Vienna - The Team Assembles...
- Categorized in: September 2011
By the time I arrived in Vienna, the most demoralising day of this entire journey lay a long way behind me.
You probably don’t remember the day I described leaving a city called Jiayuguan in western China – the edge of civilization as the ancient Chinese knew it. The end of the Great Wall and the beginning of the black wasteland of the Gobi desert to the north, and the pale dust of the Taklamakan desert to the west.
There I had stood on the walls of the great fort, at one time the last outpost of a sprawling empire, from which political exiles, murderers, outcasts and troublesome monks were expelled to go to meet their fate in the empty land of broken hearts that lay to the west.
The Edge of Civilization - the fort at Jiayuguan
The Chinese didn’t yet know what was out there and they didn’t want to know. When I looked out through the western gate, it was one of the few moments I had felt genuine fear about what might lie ahead.
The next day I had found myself battling a 40-mile an hour headwind, in one of the most depressing landscapes I’ve ever seen. There were cars passing occasionally, but it was probably the loneliest I ever felt on the road.
Passing through the (Not So) Great Wall
Mentally the choice was to find some way of holding onto some shred of positivity, or else disappear into a black hole of despair.
The “happy place” I chose to hold in mind was Austria. Actually it was a very specific place in Austria called Lake Hallstatt, where I had been twice before. I still think it is the most beautiful place I have ever been. And I told myself on that lonely road that one day, if I just keep going forward, I was going to reach this place.
Perhaps you know what it is like to hold onto something as a dream – a fantasy if you like – which you think if only you can get hold of, then you will be happy. And then it comes, you get it, your dream becomes reality, but it somehow leaves you disappointed. It isn’t what you thought it was going to be. It didn’t give you what you really needed, though you hoped it would. Your heart breaks a little bit to find this out.
I’m very glad to say that the journey through Austria was exactly not like that. It was almost the opposite. Despite building up in my mind what it would be like finally to arrive there, and ride along its rivers, through its fields, climb its mountains, breathe its air, swim in its lakes, and how good it would feel, all these dreams came to nothing when stood against the reality.
I had no right to expect as much from this place, and yet I got so much more. There have been more challenging weeks, more interesting places, more satisfying achievements, but nowhere have I been happier than I was there. I shall never forget this time and shall always be grateful for it.
So what is behind all this praise you might wonder? Well, many things.
But I had better try to make my case.
After such a long and relentless month on the bike, I was very glad to have a few days off it. I arrived in Vienna exactly four weeks after I had stepped off the boat in Sochi (Russia), during which time I had taken only 5 days’ rest.
Usually during these city sojourns I would sleep like a log, and for as long as my body needed. But in the Hotel Ruthenstein this wasn’t possible since I found myself sharing a bunk with a warthog that was passing itself off as a human. A four night game of passive aggression ensued during which the warthog and I kept almost exactly opposite hours – he would have got up only about three hours before I went to bed, and would come home a couple of hours before I got up. For this reason, we never actually encountered one another conscious, nor spoke. Instead this man, who was sporting a beard that looked like ginger cotton wool that had been pasted to his chin, would communicate by a relentless droning of grunts unheard of from any sleeping hominid to date. He would do this while passed out in his clothes, which can’t have been changed for some days, and while breathing out the noxious fumes of several packets of cigarette smoke like a well-stoked stovepipe. Amazingly on the final night, this creature brought back with him a female warthog, which appeared happy to wallow in his little pit with him, oblivious to the cacophony blaring in her ear or the alcohol fumes that emanated so dangerously close to her face.
For my part, each time his grunting or stench woke me up, I would shake the frame of the bunk until the noise briefly abated. But this was never for long.
For this reason, I was forced to rise incredibly early, which had the happy result that I had a few very long days looking around Vienna.
Statues on the Michaelerplatz
Most of Europe was enjoying a late summer heat wave, and Austria was no different. Every single day, the country awoke to another spotless sky and barmy bright sunshine that made it hard to feel anything other than a great joy to be alive.
