A very close school friend (Katha) of mine is now with her sister (Sarah) on an adventurous bike tour along the Atlantic ocean in Spain. They started in Freiburg (Germany), the city they live in, and went through Switzerland to Italy, France and finally to Spain. I thought that it was an impressive travel plan and was wondering how they were doing and asked them whether I can interview them to publish it on the website of AEGEE, as AEGEE is mostly about traveling and bringing Europe together through traveling. So maybe their kind of traveling can inspire you. I learned a lot in the interview about different cultures, different ways of living and most importantly living and traveling sustainably. Even during corona. I hope you enjoy your read. I certainly enjoyed interviewing the two impressive women.
Lavanya: Great that you take your time to talk about your travel during corona times with me today. Maybe we just kick start with a very simple question. What was it that took you on the journey? Why did you go on this trip at the first place? Were you tired of corona and the various restrictions?
Sarah: It is a pleasure for us, and it is nice that you are interested in our trip. I just knew that I wanted to do something different after my studies, than starting working right away. Therefore, I postponed my working plans. And Katha just finished at the same time as I did. We talked about doing something together. And that is when our travel plans emerged. We had the plans already before corona. First, we wanted to buy a mini bus and rearrange it to a travel bus with everything in it. But then we figured, that traveling with a travel bus is not that much in line with our more sustainable way of living. So, we decided to travel with the bike instead.
We read into traveling with bikes and at the end we packed our stuff and went on the trip. And not at the end because of corona but more despite corona.
Lavanya: That sounds great and was a good idea, I would say. You talked about your sustainable way of living. Your way of traveling is indeed very sustainable. Can you maybe tell more about how you travel? How exactly are you traveling? How do you live? And do you miss a bit luxury and comfort from time to time?
Katharina: I can give it a try. We both bought a second hand bike and kick started our trip from Freiburg with lots of luggage. Depending on the temperature we cycle 30 to 100 kilometers a day and take lots of breaks in between. We do not want to just arrive at a certain place. It is more of a drifting around and diving into the country and to experience the people, who live there. Sometimes we take breaks for days. At the beginning we wild camped a lot. But at a certain point we decided to let wild camping be as we became a bit afraid of it. Currently we mainly ask people whether we can camp in their gardens. And that is going well so far. And on some rough days we grant ourselves a hostel. Despite that we also couch surfed a lot and tried “Warmshowers”, which is an app where bikers can stay overnight at a certain host´s place.
And we cook with a gasoline stove. And today we got some vegetables and fruits from ToGoodToGo, which is a great opportunity to get some free food and save it from the bin.
Lavanya: And do you miss something in this way of living?
Sarah: Well, on days when it rains a lot and things just don´t work out quite well (which is quite often the case) we wish ourselves a car with a nice little, tiny house on the trailer, where we can just put everything into it. But then we are just glad again to be so independent and slow pace with the bike. We really have the feeling to be in the countries we are traveling and have a lot of contact with the locals. The contact was never so strong as now.
And if I miss something from time to time, it is a nice, cozy warm bed. That is why we grant ourselves some hostel stays and enjoy them a lot!
Lavanya: So, you miss the simple things in life the most. And did corona cross your travel plans in any way? Would you still go on your trip despite the corona travel restrictions? Or is it just too risky? You already hinted towards a mostly smooth trip so far..
Sarah: Well, first you are right. We miss the small, ordinary things in life the most. It is nice to learn to worship them more through our travel. I realized, that we really do not need that much.
And to the travel restrictions: All over the web we read that you need tests and immigration forms. There were also rules for quarantines and so forth. But we mostly passed the borders without any drama. We then kind of learned that you do not have to take every single sentence in the web word by word. Sometimes it is just about trust and heading out.
And we would head out on the trip again with and without the pandemic, except if there is a strict curfew.
On top of that, we are traveling in such a way which makes sense during the pandemic and have the feeling that the contagiousness is smaller than when staying at home in a city. At the beginning we had the fear that we will be not welcomed by the inhabitants. We kind of worried that the people would not understand why we decided to travel in such times. But these fears dissolved already in the first few weeks. Instead we are welcomed even more heartily.
Lavanya: You really passed the borders without any problems? Really?
Sarah: Yes! We did. But admittedly, sometimes there were police staying around and we sneaked around.
Lavanya: So, you cheated sometimes as well?
