A Cup Above the Rest

In many respects, this journey did not start in London. It began in Lancaster. And where better than to embark on a coffee-inspired bike ride to Ethiopia other than the historic premises of master tea blenders and coffee roasters, J. Atkinson & Co.?

Established in 1837 as the Grasshopper Tea Warehouse, J. Atkinson & Co. has traded from its China Street premises since 1901 and is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the city’s illustrious heritage. Walk into the welcoming premises of this family-run business and the first thing that greets you is the warm, enticing aroma of the artisan roasted coffee bean.

Pause for a moment, and the delicate fragrance of expertly blended tea complements the sensory experience.

Inside, every aspect has been lovingly restored back to its former glory. In one corner stands the ‘Uno’, the stalwart coffee roasting machine which dates back to 1945 and continues to fill the street outside with its delicious aroma – as it has done for generations. The mouth-watering menu of more 80 different varieties of coffee and blends spanning the globe, each with a unique provinence of their own, are all carefully ground to your own requirements; if that is what you prefer. Similarly, bell jars of blended tea from the subtle to the exotic adorn the shelves; just waiting to release their heavenly infusion. It is clear to see that trade is brisk but the pace behind the old vintage counter is measured, almost reverential, in respect of a special kind of alchemy that takes place on these premises daily.

Prior to being waved off by artisan roaster, Ian, on a bitingly cold December afternoon with my gift of unroasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans concealed in the bike frame, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to familiarise myself with the time-honoured art of the Roaster and Barista. A debt of gratitude is owed to proprietors Ian and Sue Steel for their generosity of knowledge and who effortlessly accommodated my endless questions on that busy, but special day.

A further highlight was the chance to spend some time with Barista-par-excellence, Caspar, who has taken out a Gap Year to run the contemporary Music Room Cafe. Like an expert craftsman or artist who’s smooth and precise movements belie years’ of training, creativity and dedication, he introduced me to the sublime profession of Latte Art. Respect.

A truly inspiring, humbling and unforgettable experience.

In an age of rampant globalisation, outstanding establishments like J.Atkinson & Co. – who play their play their part in the wider global community by ethically sourcing the very highest quality of tea and coffee – are hard to come by.

In a word? Passion.

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The Dark Side of Barcelona (parte dos)

I wonder what Don Quixote would have made of Barcelona in 21st century Catalunya. Would he have tilted at wind turbines? Or jousted with Gaudi’s larger-than-life lizards? Maybe, the Man from La Mancha, and his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, would have shored up the city’s defenses with a two-man bulwark in an effort to repel the chaotic crowds that surge up Las Ramblas, believing them to be the advancing enemy?

And, as for a ‘plague’ of thieves and villains, what would have the knight errant resorted to in his chivalrous bid to rid the world of evil-doers and scoundrels? All said and done, only the late – and great – Miguel de Cervantes would know the definitive literary answer to this purely hypothetical question.

Now back to the real world.

Once the traders have closed their graffiti-art front shutters and the lively bars and nightclubs open up for another night of revelry in El Gótica, there lurks an unsavory element which, as sure as night follows day, soon emerges from the shadows.

It was the eve of departure before taking the ferry to Genoa, Italy. Our panniers packed and ready for the off, my friend and I decided to go for a quiet drink to celebrate our last night in Barcelona and toast our impending adventure on two-wheels. We excitedly talked about our anticipation of new horizons; the unadulterated freedom of being self sufficient with only the wind in your hair and the open road ahead. You could say that were were in high spirits. Until we met the ‘shadows’ in a certain jazz bar that dare not speak its name.

A whiskey for the road was the last lucid memory that either of us share. The ensuing 24 hours followed like a bad dream that you want to wake up from but can’t because the dream is real – only too real. I won’t go into details here as there isn’t much to report, only a handful of vivid flashbacks that replay like a looped Super-8mm cine film. You guessed it dear reader, we had our drinks spiked.

