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Old 10-06-2012, 02:06 PM   #46
Cameleer
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Great posting amigo, hope to be able to follow the example (minus the camping with bugs and bad hostels). All the best, C
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Old 10-07-2012, 02:22 PM   #47
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A Blast Through the Baltics

I’d never actually intended to go anywhere near the Baltic countries – my plan was to come down through Finland, get the ferry over to Stockholm and then back to Germany. But everyone just kept talking about Tallinn – they made it sound like some kind of magical fantasy city that it would be a crime to miss. In Norway I’d realised that I really enjoyed travelling to places without really knowing what to expect – going to France or Germany, for instance, I had a pretty accurate idea of how it would be, but Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania… who knew what they’d be like? Seeing how I was also keen to spend a bit more time where I could spend a bit less cash, it seemed like a good idea.



Disneyland

Walking through Tallinn when I arrived was amazing – here I was, beautiful medieval building all around me, the sun really shining for the first time since Oslo, and delicious food available for a couple of euros. I had the good fortune to be staying at a cheap but really nice hostel, where the owners really cared about getting the people there together – although I was a bit disappointed to find that “free breakfast” meant “take a maximum of two eggs out of the fridge”. Two eggs? That’ll last me like 30 minutes. Grrr! At the hostel I met a trio of Italians who I spent the next couple of nights going out with, along with a pair of Australian guys that they knew – for a while we had a pretty good wolfpack going. Amusement was provided by the fact that two of the Italians didn’t really know much English… which was always a big barrier at the start of the night but seemed to fall away as the number of drinks consumed increased. Also amusing was watching them try (and succeed) at picking up Estonian girls, despite only knowing a few words that could be understood by their targets.



The wolfpack, poised to strike

One of the best but most overlooked attractions of Tallinn has nothing to do with well-preserved medieval buildings and everything to do with dilapidated modern ones. A short walk north of the main tourist strip is an old Soviet prison that was in use up until 2004, and has now been turned into a museum.



Even before you go inside you can feel that something's wrong here

By “turned into a museum” I mean “there’s an old Estonian lady outside who charges you two euros entry”, because the charm of it is that it’s just frozen in time – there’s still medical equipment lying around in the sick bay, paperwork sitting on desks in the offices, prisoners’ posters stuck to cell walls. It’s an amazing but creepy place to walk around, and it really does impress this feeling of bleakness knowing that prisoners would stare at these neglected walls, probably knowing that they’d be the last walls that they’d ever see.



But how is this still preserved?

I do wonder how much of stuff left around is actually real though – some of the rooms seem composed, like someone’s come along and arranged them for maximum effect. Given that you’re completely unsupervised as you walk around, I’m surprised that more of the artifacts lying around haven’t been souvenired by misbehaving tourists.



Stuff like this seems just a bit staged...

Estonia also gave me a chance to take advantage of the lower prices and finally replace my heroic front Pirelli MT60. Despite being a motard compound that was supposed to last about 6000km at the most, it had been with me from the very start and trooped on for around 16000km – it still even had a bit of tread left, but it was starting to get very low indeed. I turned up to the local motorcycle dealership to see what they had, and low and behold they had another MT60 in the right size for the Versys’ weird 17″ front. And so my weird dual-sport-tyre-at-the-front-street-tyre-at-the-back setup would continue. With the front tyre changed, and hopefully good enough to last the rest of the trip, it was time to ride south, out of Tallinn and towards Riga, capital of Latvia. It also provided a rare opportunity to hit some unsealed roads while still actually getting somewhere – I got the location of some other nice Estonian towns to go through and gave George a weird route that took me through forests and forgotten villages, down highways and eventually into Riga.