Sarah: Well, our slogan: trial goes before studying (comment Lavanya: this is a German proverb. The proverb in original German is: Probieren geht übers Studieren.)
Lavanya: Well.. or was it sometimes also just the case, that the police waved you through and were not that strict after all?
Sarah: Well, they ignored us more I must say.
Katharina: Hmm, not always.. once a policeman asked us for a corona test, as we entered an one-way road in the wrong direction. We did not have one obviously. But he then just was nice and told us if we are out of the region after the night, we can just pass.
Lavanya: That was nice of him! That kind of shows the weariness of the population from the pandemic I would say. But thankfully the immunization campaign is on full swing.
And I think the police did understand your call for adventure.
Let´s stick to the topic “traveling during corona”. You have traveled quite a lot in the past. Do you think that there is a difference between traveling during corona and traveling without corona?
Katharina: Well, the pandemic is a daily topic, but not more than at home in Germany. What comes in addition of course is that every country has different regulations, but you can figure them out quite easily.
One constraint we encountered though, were the closed camping sites, which made our travel a bit tricky. But now, almost everything is open again and in Spain even the internal spaces are open. So, all in all, we did not experience a great difference to traveling during corona and traveling without corona. But that may also be just because of our way of traveling.
Lavanya: So, with a bike and a tent you are just more independent! That speaks for the bike as a travel vehicle.
Sarah: Yes, it kind of does! And regarding your question. Corona was also kind of the trigger why we asked the people within the countries whether we can camp in their gardens and fields. We may have not done this if there would have been some open camping places. But now we kind of think if people will be willing to do this also in normal times, it will be a great opportunity to get to know the locals and the country even more thoroughly.
Lavanya: That sounds cool! Did you make new acquaintances this way? And did you get to know the culture and the country more on an individual basis through this way of camping? Or to put it more frankly, does this kind of camping give you a better opportunity to dive into the culture of the country? And how did you experience the people? Were they open minded?
Sarah: Yes, for sure. In Italy it was often the case, like you mentioned. We spent two days at the Lago maggiore with a young climbing group, cooked polenta and sang Italian songs. In Italy we were often offered homemade, national food and once we also got a crash course in domestic tea herbs. In France the people were less hearty than in Italy, but were still very helpful. To give an example: a married couple once completely reconditioned our bikes, as they were bikers themselves. That was really kind. Now we are in Spain. And we get a lot of homemade food and really get to know the basque cuisine and culture and their way of living more that way. Today we asked a man for water from his house and he offered us cider and we then just had a talk about the basque country.
In general, the people were all very welcoming und hearty. And I really hope that one day there will be travelers ringing on our door and that we can give something back by being welcoming and hearty ourselves as well.
And through this way of traveling we don’t feel ourselves as tourists but more as natives and have the feeling to get to know the people and the country even better. That is probably also because us being more dependent on other people´s help than normally (for instance when we need water).
The country also does not play that much of a role. It is more about the exchange with the people. It is that, which gives us a “homely” feeling on our travel.
And in general, as already kind of said the people were really open minded and welcoming.
Lavanya: Do you have to add something to that Katha?
We often realize, that our favorite regions are the mountains areas and the less touristic pathways. There the people also seem to be more content.
Lavanya: Do you have a clue based on your travel observations why it is that way?
Katharina: It might be as touristic regions are busy, and people live side by side on narrow places. And tourism is there a source of income. Therefore, tourists as us might be encountered differently.
And the people in remote regions may be more satisfied, as they may not have to share their site with a flock of tourists. Everything is more original. To give an example, I really like seeing old people playing boules together in old little towns in the evening.
And for those people it is something new, when two bikers come through their site.
Lavanya: That sounds reasonable! Do you have to add something to that Sarah?
Sarah: Maybe, yes. In the more remote regions, people live more within the nature. They may have decided consciously to live in the mountains areas, to be able to go hiking and mountain biking more often, which is good for the wellbeing. And in addition, in remote regions everything is less anonymous and familiar, than in bigger cities. This is a real idyllic perception of li
fe. But it is somehow often confirmed so far.
And another reason may be that people in the mountains live with less, as they might have figured out that not everything is reachable and decided consciously to have a life with less. That might be also the reason why they might be more satisfied. But these are just all presumptions. We also met very happy, content people in cities.
Lavanya: Well, there is something in your telling!! Now, a bit more to your route. Where have you been on the way of your travel? Have you crossed different landscapes? And did the climate crisis cross your path in any way?