Struggling to piece together the fragmented memories of the previous night, I spent the next day in hospital with a severely swollen and bruised ankle.

X-Ray courtesy of Hospital del Mar

Sporting a foot that looked more like a specimen out of a medical encyclopedia under the chapter ‘Elephantiasis’ is one thing, summing up the financial cost of a mugging just adds insult to injury. Fortunately, no broken bones or fractures were sustained and the reality of an enforced stay in Barcelona nursing a sprained ankle soon began to dawn.

That said, this rich tapestry of life has a funny way of throwing cold water in your face just when you drop your guard. A wake up call if you will. So for now, I’m making virtue out of necessity in that it’s life in the slow lane until I can ditch the crutches and get back onto the saddle for the next leg (excuse the pun) of the journey.

It is often said that there is ‘honour among thieves.’ I disagree. Even the most professional criminal would sell his/her sidekick without hesitation if the price were right.

Disclaimer: There is no suggestion that the events described in this post are in any way exclusive to this great city. It could happen anywhere, in any place, at any time. It’s just that I happened to become another statistic, and it happened to be in BCN.

Speaking of statistics, Barcelona does however enjoy the dubious honour of being top of the list of petty crime capitals worldwide. Whilst muggings are sadly on the rise, it has even been said that if pickpocketing was an Olympic sport, Barcelona would take the gold medal. Hands down.

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The Sunny Side of Barcelona (parte uno)

Flag of Catalunya

A Catalan new year was heralded in with a noisy fiesta of fireworks, lighting up the clear starlit night sky over Barcelona. Five floors up in the heart of El Gótico, the panoramic views from the bijou ‘atico’ flat of good friend (and Warmshowers host), Richie Thomas, conjure up a world-gone-by-vista punctuated with richly decorated mosaic church spires and rambling apartment terraces stretching as far as the eye can see. In the distance is the table-top hill of Montjuic overlooking the harbor. This unassuming terrace affords one of the best views of the Neo-Classical spires of the Correos (Post Office) in one direction and the venerated 18th century baroque Basilica de Mercè in the other. Inside, its interior houses a Gothic carving dedicated to the patron saint of the city, the Virgin of ‘La Mercè’. Legend has it that ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ freed the city from a plague of locusts in 1637. Well, I can tell you for a fact that I haven’t seen any locusts but the area is unfortunately plagued by a certain nocturnal swarm of ‘species’ of a different kind which I will come to later in part two.

Cycling the streets of Barcelona in the fresh sun-kissed early-January air on the unladen Sherpa has been an interesting, if slightly nostalgic experience; not too dissimilar to jostling with the cars and pedestrians on the streets of London. Except at a slower pace and, of course, on the right. There is however, a difference. Thousands of Barcelonians conduct their short-trips across the city on what suspiciously look like Royal Mail bikes; sadly now becoming more of rarity in the UK. These pillar box red, three-speed, ‘Bicing’ machines that zip along the well-marked cycle lanes are Barcelona’s answer to the recent introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’ in London and have been a feature of this bustling metropolis years before the current Mayor had even set his sights on City Hall.

A picturesque street in BCN during the hours of Siesta

Go off the streets however and into the pedestrian maze of narrow alleyways of the city’s Barrios such as El Born or El Gótico and Barcelona reveals its true inner charm. Getting lost is half the fun; only to find that there is a high probability you will arrive at the place where you started hours previously. Stopping off for a  strong Café con Leche or an even more intense Cortado for refreshment along the way, the mind-boggling selection of tapas bars, cafes, craft shops, galleries, museums, ornate Basilica’s, pleasant open squares and colourfull street life make it hard not to fall in love with this intoxicating, yet beguiling city.

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Stopover in San Sebastián

Never having straightened a wheel in my life before and reluctant to carry out my first lesson in wheel truing on the roadside, I resign to take the train rather than cycle the 100kms to San Sebastián.