Road of Bones here I come

I was always a bit skeptical that the 95%-road-5%-dirt Scorpion Trail actually helped me at all off-road, but the difference between that and the Diablo Strada I’d picked up in Finland was night and day. The groovy new MT60 cut through the gravel fine, but the smooth rear tyre tended to slip all over the place. Nonetheless, I slowed up a bit and made it through. Riding out of the picturesque old town in Tallinn is interesting – similar to the way everyone describes Bruges as “beautiful”, everyone describes Tallinn as “Disneyland” – and it’s not really a complement. As you leave the city, the cobbled streets turn into rough, poorly sealed bitumen and gravel, and the beautiful girls in fancy dress trying to lure you into theme restaurants give way to surly alcoholics sitting on the kerb who glare at you as you go past. This is also apparent in the country – there’s plenty of beautiful views, but also plenty of abandoned buildings. It’s clearly a country that’s on its way up thanks to economic freedom and EU membership, but this contrasts heavily with the relics of what used to be, and in some cases still is.



And sometimes beautiful views and abandoned buildings at the same time.

If I had to pick a word for Riga, it would be *soviet*. Just like Tallinn there’s an old town with beautiful old buildings, museums, walking tours but the atmosphere and the attitude of the people is a sharp, sharp contrast with the jollier, Finnic Estonians. I think that comparing Tallinn and Riga is a bit like the comparison between Glasgow and Edinburgh that I made back in the Scotland post – Tallinn hides all its problems and its Soviet past way outside the old city walls, whereas a walk around the touristic area of Riga will take you past abandoned buildings, a massive Stalinist skyscraper, and even in my case a queue for food from the Red Cross. Perhaps it was all too real for me – I didn’t really enjoy the city at all. The entire time I felt on-edge, like attack could come from any direction at any time (and indeed it could – I came back to my hostel one night to find someone holding frozen peas to his face where someone had drunkenly sucker-punched him out of the blue).



It's a bit silly to show a picture of a train station tunnel, but this is basically what Riga feels like

The one amusing thing about Riga is that they have a Kiwi bar… I’d never before in my life seen a New Zealand themed bar, but Riga has one. Apparently they wanted to open an Aussie bar but the government was concerned it’d get a bit too rowdy. When they proposed opening a New Zealander bar instead, no one had any idea what it’d involve so it went through… so all they really did was change the colour scheme. The other thing I will say about Latvia in general is that the countryside is nice to look at… but I was pretty done with it. So south I went again to my third and final Baltic stop.



The nice thing about Latvia is that all of its coastline faces west, so the sunsets are really beautiful

It’s really easy to think of the Baltic states as one big lump of post-Soviet country, but there are massive differences between them. Lithuania was a whole different experience to Estonia or Latvia – and I loved it. First stop was at the Hill of Crosses just south of the Latvian border. It’s a hill with a dense forest of crosses and crucifixes that have been planted in it over the years – even from far away it’s quite a sight. Once upon a time it was a monument to plague victims, but it was knocked down by the Soviets (something about a whole hill full of religious icons just didn’t seem too atheistic, I’m guessing). But that was far from the end of it – by destroying this symbol of religion, the Soviets created a far more powerful symbol of rebellion as people would sneakily plant crosses, forcing the Soviets to empty the hill again and again. Now that they’re gone, the hill has been allowed to grow naturally, and people come from across the world to plant their own cross (or even, in one case, a Star of David). As a result, there’s crosses holding up crosses, holding up more crosses (yo dawg)… it’s quite a thing to be up close and read all the places that these have come from.



Every time I look at photos though, I can't help but squint a bit from a fear that my eyes are going to be pricked by them

Entering the capital Vilnius, I was reminded a bit of small-town Italy or Greece – narrow cobbled streets and sunny days. Lithuania’s an interesting place – where Estonia and Latvia have forever been the victims of various bigger and nastier countries (Sweden, Russia, Germany etc), Lithuania (when combined with Poland) was once one of the most significant powers in Europe, and I feel that perhaps this prouder past seems to have shaped more of a feeling of national identity in the country.



This is relevant because I just mentioned the middle ages, and there's a castle in the background

There are a number of other things that separate Lithuania – the whole nation has a peculiar love of basketball that no one seems able to explain – I suspect it has something to do with the rather high average height of people in the country. Vilnius has its own artistic nation, similar to Christiania in Copenhagen, except that where the Danes take it ridiculously seriously, the Lithuanians are happy to appreciate that dividing off a suburb of a city and declaring it its own country is better off as a joke. As such the Republic of Uzupio, as its called, is a functional part of Vilnius that pretends to be seperate only where it’s amusing to do so – there’s a constitution (consisting of rules such as “everyone has the right to die, but it’s not an obligation”), and on April Fools day every year passport booths are set up at every road in, everyone gets their passports stamped upon entry and a separate Uzupio currency is issued, valid only for that day for that day. Compared to Latvia you get much more of a sense of optimism in the air… it’s just a nice place to be.



