01 July 2009

Tuesday afternoon

We were dropped off at a bike shop in Rønne where we were greeted by a spare, older man--our guide--who showed us to the line of bicycles from which we were to choose. They weren't so different from the commuter hybrid I rode at home, all of them silver. I took one and adjusted the seat the best I could, pulled on my cycling gloves and waited. I caught the shop proprietor giving me covert glances. I'd brought my cycling helmet from home, thousands of miles away, since I'd no idea how we'd be outfitted, though I'd left my violently chartreuse cycling jersey in the drawer of the bureau. Still, I could probably be seen from Sweden in the neon green Climalite shirt I had on.

I'm an experienced cyclist, though not someone for whom bicycling is a lifestyle, and for close to a year, I'd been commuting home from work by bicycle, traversing the roads of Orange County when I had to, but mainly sticking close to the off road trails along San Diego Creek and Peters Canyon Wash. The 15-mile trip from the Spectrum was all up hill, and the panniers on the rack were usually loaded, which added to the fun.

Drivers in Orange County have no interest in sharing the road with bicyclists--or even each other--and a lot of cyclists exacerbate the problem by riding 4 abreast and blocking traffic, as well as ignoring traffic law and common sense. There are some well-maintained paved off-road trails, but those have hazards as well, including pedestrians. On San Diego Creek, I'd once rounded a corner and entered a dim tunnel from bright sunlight only to narrowly miss hitting someone who'd decided to drop in the middle of the trail and do push ups. Fortunately for both of us, I don't take blind curves fast.

Riding a bike in Southern California taught me that there was no such thing as too careful. Riding the open roads and through the desert in my childhood hadn't come close to preparing me to treat my bicycle as I would my car, but as a long-time driver, I learned fast. Safety becomes so ingrained that it was something of a surprise to see that no one in Europe seemed to wear helmets, though I opted to. I like my brain and it's already lived through two concussions, one courtesy of a cycling accident as a kid.

(Interestingly, when we visited Europe last year, I saw a lot more bicyclists wearing helmets than I had in 2006, even in Amsterdam where I'd seen nary a one before. I know there are lots of pros and cons with regards to helmets and lots of opinions. Frankly, I just feel safer than allowing my head to go commando.)

The guide came over to speak to us a little, to give us an idea of where we'd be riding on this little Danish island and to get an idea of our experience and physical condition. Finally, he couldn't contain himself and told me, pointing at my head, "You won't need that!"

I shrugged and smiled, and he slammed a baseball cap onto his own head. We were off.

It was a lovely summer day, a brisk wind whipping up the waves on the Baltic and sending clouds scudding across the sky. We were a mixed bag as these groups tended to be and I settled in near the head of the pack, easily keeping pace with the guide.

The early part of the ride was a bit hairy as we were riding through a town during its morning rush hour. The roads were narrow, and I didn't like that I was unfamiliar with the road laws, even as our guide barreled happily along. But soon, we turned off onto a track through a grassy field, and I was able to relax a little as we headed toward our first stop, Nyker.

Nyker is known primarily for its little round church which was fortified so the citizenry would have a place to go when pirates came calling. The interior is quite well preserved, and a plaque on the wall memorializing the plague dead is slightly chilling.

Back on the bicycle road, we trundled north, passing the backs of small cottages with tiny gardens and minuscule green houses. The guide had mentioned that Bornholm tended to be fairly temperate, climate wise, thanks to being favorably situated in a warm current, and the picturesque gardens bore testament to a decent growing season. I slowed to admire the tidy flower and vegetable beds, and a grey cat lounging in the sun returned my gaze, yawning. I was thoroughly seduced by the charm of these small homes as I bicycled along behind them.

(If you were reading here last summer, you'll remember I couldn't help but wax poetic over a little apple orchard in the Setesdal Valley in Norway. By the end of that trip, I'd mentally purchased the Bornholm cottage, a Norwegian orchard, a stone house in Lerwick and a house in Iceland. My friends are careful to remind me that most of my chosen future homes tend to get no sun for a good bit of the year. Which is why I'd only live there in summer, of course.)

