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Old 10-10-2012, 02:12 PM   #61
JimRidesThis
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Thumb The Lake District

Quote:
Originally Posted by Schwer View Post
Walking around reminded me of trekking in Nepal – postcards everywhere you look. The great thing is that there’s this
public bridleway system that allows people to walk across private land (particularly farms), so you walk through forest and up hills and through fields and over fences and so forth, taking in the views. The other cool thing was that this being spring, the fields were full of cute little lambs that’d run away as I walked past. With the perfect weather it was like some kind of pastoral paradise.

On the second day I took the panniers off the bike, gave George the GPS a route I’d found on the internet and went for a proper ride, and it was great. Endless narrow winding roads with amazing viewsI’ve got to say, the Versys is perfect for buzzing through these tiny bumpy roads...The other great thing about the lakes is that one second you’re riding alongside a pristine lake, the next thing you’re climbing a winding mountain pass, and the next you’re sweeping through farmland on a plateau. It’s very varied and very beautiful.

I’ve got to say, my visit to the Lakes really made me glad I’m doing this by bike – if I hadn’t looked at the map and thought “I only want to go so far in a day, what’s between Edinburgh and London?” then I’d never have come here, and I’d certainly have had much more problems getting around if I did.
It's really interesting to read a visitors take on where you live. The Lake District is my back garden (not literally!) and while I can appreciate it's beauty, I always envy overseas inmates for the shear quantity and variety of the riding you have. I guess it's a case of 'the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence'. Well, thanks for your observations of The Lake District Alex , I'll try to view it with the same appreciation in future.

The rest of your ride report is excellent too - great writing style.
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Old 10-10-2012, 04:09 PM   #62
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Great way to spend your summer.....
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Old 10-10-2012, 04:29 PM   #63
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Congratulations!!!

I lol'ed when you said you were buying a bike for the trip, seeing a bike BMW gs, ou a pan-european just to be amazed to see our little versys It just goes to show that it's the rider and not the bike!!!


Hope everything goes well, congratz for the awsome ride report, I promise to read it carefully.

If you need any information about Portugal, plz don't hesitate to talk to me!!!
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Old 10-16-2012, 09:25 AM   #64
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read up to page 3, great writing style!
thanks for taking the time to share your experiences, I subscribed and will read the rest soon
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Old 10-16-2012, 03:07 PM   #65
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cvcaelen View Post
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
this man speaks the truth (maybe not about the finest beer, but it is a fine beer nonetheless )
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Old 10-18-2012, 05:02 PM   #66
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Ah damnit... I actually went through the Ardennes on the way back but it was one of the wettest days I've seen all trip so I just rolled along the freeway. Just put the bike on the ship back home today... it's all ending. Hopefully I'm able to get the rest of the trip blogged in the next few days.

Iron Curtain, Part 2

After an angry and slidey trip through Slovakia, I arrived in Vienna. Vienna is somewhere I’ve always been curious to visit ever since I watched an old Austrian show set in Vienna called Inspector (Kommissar) Rex, which is basically about a dog that solves crimes. As you can imagine, it wasn’t all that gritty – it made Vienna look like such a nice and happy place that I definitely had to fit it in. On the way I stopped at a petrol station to find a couple having lunch next to their BMW F800GS, which still had all the lights on and a GPS charging even though the engine wasn’t on. I assumed they’d forgotten to turn it off and let them know, but they seemed to think it was fine – plenty of power in the battery. If I do that I end up spending 30 minutes trying to push start the bike (as you’ll see later in this post). Maybe there’s sense in buying more expensive bikes :-/. As for Vienna itself though – I really liked it, a beautiful city that looks good even in the rain.



This is what a road sign looks like in Austria. Dem Austrians got swag.


Back into the Warsaw Pact for a stay in Budapest. As much as I was in denial about it, my odometer was coming up to 48000km – which marked 18000km of European riding… and time for a major service. Having a look at the service manual, it all about flushing brake fluid, replacing rubber parts etc – not something that was going to be too easy in a hostel carpark with the tool kit under the seat. So I wimped out again and found a mechanic. Fortunately for me I was able to find a really good one – Mirek Motors – who fit me in at short notice and spoke English. Score! I also had to get my chain replaced again, as just like my last one, this had a tight spot and it was getting pretty bad. I’m not sure what exactly I did to those two chains to ruin them so quickly . The front sprocket was bolted on so tightly that the guys had to take it over the road to a car tyre place with a badass impact wrench, which then had to be left for 5 minutes to come up to maximum pressure just to budge the nut. No idea how that happened :-/.