Johann Strauss II - on his pedestal in the Stadt Park
On my first day in Vienna I had arranged to meet up with a lady called Maria Wipplinger. I had got in touch with her through Couch Surfing as she seemed an interesting person to meet up with. It turned out Maria was more than interesting. She really was great company, and is a wonderful person. She was a little bit older, and no doubt wiser, than me, but apparently she often likes meeting up with travellers passing through her city. She used to work for the airline Alitalia, but when they closed their office in Vienna, she decided to retrain as a massage therapist instead. When I said I wanted to learn some German and how to waltz while I was there, she said she could teach me both - but we never got around to this. Except that she would hold me up on my attempts to pronounce the Viennese street names, which she felt sounded rather too much like orders from a Nazi Sturmfuhrer who was having a bad day. "In Austria, we speak a lot softer, you know," she said.
The cheap seats outside the Wiener Staatsoper
Maria and I cycled around the city together, looking at various things like art museums, the grounds of the Hofburg palace, and the Wiener Staatsoper (where I was sent for a magical performance of Don Giovanni). We even took part in what may be my first ever protest, blocking off the Burgring in the centre of the city. Perhaps this shows how unpolitical I am, but appropriately enough this was about fighting for more space on the road for cyclists. Having seen how many cycling lanes they have in Vienna, my secret thought was “Pah! They should come to London, then they'd have something to complain about.”
More space for us - hear hear!
Some of the things I suggested doing were just too tacky for Maria, and she wouldn’t allow me to do them. I suppose it seemed natural enough to be schooled in good taste by a Viennese lady, so I accepted her advice.
Anyway, we wandered through the Stadt Park, cycled through the Prater park where the Emperor Franz-Joseph used to take turns in his carriage, we followed the Danube, which really is quite blue in places, we visited Catholic shrines, a Buddhist stupa and ate Wiener Schniztel and drank Radlers by the Alte Donau.
The Prater Park
By the end of a couple of days of this, apart from becoming good friends, I told her that I hoped she knew how lucky she is to live there. It was true, Maria said, and sometimes it was too easily taken for granted. The quality of life there, in my opinion, is higher than almost any other city I’ve been to. Things may be expensive but you do at least get to breathe in the culture for free.
A diverted branch of the Danube - looking rather blue
Sunday morning arrived, and I tiptoed out of the dormitory leaving my porcine friend in the arms of his unconscious bedfellow.
I then rolled down the hill into the 1st District in the heart of Vienna where I would meet my older brother Christian and his wife Christina at the Sofitel Hotel, which stands on the banks of the canal.
I arrived an hour or so before them and was shown up to the room, for which Christian kindly was paying.
The door opened and my feet briefly froze to the floor. It seemed the door had opened into a reality that existed some decades into the future. Everything was blindingly white from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. It was like walking into a cloud.
Out of my league
I felt ashamed to carry in my blue and red (and muddy) bike panniers. As soon as I was in the room, I had completely spoiled its pristine effect. I took my shoes off (like a good little Russian – I still haven’t shaken this habit) and padded about exploring the room. There were secret wardrobe/dressing rooms, a space age bathroom, and I couldn’t find the toilet for a couple of minutes, it was so well camouflaged in all this whiteout.
I escaped from this deluge of luxury in a little shock, leaving my two flatscreen TVs telling the empty double beds how pleased they were that I had chosen to be a guest of Sofitel during my stay in Vienna. They hoped I would have a wonderful time in this city.
As I rode the elevator down 14 floors to the lobby, I reflected that I’d come a long way from the comforts of a two-foot deep latrine in the Uzbek dust.
My brother Christian is one of my favourite people in the world. Not least because he spares no expense for himself or for his family and friends when it comes to being on holiday. He’s one of the most generous people I know. His wife Christina can handle luxury too, but she also has a taste for roughing it – mainly so she can bring their children down to earth with a bump on a regular basis. So their holidays are always a bizarre hybrid of 5 star accommodation punctuated by bouts of literally hanging out in sub-continental slums, or mucking in with rubbish dump kids in South-East Asian “blackholes”. Their kids take all this on the chin and seem just as happy in either situation. As their uncle, I’ll be very interested to watch and see which influence takes a deeper root.
For my part, wherever they go, I’ll just suggest they take their bike as that is by far the most fun.
As I sat in the lobby, taking tiny sips of my 6 Euro thimble-full of expresso, a shiny black people-carrier suddenly pulled up. Out jumped Christian and Chrissie (minus the kids for a change), with bright smiles on their faces.
