Europe by Bicycle

A 16-year old in1968

 

 
Preface

This is the story of my trip to Europe as a 16-year old in 1968. I wrote this account in January of 1969, after returning home, and re-edited it in April, 1986. The quotes are taken from my daily log, and little has been changed from the original account, written as a 17-year old.

Michael P. Nishimuta

Geneva was under the first snow of the winter. It started on the night of November 16th, and when the town folk awoke the next morning, a deep, soft blanket covered the countryside. I finished strapping the last of my equipment on my bicycle and began the long fifty miles to Chambery, France.  
 

        As the cars in the street passed me, I was sprayed with a strong slush of dirty snow, slowing me into a painful, methodic fight against the cold. The narrow racing tires failed to grip the road, and the slush began turning to ice on the spokes, gears, brakes, and chain. My toes became numbed by the wet snow which had soaked through my sneakers, and my fingers ached. Onward I cycled, my thoughts drifting home.

 

 
         What would I be doing if I were there now? What were my closest friends doing? I'd probably be celebrating my 17th birthday by going out for a pizza with my friends. Right now they were in school, sitting in their war chairs studying while I struggled through snow some 5,000 miles from home in France. Sixty-two days of travel were behind me, but if I stuck to my plan there were still two months and 1,000 miles of cycling before I'd be home again. I stared into the bleak, white, landscape, thinking of a warm bed, hot food, and my friends.  
 

            It was a five-month, 3,000 mile bicycle trip that took me through 13 European countries: Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, France, England, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. It all started at the World Scout Jamboree in Idaho, in 1967, when a Swedish scoutmaster invited us to join him for a visit to the land of the midnight sun, a 100-mile hike along the "Kungsleden," the "Kings Way," above the Arctic circle. I immediately said "yes," and was determined to make the trip happen. Having graduated from high school at the age of 16, I still had a few years before the reality of college or the Vietnam draft were upon me. I decided if I were going to spend $300 to travel to Sweden, I should stay a few more months and see more of Europe.  I began planning the adventure of my life.

 

 
          I wanted to tour Europe on motorcycle; my father wanted me to take the train; and mother wanted me to ride a bicycle. We compromised on mom's plan, as usual. Half of the necessary $1,100 would come from my own savings, the rest as a loan from my grandfather. I gathered books, travel brochures, photographs, and mountains of maps. Endless nights I studied the countries, the monetary systems, customs, languages, and routes in the smallest detail. My plan was to buy a bicycle when I started cycling in Sweden, and sell it when I ended my trip in Luxembourg.

 

 
         I took two surplus Army backpacks and sewed them together to make saddlebags. With my old three-speed racer I started warm-up trips of ten miles, working up to fifty miles in eight hours. Everything around my hometown in Southwest Oklahoma was flat. I ran miles every day, knowing I would need endurance to climb the long mountain passes. Besides my tent, sleeping bag and some essential clothes, I had little else with me.

 

 
          I remember the first day of cycling well. The sun was shining and the birds singing merrily as I left Stockholm, heading south. I was riding high on my new ten-speed Monarch racing bike, which I had christened "Wendy" after a girl I had a crush on and the popular song at the time: "who's reaching out to capture a rainbow, who's reaching out to capture a song..." My logbook that day reads: "This is the life!" With my luggage securely fastened and water bottle filled, each morning for four months I arose at the crack of dawn and cycled fifty miles in five hours. I carried bread, butter, sausage and cheese, and stopped to buy milk and fruit for lunch. Southward I cycled through the beautiful forests of Sweden, in the evenings exploring the towns or swapping adventures with the many interesting students I met in the youth hostels. Within a week I was staring across the Baltic Sea to Denmark. I left Sweden apprehensively, wondering how I would do with a new language barrier, a new currency, and a new land.

 

 
                I left Oklahoma with my airline tickets paid for, and carried $720 in small traveler's checks. I cashed them sparingly as needed, and when crossing borders, exchanged all the cash I had. Most often I spent the nights in youth hostels, inexpensive dormitory-style lodging for students, which ranged in price from 32 cents to $1 per night. Guests contribute to the upkeep by doing small chores, carry their own sheet-sleeping sacks, and the hostel provides mattress, pillow, and blankets. The larger hostels provided meals for as little as 25 cents, but most often I prepared my own sandwiches. The traveler's youth hostel pass was his badge of pride, since it was stamped at each hostel he stayed at. I had also made arrangements to stay with many Boy Scout friends I had met, and often put up my tent when there was no other place to stay.