Katha: At first, we wanted to bike through France. But because of the strict travel restrictions in April, we then decided not to go there but instead travel through the south of Switzerland to Italy and then through a canal between the Mediterranean see to the Atlantic Ocean. Since two days, we are in Spain at the north coast. At the beginning we were in hilly regions. At first the black forest, then the Jura mountains and then the Alpes (there we took a train, because the mountain pass was closed). In Italy we biked through plains, along many hazelnut trees. That was also the region where Nutella is coming from. Then we biked a lot along the coast and along the “Canal du midi”, where it was flat for more than 100 kilometers. And now along the Atlantic coast, which also has different regions. So, all in all, we really have to say that it is really diversified, and we are surprised, how varied the landscape in Europe is in real.
Lavanya: That sounds amazing. Did you also take pictures on your bike tour, which you want to share with us? And to get back to the climate crisis again, did you experience anything bad due to the climate crisis? For instance, we had a heatwave going over Europe the last weeks. Were the landscapes arid? Or more generally, did you encounter the climate crisis in any way?
Katharina: The landscape did not seem that dry to us. And the spring was more wet than chilly. That is also not that normal. Many farmers told us, that their fruits were frozen. And now it is very hot. Here in Spain, we have around 32 degrees Celsius. We do not know if that is normal either. But in general the contrast is really harsh. But we often encountered forest regions which were adust.
Lavanya: So, you encountered something of the climate crisis on your travel, too.
To now get to another topic. You sometimes talked about safe traveling. For instance, you said that you decided not to wild camp at a certain point. I would like to get back to that. You are two very pretty, sportive women on a bike tour through Europe during corona times. How do you make sure that the travel does not get too adventurous? Do you have any tips to travel safe through Europe?
Sarah: Well, in general we learned that we can listen to our intuition, when it comes to trusting people. If one of us spots a sleeping site and the other has an insecure feeling about it we just listen to it and look for another place. And we do not bike on enormous, traffic streets when possible. And since Italy we avoid all kind of tunnels. And in case we have to protect ourselves, we have pepper spray with us. But hopefully that will never be needed. But in general, people are really nice to us.
And to keep it adventurous enough, we try not to travel with a too strict time plan. We drift through Europe, listen spontaneously to recommendations, which the locals give to us. So, the recommendation for an adventurous, safe travel would be to keep a balance between drifting, being open minded and adjusting.
Lavanya: Well, that sounds really like a great way of traveling!
And lastly maybe a bit more complicated question: On your travel through Europe, have you experienced the European Soul? Is there something that unifies Europe? Or do we have to create this? Or is it possibly traveling the way you both do it? Far from touristic paths, being open and getting in touch with locals and with the native culture, concentrated on getting in exchange with the inhabitants?
Sarah: That is a tough one! But I will give it a try! So, on our travel we met many people and when we think back, it was not that some were typical Italian and the other typical French. We all kind of had the similar attitude to traveling and how you meet new people. We all have the commonality, that we meet people open-mindedly. And maybe also more in the fashion of less is more, and maybe also less luxury. So, there are some commonalities across the European countries we traveled. But I would not talk about a real European spirit yet. So, as you hint towards, it is traveling that brings people from different nationalities together and makes them more comprehensive towards different cultures. And yes, I also believe that by traveling apart from touristic paths you get the opportunity to dive more into the culture and get into exchange!
And what is connecting as well is the European history. We have the feeling that we all sit in the same boat. Yet, the pictures and the past of Germany are still more severe and negative. But when talking about it with people, we kind of realized that they see Germany as a progressive country and do look optimistic into the future.
From our point of view, we realized, that we are less proud of being German than maybe other people with other nationalities. We kind of realized this in an interesting talk with a French man, during a couch surfing stay. Katha said that it might be because of us learning to think about our German past and the Holocaust very critically in school.
Lavanya: Hmm, okay! I must admit that this is a complicated question. But can I put it that way that the strong emphasis on nationalities was not that much there on your travel and that it was more about the people? So more about your open-mindedness and your willingness to talk and get to know the culture and the locals? That lastly the open-mindedness on all sides was the binding element?
Katharina: Yes! The open-mindedness was really the binding element for new encounters and especially the enthusiasm for traveling.
Lavanya: Great! Thanks a lot for your time!