We pedaled onward through farm fields in the interior of the island, and the guide became a bit nervous when we needed to cross the highway but there were no casualties, and we continued, skirting a bit of forest until we reached the coastal village of Hasle. We'd been promised a herring in Hasle, which rather terrified the spouse, no fan of herring. While the herring went along with the bike rental, if we were willing to pay an extra Euro, there was the promise of locally-brewed beer.

Herring, however, was very important to Bornholm, the guide told us, and so Hasle had an old smokehouse that had been converted into a museum, alongside a smokehouse that smoked its herring by the old method. The spouse got increasingly nervous listening to all the talk of herring, especially when the local delicacy (smoked herring with a raw egg yolk) was described.

The spouse's German mother has always preached that fish is an abomination. I don't know whether or not she's ever actually eaten it, but it was never served when the spouse was growing up, so he is of the firm belief he doesn't like fish. This is a shame because I'm of the belief that fish is good for you--rather like Brussels sprouts--so I serve it at least once a week. He is further of the belief that herring is horrifying though I gather that this has more to do with the fact that his grandmother ate large quantities of the jarred stuff in sour cream (or maybe it was pickled?).

So I promised him I'd give him a Euro for good beer, but he had to eat some herring. He never has much room to maneuver on this sort of thing because I've eaten some fairly...er...adventurous things in my life and he feels the need to keep up.

Bike park
Hasle, Bornholm, June 2006

So we wandered through the smokehouse, which was dim and low-ceilinged and predictably smelled like smoke, and then we wandered over to the business end of things where we received our smoked herring and purchased our beer. The herring was served with brown bread and butter, along with a sprinkling of coarse salt on the tail, sans egg yolk, fortunately. It was delicious, the flesh both sweet and smoky, and so fresh. The spouse tried his reluctantly, but actually found he rather liked it. The local beer was amazing and I was so pleased I'd chosen it over Carlsberg. Usually, I don't care for fruity or floral beers, but this tasted more like a field of flowers--light and sunshiney--rather than the sort of heavy, perfumey microbrews that have become so common in the U.S. Then again, everything tastes better when you've been out bicycling through open fields on a remote and lovely island far from everything you've ever known and the world is imbued with the magic and novelty of something completely different.

Even herring.

Before long it was time to pack up and head back out, and for a little we traveled along some of the beaches and just generally admired the coastline. But the clouds were starting to gather and the wind was picking up. The guide gave us a choice: go back the way we came, or ride the trail through the forest. We unanimously chose the forest.

With the increasing overcast, the forest was greenly dim, with canopy above and ferny understory along the path. We pedaled along at a pretty good clip, occasionally meeting another group coming the opposite direction. Everyone was all smiles.

Then came a tremendous flash, followed by the roar of thunder directly overhead, and the skies opened. It was no mere summer rainstorm, it was a torrential downpour, something more suited to the rainforest than a small island in the Baltic. The thunder crashed above us once more and I heard the raised voices of the rest of the party. But there was no alarm, only hysterical laughter. It was raining so hard that water was sheeting off our bodies as we rode through the trees and when the next peal of thunder came, it was answered with a wild cheer.

The cell was clearly right on top of us, but there was nothing for it but to keep moving. There was no place to shelter, so we tore along the path, cheerfully resigned to whatever was in store for us. The guide would periodically look back to make sure everyone was keeping up, and he just shook his head at our howls of laughter. Eventually, we made it back to the bike shop, and the rain had abated somewhat, though it still pelted down. The proprietors welcomed us with applause, as we stood there helplessly dripping all over. As we left, I handed our guide the sodden bills I'd reserved for his tip, apologizing for the state they were in, and he just grinned, looking at the helmet still perched heroically on my drenched head.

"None of us will forget this day," he laughed.

Nor have I.

And someday, maybe next year (though what I really want to do next year is hike through Britain), I will take a week and bike the entire island at my leisure, eating herring when the mood strikes.

Go listen to some music: "Tuesday Afternoon" from the album Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues. By a really funny coincidence, a woman who shared this particular adventure with us happened to show up on the crazy Iceland kayaking trip, too. What are the odds?

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