The flag of Uzupio - the hole in the hand represents that no one should hide anything. There is literally a hole in the flag.

I had a great time at the hostel… I was getting a glass of water from the kitchen when the owner came in, turned around to everyone in there and said “hey, you guys want a shot of vodka?”. Well why not. The result was a whole night of the owner finding every bottle that had ever been accidentally left behind by someone and giving us all a shot from it. I was actually quite proud of my ability to keep up with an Eastern European at vodka drinking… but Tallinn had given me a lot of practice. It doesn’t matter how much I like a place though – if I stop moving I don’t enjoy anything quite as much. And so it was that I loaded back up and headed west – next stop, Warsaw.
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Old 10-07-2012, 03:27 PM   #48
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Going to Czech?

Hi Schwer, if you are planning to continue your trip into CZ let us know and we'll sort you out with a place to stay and lots of free beer.
Cheers, Cameleer
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Old 10-07-2012, 08:04 PM   #49
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Old 10-08-2012, 06:46 AM   #50
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We should have met while you where in Riga. Welcome next time.
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Old 10-08-2012, 08:59 AM   #51
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Great report :)

about Belgium:
you've ridden through the most hectic part of it,
a bit more to the east of Belgium you have the Ardennes,
where roads are curvy , far less populated, and the views are great.
And where they brew the finest beer: Orval

Next time when you're in Belgium let me know: I'll show you a few things.

Greetings
Christiaan
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Old 10-08-2012, 02:59 PM   #52
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I am really enjoying your ride report!

If you would've kept going north you could have come all the way over the top to visit us here in Canada!

Cheers.

Rob
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Old 10-09-2012, 07:02 PM   #53
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Excellent ride report. I really like your fulsome (and quite amusing) descriptions of the places you've visited. You're enjoying the experience and not just passing through. I've been to a number of your stops and your accounts of these locations ring true with my memories, bringing me a bit of nostalgia. Nice work and looking forward to reading more.
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Old 10-10-2012, 11:11 AM   #54
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Originally Posted by Cameleer View Post
Hi Schwer, if you are planning to continue your trip into CZ let us know and we'll sort you out with a place to stay and lots of free beer.
Cheers, Cameleer
:-( already been through there... my blog is most far behind where I am... right now I'm in Nice with a bit over a week to go till I ship the bike back from London.

Does anyone know whether you can go on the Nurburgring with kevlar jeans... or if not whether you can hire leather pants somewhere? Just got that last box to tick :-).

Across the Iron Curtain, Part 1

What follows is my west then east then west then east route as I tried to scoop up all the cities I wanted to see in Eastern Europe. Writing this now I can’t for the life of me remember why seeing all of these was so important to me – I imagine I thought that getting an idea of Eastern Europe was really important (which it is) but I was to find that a lot of the cities are very similar from the point of view of a tourist. Generally there’ll be a castle, a few grand cathedrals, an art gallery or two and maybe a museum about Soviet and/or German oppression. In this post I’m going to skip through a bit because a lot of are pretty boring to talk about.

First stop was Warsaw, which I’d heard bagged by everyone. To be honest I thought it was quite nice, apart from being a city-wide construction site – finding my way to the hostel was an endless process of go down a street, find it blocked, go a different way, find that blocked, etc etc. Most of the city was destroyed during the Warsaw uprising towards the end of World War 2, but you’d never know it from how meticulously the old buildings have been reconstructed.