They were obviously delighted to see me (I mean who wouldn’t be?). No, they looked great! I was so happy to see them again. It didn’t seem that long ago that they had left me to get on with my ride in Georgia, way back in the Caucasus, at the beginning of August. But this time they had brought speedier bikes, less kit and even greater enthusiasm.
C&C ready to go explore Vienna
My younger brother and two other old friends, Jeremy and Lloyd, were arriving later in the day so I took C&C (as I shall call them) for lunch and a spin around the city centre, where we scaled the Stephens Dom spire for the best view out across the city.
St Stephens Dom roof, and look-out across Vienna
Once the others arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and everyone had set up their bikes so they were more or less in working order, we mounted up and went out like a gang of teenagers into the early dusk of the city.
Our first beers
The evening opened with a garble of conversation as we all caught up over Weisswurz and beer on the open-air tables before the City Hall.
Through the streets of Vienna on bike
However, before I go any further, I should probably describe each of my new companions.
Jeremy I met at Cambridge University where we were at the same college. The friendship didn’t get off to a flying start, as I spent most of my first summer trying to steal his girlfriend. Which kind of worked for a short time, but he won her back without too much trouble over the summer vacation. In a spectacular instance of largesse and “blokieness”, this didn’t seem to matter at all, as the following year we became very close friends and have remained so ever since.
He is one of these people who, in a world of high-achievers, still manages to make everyone else look like also-rans. He is probably the most informed person I know. On the rare occasions he doesn’t know something you bring up in conversation, he will be onto Google immediately afterwards to make sure next time he knows what he is talking about (usually better than you). He was the youngest ever Managing Director at JP Morgan, and then “retired” very shortly afterwards to pursue a career in adventure sports (for a while), then mentoring and advisory work in the charitable sector, while still advising close friends in the financial sector.
Jeremy’s nickname is Skipper. (Though his older brother revised this into “Nipper”.) It comes from the fact that, while Jeremy is not necessarily always in the position of authority and leadership in every situation, before too long he has assumed it de facto. It has stuck so long because it is so precisely appropriate (and I’ll call him that from now on.) The only way I retained control as leader of the group was by keeping the route and destinations close to my chest (on a need to know basis), and (when necessary) ramming him off the road. (More on that later.) But for the sake of veracity, I have to admit that by the final afternoon of the week, he was at the front of the group and he did have the map. Voilà, le Skipper.
I should also say that he is one of the most loyal friends I have, which is why I like him so much, even though we disagree about a great deal.
Physically everything about Skipper communicates solidity. He stands an inch or two taller than me with jagged blonde hair, broad shoulders and sturdy and square-set legs. His appearance conveys a sort of dependability which throws down the challenge, “World, try to make me stumble if you dare.” So far it hasn’t.
Being the biggest in the group it was ironic that Skipper was riding the smallest bike. A svelte little racing bike, on which from behind, when all that could be seen was his solid back, he looked like a packhorse riding a toothpick.
Leading the way downhill
If this sounds an unflattering description, I should hastily add that a friend once bumped into me running along the River Thames in London after dark. In the dim light, he said he thought it was me because no one else looks like a torso riding a chicken when they run. I couldn’t deny it.
Lloyd, on the other hand, is cut from a different cloth. For as long as I’ve known the two of them, I would instinctively put them next to each other in any list of friends. (In other words, “Who’s coming then? "Er….Lloyd, Skipper." Or “Skipper, Lloyd….etc.") They are indeed the best of friends, and now they are only separated on friend lists by the insertion of Rebecca, Skipper’s better half and wife.
But marriage cannot separate these two, and Lloyd and Skipper continue to live together for now.
Best of friends
If Skipper is a high-achiever, it is only because Lloyd has pushed him all the way. I regard these two much as I regard, say, a Red Arrows display team. What they manage to do seems quite beyond ordinary human capacity as far as I am concerned, but it is a delight to watch. Lloydy has a deep creative streak, originally heading off towards a career in architecture, but then redirecting into management consultancy, and then because he’s as independent as he is creative, setting up his own financial business: a hedge fund (with a strange name), from which I have no doubt he will make his fortune.