This also buys me more time in Bilbao so it’s straight to the Guggenheim…

Stunning.

The railway follows the exact route that I intend to cycle and it takes me two guilty hours instead of two days.

Leaving the bike maintenance for mañana, some serious R&R follows. The next few days are spent refueling on delicious Tapas and pottering around the picturesque narrow alleyways in the Parte Vieja (Old Part). Bliss.

San Sebastián or - Donastia - in the Basque language oozes 'old world' charm

The walk up to the Castillo atop Mount Urgull overlooking the the bay was the perfect setting to stretch my sore legs and catch the evening sunset.

But all good things eventually have to come to an end.

With the back wheel still out of joint – and I later discover, a broken rear gear shifter – I learn from the officious chap at the ticket counter that I can’t take the Sherpa on the Renfe fast train. This leaves me in a real predicament. Especially, as I was looking forward to celebrating New Year with a good friend in Barcelona the following day.

Solution?

  1. Blow a small hole in the budget
  2. Procure an economical, medium-sized family car
  3. Dismantle bike
  4. Load bike and associated accoutrements into the boot
  5. Drive the 600kms across the Spanish Plains in time for siesta

So folks, at the close of 2010 and after only one week on the road, I reluctantly have to conclude that so far it has Bean on a Bike, Boat, Train and erm… a Seat Ibiza.

Here’s to a more pedal-powered 2011!

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A Boxing Day drop into Bilbao

Under a clear blue sky and with a keen wind behind me, the scene was set for a perfect ride. To one side was the Atlantic Ocean and the other, views of the snow-capped Cantabrian foothills in the distance. For the first time, I could feel the warmth of the winter sun’s rays on my face and felt like I had finally found my rhythm on the bike.

The road gently unfolded through quiet villages, pine forests and farmland pastures before hugging the rugged coastline again.

Stopping off only for a lunch, the entire day was spent blissfully on the saddle and I was confident of getting to Bilbao in time for Paella; or at least that was the plan.

Immersed in the liberating sensation of just moving through the countryside under self-propelled locomotion at a rhythm that feels completely natural, I had neglected to pay much attention to the route. The increasing frequency of – uphill – switchbacks was the first warning sign. My rather impractical large-scale motorist’s Michelin Map of North Spain soon revealed my folly and I had inadvertently taken a road where a snowy ridge of hills presented themselves, standing between between me and my Paella.

Having invested energy already into the ascent, I didn’t want to turn back. So committed to the climb, I pushed on. Or up. By the time I had reached the top, the sun had set and I was exhausted, stopping only briefly moment to take in the city lights of Bilbao below.

Now, it says in the Thorn brochure that the Schmidt 6v hub-dynamo headlight encourages ‘spirited’ riding at night. They certainly aren’t wrong. In fact, it is so bright that oncoming motorists will dip their headlights, no doubt in some confusion as to the source of the 3 LED high-power single beam. The brilliant Schmidt lighting the way, I felt the adrenalin rush of negotiating the downhill twists and turns into downtown Bilbao, sensing the Sherpa wanting to accelerate. On the way down, I manage to pass a clapped-out old lorry which had been belching out noxious fumes in my face for over a slow mile. In the process of performing this unorthodox overtaking manoeuvre before the next 180 degree switchback, my 26″ Rigida Andra 30 Carbide rims unfortunately took the full force of a well primed wheel-slaying pothole. Net result: Buckled rear wheel. On Day 5.

Limping into the outskirts of Bilbao my energy finally runs out. With my paella becoming distinctly less a reality by the second, in possession of an discombobulated rear wheel and the mercury dropping fast, I dive into the nearest budget ‘reasonably priced hotel’.

The irony was not lost on me:

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A Convento Christmas

It’s December 24th. The atrocious weather continues without let up. Gale-force gusts of wind turn my Ortlieb panniers into sails (and not necessarily in the right direction of travel), making for slow progress. So much so, I only manage to cycle the 40kms of undulating coastline to reach the historic harbour town of Loredo just before nightfall.