 

 
             There were three classes of travelers: the luxury class was that group of millionaires and executives who traveled by private car and jet, sleeping in the finest hotels and dining in luxurious restaurants. I envied their dining habits, but knew I was seeing Europe better than they. The second  class, economy, were those who traveled on a budget of $5 to $10 per day, using Land Rover, Citroen, motorcycle or bicycle. The third class is what the travelers referred to as the "starvation" budget, hitch-hiking wherever they could and spending only one or two dollars a day. They usually slept out in a sleeping bag and lived on bread, wine, and fruit. I found myself between the second and third class, having a firm budget for food and lodging of $2.00 per day. The third-class travelers had ingenious ways of making and saving money. In Stockholm and Istanbul, a quart of blood fetched $5.00. In Paris, students sold copies of the International Herald Tribune to pick up some money. I met a boy from Chicago who hitch-hiked through North Africa for five months with only a piece of plastic on which he slept.

 

 
             Sometimes the mode of transportation wasn't pleasant. My diary from September 16th, the day I entered Germany reads: "Strong winds all the way. It started pouring down rain just before Flensberg. When I arrived in town I asked directions at a gas station. Pulling back onto the street, my wet tires met a slick street car rail and down we went, taking four pieces of flesh from my leg, spraining my wrist, and covering me with mud from head to toe. I had just started out again when a lady in a passing car yelled at me in German. After an inventory, I discovered my bag containing passports, maps, and other important things was laying in a mud puddle about a half mile behind me.

             I started out again, wet and mad, when the rear wheel suddenly locked up. One of my hiking boots, dangling by the shoestrings, had gotten caught in the spokes of the rear wheel, sadly bending the luggage carrier and several spokes. I pulled of the street to fix it, but it was so badly tangled I had to cut the boot loose from the wheel. Pulling the knife out, I slashed my left index finger, and the blood from my right leg was pouring down my leg, as a passerby pointed out to me. After bandaging myself up, I started off again, now an hour late. After asking five people for directions, I found the youth hostel hidden in the trees, clearly not marked by signs. Bathed, ate, wrote, and slept. And this wasn't Friday the 13th!

 

 
           The second week of October found me cycling along the Blue Danube in Austria, along vineyards ripe with lush grapes. As hazy mountains loomed in the distance, I sped into Vienna, the city of song. I checked into one of the three youth hostels in the crowded city, a crossroads of activity. On the bulletin board were many notices: "WANTED - female hitching partner to London, apply room 105, John, New Zealand," or "HAVE CAR WILL TRAVEL, wanted three to share expenses to Paris," or "FOR SALE - Australian down sleeping bag: 625 Austrian Shillings or will trade for a good pair of shoes."

 

 
            I shared a room with two Egyptian cyclists, a student from Prague, two hitch-hikers from Canada, a Japanese student, and a Greek-speaking South African. In the common room, young people from every nation shared a song in English: "Lord I'm five hundred miles away from home." In the kitchen I spied a familiar face, and he recognized me, but trying to remember where we met last was difficult. Checking back, we had met in Copenhagen two months ago. Chances are, we would meet again on the road.

 

 
            After washing my very dirty clothes, I sat down to talk with a pair of Japanese students who had taken an exciting seen-day train ride on the Trans-Siberian railway from Japan to Europe. On the table lay a copy of "How to see Europe on $5 a day." Although $5 was above my budget, the book provided great tips on inexpensive restaurants and self-guided tours of the major cities.

 

 
            For hours I conversed with interesting, intelligent, well-traveled young people from backgrounds I could never have imagined. To us, traveling was our window to the world, our best means of education, and we were eager to meet and talk with every stranger we found. To these young people, traveling from Oslo to Rome, then to Berlin or London on a whim was nothing unusual. Our stories were exciting, and it was an exciting time also.

