For some reason, as I was planning my European adventure, I kept retuning to the idea of hiring (renting) a bicycle and touring around on it. First I considered Ireland, then Italy. Mileage considerations among other reality checks steered me away from my dream until Liz White and I went to Wales.
Liz is a friend and acting partner from the University we both attended in Greeley, CO. After deciding against an organized tour of Wales on account of the price tag, we arrived in Cardiff with two bags and a craving for adventure. The first night, adventure lead us into a great Indian restaurant which advertised entrees at 2 for 1. Elegant, delicious and filling, the restaurant, with its linen tablecloths and neatly folded napkins was a welcome change from the usual cheap food options.
The post-dinner discussion lead back to the bikes dream. Liz's main transportation has been a bike for years, and though I haven't seriously ridden in a long while, I am full of Indian food and ready for anything.
The next morning we wake up in the hostel and after a breakfast of toast and tea, we set out to hire bicycles. As we walked, we tried to guess the mileage from city to city on the map. We liked the idea of riding along the coast from Cardiff to Swansea. On the map, it was only as big across as my thumbnail, and in a country only a big as four of Liz's fingers, how long could that take?
No Way! The man from whom we were renting the bikes was certain. Maybe on a summer day when there were more hours of light, but in January? Starting around 12:00? No Way. A little put off, Liz asked for his recommendation. The Taff Trail, he said. We would go from Cardiff Northwest to Castle Coch and from there turn Northeast to Caerphilly and the castle there. There was only one problem the man said: there is a hill.
A hill? In Wales? Right. Liz in from Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, and I am from the latter. We didn't care if it was the biggest hill in Wales, we weren't scared. Ignoring our arrogance, the man said if we wanted to, once we got to Caerphilly, we could hop on the train with the bikes and get back from around £3 each. After a brief episode with foreign tire stems and our pump, we were off the quickly book another night at the hostel.
In England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Etc. people ride bikes. Everywhere. Sometimes there is as much bike traffic as car traffic. On small city streets in particular, bikes are treated as traffic. It is actually rude to ride on the sidewalk. After a few brushes with death, I came to like that system a lot.
We arrived at the hostel to find in our absence it had been booked full. They called the other Hostel in Cardiff and they only had female beds available. Rather than wait longer looking for accommodation, we decided to set off and deal with it later.
A brief stop at Tesco for some pack lunches, we were on our way. The bikes we got were old 18 speed mountain bikes. Roadworthy, but not road bikes. The gears worked only when they wanted to. Liz faced the task of hauling herself and the three coats she was wearing, while I hauled myself, my camera bag, the lunches, the water bottles, the spare tires, the repair kits, the pump etc. All of this was in bags that straddled my rear wheel.
The trail is breathtaking. It follows a river upstream as its ancient water, green and calm with age, slowly meanders to the sea. Surrounded by trees and vegetation still green in the Welsh winter, is a firm dirt trail made for effortless riding. Fly fisherman stood in the water up to their waists, waving as we rode by. Big city or not, this place had the feel of a small town.
The trail joined a paved street and in the distance Castle Coch revealed itself up on the hillside. A sign signaled a turn onto a steep hill. At the lead, Liz effortlessly glided up the hill and around the curve. I, full of confidence, attacked the hill with all I had. I understood that the extra weight I was carrying would make it more difficult, but really how hard could it be? I made it 100 yards. Rather then get a hernia, and aneurysm or worse, I sheepishly dismounted, and walked up the hill. Half a mile up was the turn for Castle Coch. This road was twice as steep as the one before. The incline was ridiculous. 500 yards later, we reached a small plateau whereon sat a castle out of a fairytale. It wasn't all at that big around, but it was tall, It towers round and solid capped by spires reaching even higher. A huge trench dug around the castle was crossed only by the drawbridge which, it seemed, had not been used in quite some time. Great spot for lunch.
Marveling at the castle as we ate our sandwiches and crisps, we looked at the map. Not knowing whether we were to go back down the ridiculous incline to the main road, or up a small, steep dirt path, we chose down. Liz teased me asking if I would have to walk again when we returned to the uphill of the main road. I flippantly replied that it couldn't be much more uphill and that I would be just fine, thanks.
It would seem that going down to the main road we could gather momentum and just rocket up the rest of the hill. Unfortunately, there was a gate at the bottom which forced riders to dismount and maneuver bikes through a series of poles.
Armed with renewed energy, determination, and the knowledge that the post-lunch load would be lighter, I began pumping up the hill. It got steeper. I pumped harder. Steeper still. Downshift and pump harder still. Even steeper - stand up and pull against the handle bars to force my legs to keep pumping. This caused me to swerve into and away from oncoming traffic. Finally, it was just too much. I was getting faint, out of breath, and I just couldn't bear the muffled cackle Liz was emitting a the sight of my toil. I gracefully dismounted and began walking. I looked back at Liz hunched over her handlebars howling with laughter.
As soon as she got it together, we continued to walk together up the hill. We walked and walked and walked. The hill was never-ending. The only break from the monotonous climb came every few minutes when, generating a mental image of my struggle from minutes before, Liz would loose it all over again.
Finally, we reached the top. All around us were great views of the seemingly endless hills and valleys, gently rolling in shades of green, that make up the Welsh countryside. After a few minutes it was time for the fun part: down.
Wind whipped through our hair as we flew around corners, past trees, bushes and vines. Before we knew it we were down. Ahead of us lay the town of Caerphilly. We went into town and found the train station. The trains ran every ten minutes so we locked up the bikes and went on a search for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate or the like.
Down Main Street we stumbled upon huge castle. Caerphilly Castle is Gai-normous. It looks like two castles - one on the inside is surrounded by a great big moat, which itself is protected by an outer wall. Across the bridge from the inner castle is an expansive outer castle, surrounded on the remaining side by a separate moat and drawbridge. It is the largest, and in my opinion, the most original castle in Wales.
Coffee was finally found in a Safeway. It was a very odd experience: but for the Welsh accents, that Safeway could have been anywhere. Liz warned me that culture shock sets in on the return.
We walked back to the train station and boarded the train for Cardiff. Unfortunately, the driver didn't leave the doors open long enough for Liz and I to get our bikes off the train, so we rode on to the next stop. We got off, and the train promptly reversed its direction and went right back to the stop we had missed. Undaunted, we mounted the bikes and rode back to the Cardiff City Center.
Maneuvering through traffic was something of a trick. At one point, I found myself on the sidewalk trying to ride through a space a foot wide between a bus stop and the gutter. I thought I was through, but my saddle bag caught and I clum
sily averted falling into traffic. I looked back to see if Liz made it and she still hadn't tried. She was leaning over her handlebars cackling at me again.
Eventually, we returned the bikes and paid another visit to the 2 for 1 Indian. I ate a pepper so spicy I almost died. Liz almost died too, but she, yet again, from laughter. And so, a bicycling adventure was had, and now, three days later, it still hurts a bit to sit down.