In the dying light of day, I cycle through the town’s narrow cobbled roads and soon emerge from the north side looking for a good spot to camp; mindful to keep a distance from any more hay bales and curious farmers. The skies open again with yet another downpour. As I reach a fork in the road, I take the lane which passes a small collection of run-down dilapidated farmhouses.

A weathered-looking man in his forties followed by an old Labrador emerges from one of the dwellings. Wearing a faded blue poncho and a dustbin liner for extra protection, he shouts something over the pitch of the wind and walks briskly towards me. ‘¿A dónde vas’, he asks in a low, gruff tone. ‘¿Por dónde se va a camping,’ I reply wishfully. He shakes his head in disbelief. The wind picks up again and breaks the momentary standoff. ‘Follow me,’ he responds, making the sign of the cross on his chest.

The prospect of weathering out the storm under the canvas for another night did not hold much appeal, and with no better options, I turn the Sherpa around and we walk the five minutes downhill into town. He introduces himself as John, a Basque mariner from Bilbao, and tells me proudly how his Republican grandfather fought the fascists in Spain, and later in Normandy, France. Reaching a large aged-wooden door, he knocks assertively. A brief exchange then ensues between the mariner and the surprised-looking Sister who answers. The word ‘chico’ is mentioned a few times. This obviously does the trick and she invites me into the Church. (I wonder if I would have been granted admittance if I was introduced as ‘hombre?)’ John wishes me a ¡Feliz Navidad! and disappears back into the driving downpour.

Relieved not to be spending another night under the canvas and humbled by a serendipitous encounter with a kind stranger who finds me shelter in my hour of need, I hang out the contents of my panniers to dry and fall into a deep sleep.

And there you have it. A non-believer, taking refuge in a Nun’s Convent; on Christmas Eve.

Convento de San Fancisco
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The Stealth Camp that wasn’t so Stealthy

Leaving the fair shores of Blighty on a cold but crystal clear day, only to arrive in Santander the following morning under brooding, ominous skies was not supposed to be in the script. No sooner had I hit the road the skies opened with a vengeance, proceeding to bucket hail and driving rain in unimaginable quantities for the rest of the day. Determined to to put as much distance between the port and my first night on the Iberian Peninsula, I managed to find a secluded spot about 45kms due east of Santander overlooking a sleepy valley dotted with rustic farmhouses. I didn’t sleep much that night as I was woken with frequent regularity as the next wave of hailstones hammered the canvas. Still, I felt dry and cosy in my Terra Nova Quasar tent augmented by a slightly righteous warm glow of someone who had successfully carried out the art of their very first ‘stealth camp’. Or so I thought…

A french breakfast of strong Ugandan Robusta (High Roast) espresso and dark chocolate fortified me enough for the pack up and go. By now, pretty much everything was either damp or just plain wet through. The rain and hail continued to fall from a seemingly bottomless sky and I kept on having to dive back into the tent to take cover as the storm clouds marched on overhead and deposited yet another torrential downpour. Like a ridiculously outmatched game of cat and mouse, it went on like this for two hours until a break in the sky meant I could eventually get the kit fully packed and back onto the Sherpa.

An espresso too far?

Pleased with myself, I decided to fire up the MSR stove to brew a celebratory Robusta. It was at this very juncture when the farmer and his son chose their moment to turn up on their tractor for a bale of hay which had served as my windbreak for the night. Now, I have an admission to make; I’m not that fluent in Spanish. In fact, despite my repeated attempts to translate phrasebook scenarios into real life situations with varying degrees of success, I struggle to get understood as soon as I deviate from the basics such as ‘Hola!, Gracias’ and ‘Cerveza, por favor?’

