Adventures in Bicycling

‘It seemed a good idea at the time,’ Rob Neillands on a unique 1,000-mile cycling adventure.

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One of the popular laments among today’s travel writers is that nobody really travels any more – the jet plane and the hotel chain have turned travel into tourism – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Adventure is still possible. Take the little band assembled at the start of this article. Patricia, 44, a Civil Servant; George, 67 and retired; and myself, pushing 50. Our departure point, Antalya in Southern Turkey; destination, Jerusalem, 1,000 miles away; method of travel, bicycles.

These are touring bicycles, light, strong, multi-geared, but cycles change tourism into travel. They demand effort and force you to accept overnight accommodation that would be spurned by a self-respecting vagrant. They attract the not-always-welcome attention of the local people, but keep pedalling and they will get you there in the end. As to motivation for the journey, I can only say that it seemed a good idea at the time.

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The first two days were on fairly flat roads and through towns where Western tourists are not unknown, a gentle introduction to the rigours ahead. The finest remains of ancient Greece lie in Turkey, so we picnicked in the great amphitheatre at Aspendos and stayed one night among the jumbled ruins of Side. Our tours of the sites were dogged by furtive gents flogging recently-assembled ‘antiques’ and what they described as kointz. ‘You want kointz? I haf Greek kointz, Roman kointz …’

We had little need of kointz, ancient or modern, for the living so far was cheap; pounds 3 a night for dinner, bed and breakfast, in a room with a bath, though Turkish accommodation varies, to say the least.

Fifty miles a day brought us to our first major stop, the marvellous fortress city of Alanya, once a city of the Seljuk Turks. We paused for half a day here to see the galley port, and from a high point in the citadel, the ominously-named Ada-Atagi, the ‘place from which men are thrown’, we looked out at the looming snow-tipped peaks of the Taurus Mountains which lay across our path.

The road here drops sheer away for hundreds of feet into the sea and we narrowly avoided an early fatality when a lorry cut in towards us so that the driver’s mate, yelling ‘My brother, my brother’, could offer me a banana. Fortunately the traffic was light, and the drivers usually considerate. On the other hand, the gradients are steep and the road rough.

It took three full days to cross the Taurus Mountains, sleeping one cold night on the beach at Kalediran, and another in a small hotel at Anamur, a town where a most splendid Armenian castle is set by the sea, with lots of little turtles swimming in the moat. Then came more mountains and at last one long descent, an exhilarating swoop off the Taurus into Silifke and on to the plain of Cilicia. The road ran past the beautiful Maiden’s Castle, which lies just offshore, and a long day’s ride over mercifully flat roads brought us to Erdemli, where the ‘hotel’ was rather more of a hovel.

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On now, to famous Tarsus. There is not much left of St Paul’s ‘no mean city’, except the battered gateway where Anthony first met Cleopatra, and here the bad times began. This road is the E5, that great trans-continental lorry route which begins at Dunkirk, a narrow road crammed with clapped-out, overloaded lorries heading for Syria, Jordan and the Gulf. We battled down it to the east, deafened by blasting horns, flinching at the thought of receiving a 20-ton truck in the spine.

At least the country was dramatic, for this road crosses the Plain of Issus, where Alexander the Great thrashed the Persians in 333 BC, through the modern city of Adana, then under the great Crusader castles at Yilan and Toprakkale, and brought us out of the traffic maelstrom at last, into the town of Dortyol. The hotel at Dortyol had been recommended to us by a cheery Turk we met in a cay house, and our arrival was certainly auspicious. We rode in at the head of a considerable procession which included the local policeman, the town schoolmaster, a host of bullet-headed schoolboys and, a fixture on these occasions, the town moron.

South of Dortyol, past Iskenderun, the mountains began again. Another long day, climbing the Red Mountain through the great pass of the Syrian Gates and over the plain brought us to the delightful city of Antioch, the present Antakya, 500 miles from our starting point, and in urgent need of a day off.