The many tourists of Budapest


Budapest is a nice town, but I booked in for way too long there and spent a lot of the time just chilling, reading a book and relishing in the fact that I could afford to go to nice cafes and buy coffee. The hostel I stayed in was… interesting. It had an Australian guy in charge – apparently a few weeks ago he’d turned up there and on his first day asked for a job – the owners immediately let him run the hostel on his own and left. The result after three weeks was that it was more like an empty apartment that a bunch of backpackers had started squatting in than a hostel. There were a couple of girls that I’m pretty sure he was letting stay for free because he was involved with one of them, as well as some Hungarian teenager that he’d adopted who hung around. Woke up one night to the sound of one of the girls and the teenager… engaging in international relations. And much like international negotations, it involved a lot of noise-making and never really reached a conclusion.

So the upside of staying in Budapest was that I know longer fear being in a dorm room with heavy snorers. There’s so much worse out there :-|.



You know things are getting out of control when you're allowed to write on the walls. Although who am I to talk... I consider my GPS to be a travelling companion

I think that night was really where all the lustre fell off backpacking for me. On this trip I’ve got sick of so many things – sick of hostels, sick of pub crawls, sick of castles, cathedrals, museums, art galleries, camping… but never sick of riding my bike. Never for a second, not through rain, wind, campervans, potholes-big-enough-for-me-to-bottom-out-in (stay tuned for Albania). It’s a beautiful thing… and the good thing was that just south of Hungary…



Look at this guy, deliberately looking away from the camera, what a poser.


… was Romania.

I’m still not sure whether I loved or hated Romania. On one hand it has some of the best riding roads in the world… tight, twisty and not perfectly maintained, perfect for a almost-adventure-tourer like the Versys. Problems exist when you consider that the rest of the roads in the country are uniformly pretty terrible – which isn’t to say that they’re boring, more in the sense that they’re covered in roadworks, impossible to see at night and filled with the most dangerous drivers in Europe. But I’m getting ahead of myself.



George didn't actually even think the Transalpina was a complete road... I guess that might be related to the million sections of surprise gravel in the middle of it. I thought it was great fun though.


Getting out of Hungary was a bit more eventful than I’d planned – I was riding up an empty, perfectly straight road with perfect visibility and an unbroken line up the middle. Not really enjoying being stuck behind an oil tanker, I decided to overtake anyway… only to find that while my visibility of oncoming traffic wasn’t hindered, it was harder to see the two motorcycle cops hiding behind the trees on the side of the road. Uh oh. Upon being pulled over I got my passport, registration and so forth out and told my story about how I’d shipped the bike here and was riding all around Europe. My initial fear pretty soon disappeared as I realised that short of impounding the bike or imprisoning me there wasn’t really much they could do – I don’t think the Hungarian Police Force has the authority to issue New South Wales demerit points. I guess they came to the same conclusion because they pretty shortly said “Good holiday!” and let me go, but not without a warning – in Hungary I would normally get 240 euro fine for this, but in Romania? The officer mimed pointing a gun at his head and pulling the trigger.

*gulp*

After crossing the border… the first to involve a passport check since entering the EU (although I didn’t even have to take my helmet off… what is the point?) my first impressions of Romania weren’t great. I was trying to make it to near Brasov to find a camping ground, but my estimates of how long this would take were thwarted by the fact that there was a set of roadworks every 500m, and each seemed to involve 5 minutes of waiting at a red light. After a few hundred kilometres of frustratedly roaring away from a red light, turning a corner, finding another red light and screeching to a halt I beginning to wonder how I could convince the Hungarian government to retake Transylvania, just so they could be in charge of roadworks instead. Eventually I accepted that it was getting dark, there weren’t many campsites around and I was in the cheapest country so far… so I stopped in a town and found a pension. I was pretty impressed… for 30 EUR I got a private room with a TV, an ensuite, wifi, breakfast with omelette and coffee and juice – luxury!



It's slightly better than a tent and alphabetty spaghetti cooked on a dirty trangier


After a gnarly adventure-touring night spent lying in a comfy bed watching B movies on Romanian cable TV, I was ready to hit another motorcycling mecca – the Transalpina and the Transfagarasan. The Transalpina is great road – mile after mile after mile of easy lefts and rights, without too many hairpins or nasty surprises. It’s more like Norway than the tight passes in the Alps… you just get into a rhythm and eat up the kilometres. The Transalpina is made extra fun because it occasionally turns into gravel for anywhere from 10 metres to a few kilometres… it’s great, kind of like 5 minutes of comic relief in an action movie to keep things interesting. Sections of gravel road are also the only places where Romanian drivers really slow down – and there’s few things as satisfying as literally leaving the Audi-driving rich kid that’s held you up for the last 5 minutes in a cloud of your dust.