How was I going to explain my way out of this? I couldn’t remember reading a chapter on ‘How to Placate Farmers’ in my Lonely Planet Spanish Fast Talk edition phrasebook.

After a surreal exchange where I attempt to articulate why I was brewing a cup of coffee on his land which revolved around the words ‘camping’, ‘frio’ (cold), and ‘perdido’ (lost), the farmer looked at me with bemused puzzlement, smiled, turned his tractor around and headed off with his hay bale, giving a salutary wave.

‘So much for the Lonely Planet, thank heavens for the international language of mime’ I thought to myself and made my getaway.

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Bon Voyage

After the round of emotional farewells with family and friends, the Big Day finally arrived. Like a meeting with an old friend who you haven’t seen for years, you prepare yourself for how you are going to react, hoping that the moment isn’t going to be forced or uncomfortable. When it did finally arrive, it felt as natural as a proverbial duck to water although somewhat tinged with sadness, excitement and apprehension as I was waved goodbye by my dear sister Catherine, from her North London home. By coincidence, it happened that my departure from London to Plymouth by train also fell on the auspicious day of the 21st December – the Winter Solstice – a turning point in the year when the dark days begin to recede and the light, new hope, begins to grow again.

A clear, crisp midwinter’s sunrise heralds a new day over Plymouth, and indeed a new dawn, as I took the short ride to the ferry port after spending a welcoming night’s stopover with special thanks to the hospitality of family friends, Matt, Gen, Laurence and Luke.

The 24 hour crossing was unseasonably calm. Even the Bay of Biscay, notorious for its strong currents and unpredictable weather ,was strangely tranquil. Deeply breathing in the fresh sea air with a G&T in one hand and a book in the other, the hours slipped away on deck whilst the Orca Whales remained out of sight and as illusive as ever. Taking the ferry gives you the full sense of the expansivness of the oceans (if our blue planet is covered by 70 per cent saltwater, why do we call it Earth?) and the sheer distance covered that a flight merely compress into just a few dehydrating, high-altitude hours. It allows the senses and body to adjust and provides space to contemplate the land and loved ones that you leave for the new experiences and places that lie on the road ahead. A perfect start.

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Steel is Real

S0, let’s get straight to the point, steel is real.

The only material that can be forged into a diamond geometry that offers the most durable, load-bearing bike frame at an affordable price.  And so, after hours of painstaking research, I settled on putting my faith in the good people at Thorn Cycles in Bridgewater, Somerset, to build a bike that will withstand the many bumps, pot holes, uneven dirt tracks and all the abuse that terra firma can inflict along the winding road ahead. With 35 kilos on the front and rear pannier racks combined and another 80 kilos (I could lose a few!) on the saddle, it has to. Otherwise it’s going to be a very long walk indeed.

Introducing my – fully loaded – trusty steed, the lovely Sherpa ‘Kaldi’:

Affectionately named after the Ethiopian Shepherd Kaldi and his dancing Goats!
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In the Beginning…

It is told that the rejuvenating and stimulating effects of the coffee bean plant were first discovered in Ethiopia by an Abyssinian goat herder, named Kaldi, back in the 9th century.

One day, while Kaldi was tending to his goats, he grew tired and decided to take a quick nap. He later awoke to find his goats dancing gleefully around him.

Kaldi decided to investigate what was causing his goats to behave so energetically. Following them, he was led to a certain bush that produced an abundance of bright red, yellow and green berries.

After tasting a small handful, Kaldi began to experience a similar elation that he had observed in his goats earlier that day. He took them back to his village and presented the berries to the village elder in a state of excitement. The elder, skeptical of Kaldi’s discovery, threw them into the fire. Minutes later, a rich enticing aroma filled the air. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers of the fire, ground up, and placed into a bowl of steaming hot water.

And so legend has it, that high up in the in the Ethiopian province of Kaffa many centuries ago, the world’s first cup of coffee was made. The rest, as they say, is history.

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