Antioch was a great city of antiquity, once a capital of the Selucid Empire and much later a famous Crusader principality. Today, it has a fine mosaic museum and retains the little church where St Peter established the first-ever Christian community in 47 AD. We spent most of our time wandering round the bazaar – straight out of the Arabian Nights and the best one we came across in our travels – drinking endless cups of tea with the traders. We could cheerfully have lingered in Antakya, but we had to get on, over more mountains, past the once-famous groves of Daphne, for a last night in Turkey in the little town of Yayladagi, which has 10 busy barber-shops and not a single working lavatory. The hotel here came second on our ‘pits of the trip’ scale, but worse was to follow.

Syria and culture-revulsion hit us at about the same time. We had now spent two weeks on the road and we were tired of answering the same questions, of headwinds and squalor, of the murderous traffic – we wanted toast, soft-boiled eggs, hot water, and straight answers. Instead we got Arabia.

Arabia got off to a good start. The Syrian border guards were only mildly amazed at our bicycles, the countryside was beautiful and scented with mimosa, and we got through Latakia and down the coast to Tartus without too much trouble. Even so, accomplishing the simplest task, from getting a soft drink to finding the right road could not be done without hassle, often from hostile young men carrying Kalashnikov rifles.

The food was only so-so and we were now shedding weight rapidly; I lost 20 pounds on the journey and we spent much of our time telling each other of great meals we had eaten in the past, or reading aloud the more fanciful bits in our guidebooks. Perhaps it was the bicycles, but we didn’t find those friendly locals or those sidewalk cafes and clean country hotels which these books detail in such abundance.

In Tartus we shared lunch and much arak with some Saudis and in the evening took a boat to the little offshore island of Arwad, getting gloriously lost there in the maze of alleyways and ripped off by the boatman on the way back. Riding the road to Homs gave us a great view of Krak des Chevaliers, that prototype for every child’s sandcastle, and in Homs we took another day off to visit the beautiful, butter-coloured ruins of Palmyra, 60 miles further to the east, before setting out to crank south across the desert to Damascus. After 70 miles uphill, we arrived in the little town of Nebk, where our arrival on bicycles provoked a riot.

Damascus, somewhat to our surprise, was fascinating. We awarded ourselves two days off to visit the beautiful mosque of the Omayads, the tomb of Saladin, the various museums and, best of all, the great covered souks and the ‘Street called Straight’. Once off the bicycles even the people turned pleasant. Besides, it’s hard to feel threatened in a place where the paratroopers walk about holding hands.

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And so to Jordan. Jordan, we assured ourselves, could only be better. The bicycles did for us again though, and it took five hours to get across the frontier. The first town, Jarash, although a tourist centre with magnificent Roman ruins, had no hotel, and our 50-mile trek over the hills to Amman lasted until midnight and was enlivened by an attempted mugging and lavish amounts of that Jordanian speciality, stone-throwing.

On the other hand, our trip south to Petra, the rose-red city, almost made the whole trip worthwhile. Twenty-two days after leaving Antalya, with 1,000 miles completed, we left Amman and sailed down the mountains into the Jordan valley where, at the King Hussein Bridge, we hoped to cross into Israel for the last 30 miles to Jerusalem. We had our West Bank passes, our visas were in order, and if all else failed, we had charm, right?
Once again, it was the bicycles. One look at them and the immigration officer went demented. If we attempted to cross with bicycles, it would, apparently, provoke a border incident, retaliation by the Israelis, possibly the Third World War. We pleaded in turn, but to no avail.

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Well, we were not the first travellers denied entrance to the Holy Land by Higher Authority. It happened to Moses, so we did what he did; we rode our bikes back up the mountain and round to the peak of Mont Nebo. From there we looked west, across the Jordan valley, over the blue, salt-fringed expanse of the Dead Sea to where, beyond the narrow green slash of the river, we could see our destination, the glinting towers of Jerusalem the Golden, unattainable today by travellers on bicycles.Two days later, having air-freighted the bikes home from Amman, we bumped across the bridge into Israel, where the Israeli baggage-searchers seemed quite unfazed by thoughts of searching a cycle. Too late, we cursed, and took a bus to Jerusalem where, inevitably, there were other problems. But we made it. I don’t think I’ll do it again though.