 

 
             Fifty days prior, Soviet and other Eastern bloc military forces invaded and occupied Czeckoslovakia, thirty miles to the East. Thousands of Czech citizens, many of the students, were out of the country on vacation in the West. Vienna became a city of exiles, agonizing over what to do. Many were afraid to return home to a hostile government, afraid that they would never be able to travel west again. Some were making the difficult decision to never return home. Up and down the city, the sidewalk cafes were filled with students discussing, debating, and wondering what to do.

 

 
              I left Austria cycling south through the Tyrol region toward Yugoslavia. A truck driver offered me a ride, so I loaded my bike onto the back of his truck. I had not planned to visit this country, but had been given the name of a family to visit, and I also wanted to circumnavigate the remaining mountains of Austria. Once again, a change of currency, language and land. Crossing a national border wan an exciting highlight and change of pace, since I really didn't know what to expect. Yugoslavia I found to be vastly different than the rest of Europe. Not a solid East European ally, but still socialistic, and very poor. The landscape was devoid of the signs of materialism and wealth so apparent in the West. Steam-belching black locomotives on bare tracks replaced the clean electric trains of the West. But the people of Yugoslavia welcomed me into their homes with a special generosity and kindness.

 

 
              In the University town of Ljubljana, in the mountainous north, I met students who were eager to talk to an American. Word spread of my adventures and soon I was the center of attention on campus. The students were able to discuss well, and in fine English, subjects ranging from our involvement in Vietnam to girls, cars, and current events in Czechoslovakia. Here on a summer's day picnic, an idealistic American youth from a military town in the middle of the USA met an idealistic young couple filled with the Communist ideology. Never before had I doubted, much less had to debate, why America was defending Vietnam. These were the first truly anti-American views I had every been exposed to. I learned much that day.

 

 
             Yugoslavia has always been a travel bargain, as my diary from October 17th confirms: "We walked around Ljubljana, the third largest city in the country. A good order of French fries is only eight cents! We had a beer downtown for 10 cents and then went to the university cafeteria. For nine cents I had a piece of dark bread, an Italian salad, a big plate of potato and hamburger mash, and a cup of tea. As we were leaving I noticed a bar in the student union. I asked Martin what the minimum age for drinking was. He impressed upon me that there was no age limit in this country by buying me a vodka, and for only twelve cents! With hot meals for nine cents and drinks for 12 cents, I could break even in this country."

 

 
             I left Ljubljana in a van filled with students for the coast, and the boarder city of Trieste, lying on the Mediterranean. Somehow I had entered Yugoslavia without a visa, not knowing one was needed, and now I found myself detained at the border to Italy. Everything I owned was searched, and after several hours of questioning they let me go. Now, running a day late, and wanting to spend at least two nights in Venice, I decided to combine the next two days of cycling. I left Trieste in the late morning with the sun shining and a warm breeze flowing off the sea. With my saddlebags centered over the rear wheel, tent, sleeping bag and food firmly attached, and map in hand, I set out along the warm cost of Italy. The road climbed the steep cliffs rising from the water, and far out at sea I could see fishing ships and liners trailing white wakes against the emerald green sea.

            As the day waned and the road leveled, I increased my speed. It was now seven in the evening, and I had already cycled 70 miles. Since I had no light, I never cycled after dark, but I needed to continue on. I put on my bright yellow raincoat so I could be seen and cycled with fury. Soon in the distance a mountain of color and light arose from the sea. Before I knew it, I was on the two-mile causeway leading to the magical city. At eight p.m., after covering 92 miles in eight hours, my longest of the trip, I looked at the map, pointed to Venice, and said "Here I am!"

