was very tired by now and I wanted to reach my last destination quicker so I can finally take a break from cycling. So the next morning, I left Tétouan and headed towards to famous Chefchouan, 60km away on a very mountainous road. I cycled next to small towns full of medieval architecture and past people traveling on mules, it felt like traveling during a different time.
What I found hard in Morocco is taking photos of absolutely anything. People get very aggressive whenever I pick a camera in the hand and they start covering their head with their hands. The Moroccans don’t like their pictures to be taken by strangers, even if they’re in the photo by accident or if I want to capture a wide street where they happen to be walking.
One thing I had on my bucket list for Morocco is to cycle up and down through the chaotic Medina of one city. The medinas are the historic hearts of each city in Morocco. Unfortunately, they were very crowded and the roads were very narrow that cycling there wasn’t possible.
After 60km of cycling in excitement, I finally reached my last stop: Chefchouan has officially marked the end of this journey. 4200km and 35 days of cycling have brought me here. I took a small break in Chefchouan to regenerate my strength and get some sleep. Then I took the bus to Marrakesh from where I flew to Lisbon, Portugal to close this chapter and humbling experience and begin a different adventure along the Portuguese coast.
Reflecting back on the trip, the kindness of the people that I have met definitely takes up the most part of what I recall. I remember on my second day of the trip, after cycling through the storm, I was offered a warm cup of coffee and delicious chocolate bar by a stranger, I was even asked to come inside to warm up. On the third day, I was offered apples and water and this continued all the way until Morocco. Most people were curious about where I was going especially the Dutch, they would start conversations with me at every red light.
This is how my final route turned out to be: