4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

People undertake a journey for all sorts of reasons, Helen Moat had always been restless, but when on the beach of Inner Farne, dodging the Arctic Terns, the thought of leaving her piles of marking behind and cycling across the continent of Europe to Istanbul struck her. She asked her 15-year old son, Jamie, if he would like to join her after he finished school and to her surprise, he agreed. Her other son just laughed and said that he’d eat his hat if they actually did it.

It was when she was on the ferry that the doubts swirled in her mind; would her bike be too heavy, would she be able to communicate with the people of the Balkans, could she keep cycling for three months and would her husband and other son still be talking to each other after she made it home? Getting off the ferry they discovered that they were in the wrong place to start the Rhine Cycle Route, but after Jamie had shuffled through the google map pages he had printed, they found the right route, and they were off. By mid-afternoon, they were on the outskirts of the Netherlands oldest city, Dordrecht.

It was a good place to start their trip, the flat landscape meant that they could build miles and stamina and the routine was different, the time she would normally be making a coffee and sinking into the sofa she was happily pedalling along a road exploring places that she hadn’t been to before. Moat could speak German so the next country, Germany, she was looking forward to. The route that they had chosen was alongside the Rhine and it was here that she wasn’t quick enough on the brakes and ran into the back of Jamie and fell off, cutting her finger and bruising her ego a little. Her bike was normally called Gertrude, but Jamie christened it The Tank, and it was to be called that for the remainder of the trip.

They are cycling through Europe in the spring and they continually hear birds signing as they pass through or define territories ready for mating. It reminds her of her father who loved watching birds. He was a difficult man and father, constrained by the draconian rule of a Brethren faith that put obedience over compassion. They lived in Northern Ireland which added to the stress as every day she would see soldiers with guns patrolling the streets and they were encouraged to hate their catholic neighbours. She was seen as a rebel as she got older which added extra strain to the relationship with him. This was a time to address her own internal demons as she pedalled along the river.

Northern Europe felt a comfortable place to travel through, but she was wary of Eastern Europe. She had heard lots of stories about the people and packs of dogs and other tales of warning. However curiosity could overcome fear, and they pushed on, suppressing the warnings to a nagging doubt at the back of her mind. Probably the hardest part for her was travelling through Serbia and Croatia. The population that always used to get along fine were split by politicians into factions that then spend a lot of time killing each other. It reminded her of her childhood growing up in Northern Island and the divide that was in every community as catholics and protestants grew further apart ad the hate increased. Conversations with a couple of people showed that the tensions are much reduced, but still there.

I thought that this was a reasonably well-written book about a relaxed and thoughtful journey across Europe on a bike. They are not setting themselves a punishing schedule or daily mileage, rather seeking to absorb some of the cultures and make it an enjoyable trip. There is the odd scary moment as they battle lorry on some of the larger roads and even have to take the train on the odd stretch. When Moat embarked on the ride, she was not sure that she would be able to make it, but it goes to prove that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. It would have been nice to see a few photos from their trip in the book and I don’t know if Patrick ever did eat his hat or not…

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