 

 
              On Friday, October 25th, I woke with some apprehension. It was cold, and I wanted to pull the blanket over my head and believe I was somewhere warm, but I knew that today I would have to climb the Ofenpass, between Santa Maria and Zernez, Switzerland. For the first time on the trip, I put on my nylon ski pants instead of my green Scout shorts. Anywhere else 20 miles would take one and a half hours, but today it would make a full day's work. After breakfast of bread, butter, orange marmalade and milk I started. Immediately the road climbed steeply. I was now in tenth gear, pushing on the down stroke and pulling, with the aid of toe straps, on the upstroke. Sweat wetted my chest as I tried to get my 200 pounds of equipment to defy gravity. I pulled off the sweatshirt and jacket, but the clear, ice-cold air turned my sweat into ice. Again I mounted and rode: 100 meters, rest. On again, I tried to set a pace I could maintain: push, breath, pull, breath, push, and gain: 200, 300, 400 meters. The road switched back and rose again; my head became dizzy. The sound of cowbells in the distance clanged incessantly. 500, 600, 700 meters, a car passes me on the narrow road and the driver stared incredulous. At 1000 meters, more than 3000 feet, the clod air of the mountain, forced into my lungs, burned like fire. For more than two hours I climbed, pushed, rested, and sweated. Then the incline eased; I could stay in tenth gear and continue without rest. Turning a bend, I saw the white cross on red, the Swiss flag, flying from the top of the pass.

 

 
             Reaching the top station at 6,800 feet, I fell of the bicycle onto the ground, closed my eyes and gasped with pain. Camera-toting tourists gathered around and asked "did you bicycle up here?" The innkeeper on the pass exclaimed in broken English he had never seen a bicycle on the pass. Now I could look back at Italy, and feel a rush of pride, accomplishment and relief. From here, it would truly be all downhill.

 

 
              I spent three weeks in this small country, absorbing the magnificent and breathtaking majesties of the world, the Alps. The passes were covered with snow, but down in the sunny valleys, belled cows fed on green pastures in picture-postcard weather. In those 21 days I visited every beautiful spot I could, from St. Moritz, to Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, and Geneva. November led into December, and the snow fell, forcing me to take my bicycle on the train as I traveled from southern France to Paris. Crossing the English channel at Boulogne was my first ferry ride since leaving Sweden three months prior. Now I was in England.

 

 
           The ability to ask questions and have a reply in English was almost a shock after four months of pantomime and sign language, and so was adjusting to the traffic traveling on the left. On my first day in England, I pulled out into an intersection after looking the wrong way first, and caused an accident. With a shaken confidence in left-handed traffic, I set my bike aside and took the train.

 

 
            I had many friends to visit in England, but only two weeks. In London one night my friends took me for a late night visit downtown. As we passed the towers of Big Ben, we saw the the light atop the tower, indicating that Parliament was in session. Excited at this rare chance to see the rulers of the United Kingdom meeting at this odd hour, we decided to sit in for a few minutes. We approached the historic building and entered the visitors gallery of the House of Lords. As Big Ben's hands struck midnight, we watched the heart of the British Empire working. It was a royal treat for a small town boy from America.

 

 
             Now only weeks until Christmas, London was ablaze with festive decoration. The rich shops of Regent street were brightly arrayed and the streets were crowded with holiday shoppers. I said goodbye to my Scout friends in England and set out on the last leg of my cycling journey. "Mr Voller took me up to Dover at 9:00 am. I wheeled my loaded bike on the ferry and was off to the continent at 10:00. Arrived in Boulogne at 11:30 and met a Canadian cyclist while were were processing through customs. He split south and I headed east. With no map, I wandered for two hours in the hilly country. I couldn't find any road signs at all. Just as I thought I was really lost I found a bookstore and got a map, and found out I was really lost. Three hours later I pitched my tent in a forest near God knows where, whether in France, or Belgium, I still don't know. Read by candle-light until no more candle. Slept fully clothed because of the cold."

 

 
            I arrived in Luxembourg on the 18th of December. A heavy snow was falling as my plane lifted off toward the Bahamas. It wasn't the snow in my eyes, but tears of sorrow to be leaving Europe, my friend, and happiness at returning to friends and family. I was saying goodbye to an experience that would forever shape my life. The emotions were all unforgettable: the pride of conquering Swiss mountains with a bicycle, the contentment of lazily cruising down a sunny Swedish road, the excitement of speeding off a summit pass, the first feeling of a young man that he's on his own, and he's 16, with the world by the tail. American tourists thought I was crazy, European hosts welcomed me, friends at home envied me, and my parents surely worried about me, but I grew confident as each day passed. Oh yes, I brought my bike home with me. So if you see a smile flash through your town soon, it's just Wendy and I warming up for our next great trip!