It may seem an odd thing to say, but Lloyd has the most attractive voice of any man I know. By this, I mean, the actual sound of his voice is enjoyable to listen to. This means everyone is happy to talk with Lloyd, and they do at great length. He is a great conversationalist, and because of the depth of these long conversations, he has become a great confidant of a certain circle of friends, both men and women. If anyone knows a secret, it is Lloyd.
The first time I really bonded with Lloydy was quite literally playing in the mud with him in the park outside our college during a Cambridge university garden party. This was exactly the kind of occasion that people unfamiliar with Oxbridge custom might label hedonistic and debauched. What they fail to realise is that making mud pies is fun whether you are 21 or 2, even if, as a 21 year old, this activity needs to be preceded by a stiff drink from a rubber chicken.
Those were the days, eh? And these ones are very different.
Today Lloydy would probably be sooner found dead than rolling in the mud. This is because one of his other distinguishing features is that he has style, while the rest of us merely try.
He is the best dressed of us, tall and handsome, as well as having the smoothest voice, which makes him a sure target for a smart sort of woman. His great endearing quality is that often he has no idea that this is happening until several of his friends have pointed out the blindingly obvious to him.
But being the most stylish, Lloydy always has the best kit, and the most authentic clothing for any given activity. In this case, we were cycling. I was the expert here, for heaven’s sake. It was I (don’t ya know) who had become one with my machine, and crystallised into a hardy veteran of the open road. And yet…..somehow… Lloydy in his flawless combination of black and white gear - black shorts, white top, black and white helmet, white bike, black wheels, white panniers with black fasteners - completely eclipsed me and the rest of the group, who looked like day-trippers against his professional.
Following Lloyd on the road into the Salzkammergut
There are times when, in my view (and often Skipper’s too I should add), he has gone too far. It is usually at this point that you look around at my brother Christian and discover he is dressed in exactly the same way. Do women really enjoy excessively tight clothes on a man? I suppose some of them must. The problem is that too often none of these women are to be found within a hundred miles, and yet there are Christian and Lloydy, like two little spandex peas in a pod, gleaming in the late summer sun just the same. It is nice for them that they have each other.
Skipper took charge and prohibited the wearing of one particular pair of shorts by Lloydy, on the grounds that it was too off-putting to ride behind him in that state of attire. Happily he obliged.
Austria is a decent country after all. Above ground at least.
The last person to make up the group is my younger brother Alexis. In every way, he is the most admirable of our family. A war hero of the old breed, he was a “top gun” in the British Army, meaning he was selected to fly Apache Helicopters, and did so with distinction on three tours in the War in Afghanistan. He has always represented a haven of calm and good sense amid the larger-than-life personality of Christian and the rather directionless if dramatic whirling of my own life.
If a man could truly be an iron fist in a velvet glove, that would be Lecka. He goes about things with a kind of unswayable determination and application, which I could only wish for. All his relationships are marked by his kindness and thoughtfulness.
Good old Lecka - here with Christina
It was perhaps natural that in my family, Lecka was the first to become a Christian. (It surely couldn’t have been anyone else.) As an encouragement to other believers reading, he once told me he had prayed for five years straight for his two older brothers during our “carousing years” (if you could call them that) with never a sign of progress. But then, relatively suddenly in the sixth year, I found faith and then so did Christian (and Christina). “The first shall be the last, and the last shall be first.” It certainly seems so in this case.
On the other hand, Lecka has been a terror in his day. He left no Norfolkish heart unbroken in his teenage years. Even earlier, he was the most heavily armed 8 year old outside of Africa, rarely found without his bullwhip, and never without a switchblade knife on his person. Where he managed to acquire his knives our parents were never able to find out, but he came out the other side of his teenage years free from any notable disasters and clear of any criminal record.
These days, Lecka has hung up his flying suit in favour of farming overalls as he takes over our parents’ farm, yet he marches with purpose around the yard and fields no less the soldier than he was.
So there you are: the team. All bright-eyed optimism and pumped up tyres in the sunshine of a Viennese morning, ready for action.
Prior to launch - on the morning we left Vienna
You probably need to draw breath before I tell you what we did.
So here I will pause...
- Notes from the Road
- Join Me for the Ride!
- Press Articles & Clips
- Causes for your Support
- Voices in the East
- Distance Done
- Kit Inventory
- Maps of the Route
- Video Clips
- Norfolk Superheroes