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Paris Removes Her Make Up

Among meter-maids, markets, sangfroid and sex shops, Michael Watkins finds a heart of gold.

meter maid policewolman giving a parking ticket in Paris Marais district

meter maid policewolman giving a parking ticket in Paris Marais district

It was April in Paris. Spring was in the air, but not, alas, in the Parisian’s step. The old man shuffled towards Sacre Coeur, dispensing breadcrumbs to the sparrows which settled upon his shoulder. He had a good face, creased as yesterday’s croissant and kind; but an air of neglect clung to him as mould does to old leather.

Leaving the birdman of Montmartre, I disdained the frontal assault on Sacre Coeur, favouring instead the sheer north col which has claimed countless wheezy victims. You set off from the Rue Foyatier, outside the Ecole Garcons, arriving at the summit 264 steps later.

The basilica gleamed denture-white as Paris dissolved into a morning haze, and the touts were out in force. The Risen Christ was a thing of wonder, but the masonry seemed lifeless; the fabric had not yet absorbed 100 years of prayer. I took exception to the notice ‘Entrez seulement si vous voulez prier’, which struck me as discriminatory. There’s some that likes to sit and pray, and others that just likes to sit.

However dismissive the guide-books (‘pseudo’, ‘jam-packed’, ‘overpriced’), I still find Montmartre fulfils my dreams of Paris. By which I mean all the gooey-lovely-schmaltzy stuff: chequered table-cloths in restaurants, the Place du Tertre jam-packed with pseudo Chagalls flogging their overpriced canvases, tourists swirling by in awed slow motion, palette-bright faces of art students emerging from their garrets to storm the boulangerie. I never starved in a garret, and so perhaps missed much.

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Conversely, I didn’t miss anything by shunning the delights of Pigalle which seems to survive on sex and Love-Burgers. Well, someone had to think of it: Un Amour de Burger or, if you are insatiable, a Double-Love Burger, chips and milk-shake. John Courage ale was on tap at the Cockney Tavern; while, at Le Tete d’Eau, ‘recherche hostessess’ were available to Visa and Diners’ Club card-holders. ‘Life Sho’ flickered a neon sign lasciviously, but the establishment looked more dead than alive.

Art and travel aficionados propose one stern admonishment: be selective. But I take no heed. Gluttonously do I devour a gallery; my approach to a city is similarly wolverine. Thus did I set out from the Hotel Westminster in the Rue de la Paix each morning to walk, bus or Metro for eight hours, saturating myself in this most elegant and arrogant of cities.

I stood at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, trying to cross to the Quai des Tuileries. The traffic was in full stampede, remorseless, and I knew that by the time I made it I’d need another shave. You could die and decompose on the pavement before anyone would stop. I made off in another direction, towards Les Halles and the Pompidou Centre; the first has marginally less grace than a Portacabin, the second slightly more charm than an oil refinery. Except that charm passed away with Piaf, Chevalier and Degas.

At Les Halles a drunk detached himself from a group of winos to fill his cap with fountain water, which he then discharged at a passing housewife. It was an action devoid of anything but malice.

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It may just have been that lunch hadn’t yet been served. For, as Orwell noted when he was down and out in Paris, ‘most French are in a bad temper until they have eaten their lunch.’

Scuttling across to the Left Bank I made for Saint-Germaine-des-Pres where – dodging the Cafe de Flore and Deux-Magots which, lacking the physical presence of Sartre, looked merely self-conscious – I settled on a bollard at the corner of the Rue Jacques Gallot. Fourteen Sorbonne students were making music, boldly, brassily and terribly badly; which was smashing because, just as I was on the verge of abandoning hope, it incubated the Parisians’ pre-luncheon smiles.