Some of the Zebra crossings look like piano keys too, which is fun

Keeping the pace up, after Warsaw it was a long and boring freeway ride to Berlin, which I didn’t want to miss. It’s a great city, but probably not worth diverting a whole trip for. About this time my enthusiasm for partying all night and zombie-walking around all day took a bit of a dive… I was just over it. I had one big night and then that was all I cared for. Most of the people who rave about Berlin, however, seem to be mainly talking about the night-life, which I didn’t experience a lot of. Walking around on a Saturday night was interesting though – the legal right to drink on the street combined with the massive number of kebab shops that sell cheap beer means that the streets are crowded with people drinking. Also got woken up at 3am by some random backpacker who proceeded to moon me then run away as he pulled his pants up. Good times.



The Czech Republic - beautiful from border to border

With my bank account freshly depleted from my brief excursion over to the other side of the Iron Curtain, I dived south into the Czech Republic. For someone who likes tanks and WW2 documentaries the Czechs are pretty fascinating – in their short years of complete independence between World War 1 and World War 2 they managed to build guns so good that they were used by the British for decades and tanks so good they were captured and re-used by the Germans, as well as a formidable defensive barrier… which the British persuaded them to give away to the Germans. Who then easily invaded and took all their tanks… allowing the British to copy as many of their guns as they liked. The Czechs have more to be proud of than just their skills at making killing machines though – they also have great beer, and it’s one of the few countries formerly of the Warsaw Pact that actually looks beautiful everywhere, rather than having a polished tourist zone surrounded by Soviet wasteland. Riding through the Czech Republic is a treat – in addition to having quite nice roads, the Bohemian countryside consists of beautiful green fields punctuated by picturesque villages… and even the ones you’ve never heard of look just a beautiful as the centre of Prague. You’d never even know about the decades of socialism were it not for the soviet tenement blocks that stick out of the landscape while looking totally divorced from it, like they accidentally fell from the back of some gigantic passing truck.



Unfortunately it never occured to me to take a photo of ugly apartment blocks

When I first became aware of Prague as a tourist destination (which was around the time the original XxX movie came out, remember that?) it seemed like some forgotten cultural paradise. The world has certainly remembered now – it was choked with tourists. The central square has so many people floating around on Segways selling tours that it resembles the opening scenes of Terminator. They come for a reason though, it’s a beautiful city, and the pub crawl gives away a free T-shirt that allowed me to clean my chain for the whole rest of the trip. It does fall into the classic eastern-european city problem described at the start though. More fun is Czesky Raj (which translates to Bohemian Paradise) – basically a beautiful green area covered with castles and weird skyscraper-shaped rock formations that form “rock towns”. Visiting a castle is much more fun when you have to hike up hill through a dense forest to find battlements rising up in the distance between the trees.


This is a rock town - not like Liverpool, the other kind of rock


Completing my silly loop, I went from the Czech Republic back to Poland to check out Krakow. Everyone I talk to raves about Krakow – I’ve got no idea why. It’s got a castle, and medieval walls, and a museum about German oppression, etc. etc. Not that that any of these are bad (the museum in particular is awesome) but I was a bit tired of it at this point. Krakow also marked where I stopped trying to be an exciting young backpacker who actually goes out and started just enjoying having a cup of tea and going to bed every night – through some miracle this whole time (nearly four months) I’d never really had a hangover while travelling, but a night of drinking mysterious vodka shots and terrible polish beer left me in bed until 4pm the next day, and at one point I’m pretty sure I was throwing up blood. Never. Again.



On the upside, there was a Daschund festival on in Krakow when I was there. Look at this one, he's wearing a hat but he's a dog. Dawww, what a silly little guy.

The inside of Krakow isn’t all that special, but the day trips outside are far more interesting – particularly, of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau. If you were ever 13 years old and in an all boys school you might have experienced someone lightly hitting you over and over in the same spot, eventually causing a massive bruise. That’s basically what visiting Auschwitz is like – it’s not like you get there right away and immediately have the wind knocked out of you. The Auschwitz (not Birkenau, which is separate) camp was originally for the Polish army, so it doesn’t actually have the feel of an evil place, it appears to just be a bunch of barracks. But then your guide starts leading you through the camp…

… here’s a street where they’d make the weak prisoners stand for 10 hours…
… here’s a bunch of small, layered platforms, upon each of which 10 women would have to sleep – the ones on the bottom would have to sleep on the frosted earth floor…
… here’s a gigantic chamber filled with heads of hair – all shaven from prisoners before they were executed so it could be used to make fabric…
… it’s all of these and much more presented without fanfare, but relentlessly – Auschwitz just keeps hitting you over and over with examples of the depth of human cruelty until by the time you walk out of Birkenau you’ve got a thousand yard stare and you never want to speak to another human being again.