It's also quite pretty


Transfagarasan is possibly the best road in the world, if you believe Jeremy Clarkson’s view (which is generally inadvisable). It’s a different beast to Transalpina – going north to south as I did, it starts slow and immediately turns into a steep set of hairpins with a rough, grooved road leading up them. This is the famous bit of Transfagarasan – the bit you see in photos, and also a rubbish road to ride on. I’ve never seen the appeal of doing a million hairpins, and the fact that the rough road tends to make you slide a bit as you go around them doesn’t really help. But just as I was thinking up a vitriolic Facebook post about what a let down it was (“Best road in the world? Not even the best road for 50km!”) I descended the other side of the mountain and entered riding heaven. South of the hairpins the road starts to follow the shore of a lake, and turns into beautiful not-too-tight-not-too-fast twisties that go on and on and on. It actually turned out to be the best road I’ve ever ridden after all.



Another motorcycling pilgrimage complete!


As I exited Transfagarasan and got on the freeway (and I mean the – as far as I know there’s only one in all of Romania) night fell and riding became a whole new kind of exciting. I haven’t really talked about the driving habits of the Romanian people yet – often people will complain about the driving of the Greeks or the Italians or the Turks, disobeying the rules and driving dangerously. My experience with that sort of traffic has always been that it’s not ridiculously dangerous or chaotic, it just works in a different, more organic sort of way than in straight-laced Australia, where car drivers will chase you down just for lane-filtering past them.



After riding the second bit of the Transfagarasan I stopped here and stared at the lake for a while... a beautiful ride, a a beautiful view, and a beautiful moment by myself. It's times like these that made this trip worth it at three times the cost.


Romania isn’t like that… imagine some 17 year old who’s just got his licence, inherited his parents old car and gone out for a drive to impress his mates with his sweet ride – you know the sort. Now imagine a country where every single driver has that exact attitude, permanently. That’s basically Romania. In other places with chaotic traffic people overtake, fairly safely, in order to get where they’re going faster. In Romania, people will gladly put themselves and you in ridiculous amounts of danger just for shits and giggles… what was the point of putting yourself massively into debt and buying that new X6 if you’re not going to use every kilowatt, right? You’ll overtake a car in a twisty section of road, watch it quickly disappear into your mirror and think nothing of it until you hit the next town, slow down to 50, then find it screaming up behind you at 120 just so it can squeeze by you by a few inches and sit there in front of you again. If you see an oncoming car overtaking in your lane and move to the right so as to buffer it, you’ll often find that the car behind you will just hit the gas and move up beside you… once again, not so as to get anywhere, just to sit there at whatever speed it was doing before… the point being that it’s ahead of you now. But buffer overtaking cars you must, because they don’t care how many oncoming motorcycles they hit in order to get that extra space up in the traffic – Romania is the first (and hopefully only) place where I’ve had to swerve completely off the road into the gravel to dodge an oncoming car in my lane.



And the police are no help at all...

Getting back to where we were, the freeway in Romania was probably one of the scariest experiences of the whole trip. It’s a freeway in that it’s flat and reasonably wide, but unlike a Western European freeway it doesn’t have much on it that’s reflective in order to show the way at night, and often lane markings disappear completely for a while, leaving you to determine the way ahead mainly by dead reckoning. My headlight was ridiculously weak, illuminating barely any of the road ahead and forcing me to pick cars to follow so that I’d be sure to stay on the ashphalt. I was confused though – I could clearly see that the light was on because it was reflecting off the back of my windscreen, so had to still be working. I later realised that what I was seeing was the glow of the parking lights on either side of the main Versys headlight, that somehow got squeezed together in the reflection from the concave windscreen and hence deceived me. And by “later realised” I mean “didn’t realise until I got to Greece, several thousand kilometres later”. I am no Robert Pirsig.


An derelict building with a new BMW parked alongside - this is Bucharest.


Bucharest had the best value accomodation of the trip – 6 euros per night for a dorm by myself, with included breakfast and they let me wheel the bike through the person-sized gate in order to park it securely. Unfortunately that ends the bits I really liked about Bucharest. After so many spit-polished Eastern European tourist cities, Bucharest really stood out, but not really for positive reasons. When you tell your mum that you’re going to Eastern Europe, the fearful image she has in her head probably looks a lot like Bucharest. The traffic is insane, there’s stray dogs everywhere, and half the city seems to be falling down derelict. It looks a lot worse than it is though – you feel incredibly unsafe walking around the dark streets past abandoned buildings as the eyes of diseased animals follow you… but the dogs never even come close, and Bucharest apparently has one of the lowest rates of street crime in Europe. Bucharest is also home to the second-biggest building in the world (after the Pentagon) – a huge palace built by Romania’s despotic ruler in its last decades of communism. It was inspired when he went to North Korea and saw the huge monuments dedicated to its leaders, and it took so long to build that it was still under construction by the time Romania’s people had risen up and had him shot. By this time, however, it was already big enough that it would cost more to demolish than to finish, and so now it houses a substantial amount of the Romanian government.