You should, according to teacher, devote three weeks to the Louvre, I did it in two hours and didn’t miss a trick: Leonardo’s ‘Gioconda’ and the ‘Venus’ included. Not to mention those acres of swooning Rubens flesh, Bellini’s ‘Portrait of a Man’, the Guardis and the Canalettos.

I stood beneath the Arc de Triomphe, hushed and respectful with schoolchildren at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier; I walked the Champs-Elysees, resting in the symmetrically divided Tuileries Gardens; I felt the implacable, glorious weight of Notre Dame and was moved by the memorial to one million dead of the British Empire of whom most rest in France.

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I took the Bateaux-Mouches ‘romantic cruise’, including a splendid dinner, feeling that they shouldn’t have gone to the trouble of floodlighting Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower just for me. On another day I was mightily impressed by Les Invalides where Napoleon’s ashes lie in a series of six coffins. I hadn’t realized there was so much of him.

I even dined at the famous Maxim’s. It was quite an experience – as it should have been for about pounds 1 a mouthful. The art nouveau appealed to me and there was so much stained glass I didn’t know whether to get on with my pigeonneau farci or pray.

Dressed up like a dog’s dinner, I was placed in the Grande Salle, a signal honour, but on balance I reckoned the waiters were better value than the clients: they wouldn’t have gone all sneery if you’d wanted garlic on your ice-cream. Some of the customers had piggy manners, discharging cigar smoke over their coquilles, and occasionally disrespectful to their female companions, allowing their fingers to do rather too much walking, as if they were reading the Yellow Pages.

Which was all very well, this slavish dedication to the obvious; but I’d also like to mention a few of my favourite things. Like the market in the Rue de Seine, where I slipped wodges of Tomme, St Albrey and Reblochon from Barthelemy’s into my plastic bag and was confronted by asparagus the size of Arizona cacti.

Like the meter-maids (aubergines, as they are known) decked out in powder-blue haute-couture-ish uniforms, with saucy hats on top; and the seats reserved for mutiles de guerre on the Metro. Like the polished jewel dazzle of the glass in Saint-Chapelle, founded it is said on the sale of the Crown of Thorns to Louis IX; or the classical purity and balance of Place Vendome.

Or the Rodin Museum, all peace and tranquillity in the Rue de Varenne, housing some of the loveliest pieces: ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Thinker’, ‘Lady Sackville-West’, ‘The Hand of God’. Or backstage at the Opera to watch a rehearsal of Giselle, somehow more haunting than the live performance, perhaps because the nerve-ends were less prettily grease-painted.

No inventory is complete without a few hates. Franglais, that bastard argot of le weekend, le cocktail, les girls. Algerian beggars barefoot in the park. The Moulin Rouge-Lido-Crazy Horse. Range Rovers, so unsmart in London, so chic in Paris. Morabito’s window display of crocodile golf-bags. Arrogance.

Yet my recurring anxiety in Maigret’s city was the Mysterious Case of Gay Paree. Whatever happened to it? Was it fact or fiction, reality or merely a myth born of desperation?

There had to be a clue; then suddenly I knew where to look. Among the Impressionists, of course. And there, in the pavilion of the Jeu de Paume, among the Manets and the Monets, Van Goghs and Cezannes, I solved the riddle: Paree was no gayer than anywhere else. There it was, in Lautrec’s ‘Jane Avril’, in Renoir’s ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’, an impression of gaiety, the mask worn by every clown.

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The discovery made me like Paris more; she was flesh and blood after all. She was almost one of us. Anyway, such was my theory as I ate that evening at Les Jacobins in the Marche St Honore. The food was delicious, the price reasonable, Madame was warmly solicitous. It was a small restaurant, a family place with 20 couverts. And into these modest surroundings dropped a party of three couples, French, American, English, in their late teens, early twenties.

They were delighted with each other and with life. They were glazed with hope, their armour untarnished; and when they looked at one another, their glances held no side. Their talk was of Paris and their love for her; and that, more than theory or legwork, was good enough for me.

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