Just a pile of cans... except that they contained Zyklon B, and each individual one has killed god knows how many people

Conversely Birkenau, down the road from Auschwitz, hits you immediately – it’s a desolate place, stretching out to the horizon in every direction – hundreds of barely habitable wooden huts sitting in a freezing Polish swamp. Birkenau, as opposed to Auschwitz, was constructed specifically to enslave those that could work and kill everyone else, and somehow it just shows through in the way its laid out. One of the most powerful things about it is that the railway platform in the middle is so recognisable – every time you’ve seen any kind of Holocaust memorial you’ve seen a picture of this place – a line of defeated prisoners being coldly assessed by a doctor as smiling SS guards casually look on… and you realise that you’re standing right in that picture. It looks exactly the same.



The end of the line for many

Everyone who goes to Europe seems to go to Auschwitz these days, and I feared that I might be visiting some kind of Holocaust Disneyland full of smiling tourists and take nothing from the visit. This was far from the case – I’ve always noticed a popular perception of the Holocaust (which I unfortunately bought into as well) as being somehow clean and efficient – the same sort of spirit that underpins the design of a Volkswagen factory, applied to mass-murder. I never fully appreciated how cruel it was – so much suffering was inflicted just for the sake of inflicting suffering… there was very little clean or efficient about it.




Back on the bike and south into Slovakia, where I’d heard there was a nice little hostel in a tiny town in the mountains where I could go hiking. I was expecting a nice, quiet little place where I could lie in a hammock and read, but somehow I found an Australian-filled party hostel… seeing as I could still taste the blood in my mouth from Krakow, this wasn’t really where I wanted to be. I expected Slovakia to be similar to the Czech Republic, but it’s completely different – it was much closer to my most negative stereotype of Eastern Europe. Riding to the forest to go hiking I passed through little villages filled with peasants who’d stare at me as I rode past. I also found to my disappointment that the whole country seemed to be covered in a thick, China-esque layer of smog (maybe fog… not sure how to tell the difference) which meant that I could never see more than a few hundred metres.



Hiking is much quicker if you just ride half the route

In Slovakia I also came to the bike one morning to find that the steering bearings had somehow loosened and that my days of enjoying sharp, motard-like handling despite being weighed down with 18 tonnes of crap were over. Angrily, I came to the natural solution that this was the Republic of Slovakia’s fault and rode out of there quick as I could… back over the Iron Curtain again to Austria.

Which will have to wait for the next post because this one is quite long enough as it is.
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Old 10-10-2012, 01:03 PM   #55
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Bloody good read.
So where are you now?
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Old 10-10-2012, 01:14 PM   #56
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Cheers
This is what makes life worth living right here.

Thanks for sharing your story!
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Old 10-10-2012, 01:51 PM   #57
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I think that Versys.....overtake me in the traffic of Dubrovnik last month....right?

Enjoy your ride.
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Old 10-10-2012, 01:58 PM   #58
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In Nice right now... tomorrow I've gotta start moving north, probably do a massive ride to around Dijon, then I'll within striking distance of the Nurburging.

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I think that Versys.....overtake me in the traffic of Dubrovnik last month....right?

Enjoy your ride.
:O I was in Dubrovnik last month! Sorry if I cut you off or something, I'd got used to driving like a Greek/Albanian.
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Old 10-10-2012, 02:05 PM   #59
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Well,if you fancy a bit of heaven(depending on weather,time and 'being arsed or not' ness)
Yorkshire's just sex on a stick for gorgeous.
See how it goes,buzz me if it's a poss
keep on keeping on!
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Old 10-10-2012, 02:07 PM   #60
Il Grande Baboomba
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No no don't worry, your riding was good.
I only remembered your plates number in this photo.....it's harder to forget an Aussie in Europe.
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