The 45 minute tour covers less than 2% of the building. Yeah.


Not keen to be bogged down in any more cities, I headed south to Bulgaria. I’d actually been planning to turn around and start slowly heading back to England at this point, but I was sick of slowly heading anywhere – I longed for the same sort of lifestyle I had in Norway, where if I wasn’t riding, I was probably eating or sleeping. A post on this thread (thanks Jackson) encouraged me to check out Bulgaria, so why not. Unfortunately Os the Versys was less enthusiastic, as upon trying to start her up that morning all she could muster was a bit of feeble clicking.

Ahh crap, not this again.

To be honest I’d seen it coming – the last couple of times I’d started the engine, it’d been a real struggle to get it going. I’m not entirely sure what caused it – perhaps too much stopping and starting while taking photos on the Transfagarasan? In any case, what followed was the first 15 minutes of my journey being taken up by pushing the bike up and down the street outside the hostel trying to push start it. Eventually, after the help of a friendly American hostel-goer (also a motorcyclist) and some Romanian guy sitting on the street, it started up and I rode away with my fingers crossed that this was a random occurence and not the indication of some drastic reg/rec problem.



Parking in Bucharest... whether it's a parallel park or a 45 degree park depends entirely on what you feel like on the day


After fuelling up while leaving the engine running for fear of another push-start, I proceeded south over the border to central Bulgaria, where rtwdoug's motocamp is. Of course he was riding around America at the time so he wasn’t there to meet, but I still had a great time. The campsite itself is awesome – it’s decorated with a collection of random old Eastern European bikes and has a sort of clubhouse decorated with tonnes of bike memorabilia. As well as having free wifi (surfing reddit from inside a tent never gets old), it’s just a tremendously welcoming place – it was great explaining my trip to someone, and rather than enduring the typical backpacker reactions (“you can ride a bike around Europe?!!?”), feeling a bit inadequate next to what other people had done (“Bulgarian signs actually aren’t that difficult for me because I learned the cyrillic alphabet when I rode the whole way across Russia”). Apparently central Bulgaria is the next big thing in British real estate – riding through the villages you see GB plates everywhere, and two of the British guests were just about to close the deal on buying a house. Makes sense too – for the cost of a deposit on a Sydney apartment, I could literally buy all the property in a Bulgarian village. Or more realistically I could buy neither, because I spend all my savings on petrol and tyres and photos of me with Santa.



I'll definitely come back when I ride around the world


It’d be a waste to go to Bulgaria and not check out the Buzludzha monument. Basically, the Balkan mountains in the middle of Bulgaria were often used for secret meetings by Bulgarian communists before they took over, so the government eventually commemorated this by building a bizarre flying-saucer shaped building on top of one of the mountain peaks. To be honest, the architecture of it is phenomenal – pictures don’t do it justice, even looking at it from 12km away you can’t take your eyes off it. After riding down the seriously dilapidated road that leads to it, I parked, took some photos and looked for a way in. I’d seen blog posts and such about people going inside and discovering mosaics… but I found that someone had welded the doors shut (apparently the existing Bulgarian Socialist Party now has ownership, so maybe that’s something to do with it). Disappointed, I had a walk round and eventually found a hole in the wall big enough for me to climb up through… et voila, I was inside.



Wow.


Pictures can’t ever do the inside justice either – it’s impossible to really even describe the experience of climbing up a derelict socialist monument in the middle of rural Bulgaria, with no one around, listening to the constant creaking of the building in the wind. It’s really quite creepy – I was constantly looking over my shoulder expecting someone to jump out at me.



Perhaps the coolest place of the whole trip.


Apparently you can climb up into the tower as well, but daylight was fading me and I really wanted to get back to set up my tent. As with Romania, I’d planned to turn around in Bulgaria… but then I realised that Istanbul was only a day’s ride away. Would be a waste to be so close and *not* see it, right? So I loaded up and off I went… to the very edge of Europe itself.
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Old 10-18-2012, 05:32 PM   #67
kimangao
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Dunno where you are right now. But if your Nürburgring-idea became true you're not too far from my place. A beer, a bed and a garage would be waiting for you in Essen.
Just drop me a line if you're around Essen.


Größere Kartenansicht

Cheers

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Old 10-19-2012, 03:38 PM   #68
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Ahhh damnit, I'm already back in England :(. Thanks though.

---
Orient Express

Up until now, all of my travel had been in the EU – sure, at the edges of the Schengen zone there were half-arsed pseudo-borders where all you had to do was flash your passport without taking your helmet off, but not a proper one. As such, Turkey was a bit of a learning experience. I can’t remember how many different places I had to stop to get over, but I think it was around five… I had to exit Bulgaria, which included a green card check for some reason, get my number plate put into a computer in Turkey, go through passport control, get a visa (for some reason I thought it was visa free, oops), go through passport control again, buy insurance, go through customs and show my insurance, go through another stall that wanted to see my registration documents again… and then I was through, but I might have forgotten a few stops along the way.



Stop, wait, go, stop, wait, go


If you have a vehicle registered in the Australian state of New South Wales, your registration papers don’t so much take the form of papers, but rather a sticker that you either stick inside your car window or at the back of your bike. If you, for instance, want to go through a border in Europe (which I’m guessing is pretty uncommon), you’re left with either trying to take the sticker off the back of your bike and hand it to the customs officer, or hand them the A4 sheet of paper that it comes on, which fortunately has the details of the bike, but also has a giant hole in it where the sticker used to be. I opted for the latter, and this wasn’t the first border crossing where I got some incredulous looks.

“Do you have any… other… registration papers?”

Egh.

In any case, I took the advice given to me by everyone back at the Motocamp in Bulgaria – just sit there until they let you through. And so, 90 minutes and an expensive-arse third-party insurance policy later, I was in Turkey. There’s a mosque right at the edge of the border, and as I was packing my documents back up and putting my gloves back on, the call to prayer sounded. I’ve complained a bit about cities being the same as each other in Europe – I was in a very different place now.



Endless Istanbul

Istanbul is an amazing city – after an hour or two of riding along the freeway, you come over a hill and suddenly this megopolis of square, multi-storey buildings extends for as far as you can see. The scale of the city is hard to describe – I come from Sydney, which is one of the biggest cities by area in the world but it’s all suburban sprawl – most of the square kilometres are people’s backyards. It’s a far cry from the tightly-packed streets here. Traffic in Turkey is a whole other world too. Minutes after crossing the border, I saw a man standing on top of a moving fire engine, spraying a roadside fire with water from one of the hoses. As for Istanbul, they should send people there for a few days when they learn how to ride bikes, it’s probably the best test of roadcraft in the world. It’s anarchic, but it works in its own way – motorbikes buzz around cars, cars stream past buses – you’ve gotta keep checking your mirrors and your blind spot, but the time it takes you to get to your destination is only limited by your own creativity.



It's nice to be in a country where buying a kebab for dinner isn't a lazy option, it's a cultural experience

Once established at my hostel I braved the crowds of tourists to see the sites – I only had a couple of days, but you could easily take a week and not see everything. It certainly was amusing visiting mosques instead of cathedrals, and there’s so much history around the city – Roman, Byzantine, ottoman and modern Turkish… it really could do with a proper historical museum to go through all of it, rather than just focusing on the archeology. Then at night I’d chill out on the roof of the hostel and have a few beers, as well as cheap and delicious kebab from one of the many street stalls. It really is a great city just to hang around in, even if you completely miss the Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sofia.



This was the view from my hostel. Not bad at all.

After Istanbul, I wasn’t done with Turkey yet – I decided to brave the confusion of crossing from Turkey to Greece by ferry, and as I headed west from Istanbul rather than continuing to Greece as I’d planned, I instead headed down the Gallipoli peninsula. If you’re from Australia or New Zealand and you’re over the age of about 4, you know about Gallipoli. Before you even learned about World War 1, or even war in general, you’ve learned about Gallipoli. Although both countries were already officially separated from Britain, it was as a result of this doomed (and importantly, British-planned) battle that seperate national identities were formed. Seems odd to travel to the other side of the planet to see where your country took shape in the minds of its people, but that’s the funny thing about history I guess.



This are the cliffs overlooking Anzac cove - my first thought as I approached was "this can't be the right place, surely no one would want to attack that"

What I didn’t realise was that on the other side of the barbed wire, the idea of modern Turkey was also being formed – the man in charge of the Turkish defence at Gallipolli was Ataturk himself. Anzac Cove, where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps fought isn’t hard to find on a map as the Turkish name is “Anzac Koyu” – they renamed the beach to honour the sacrifice made by troops that attacked them. The war cemetaries and memorials for soldiers from both sides are meticulously maintained, and the roads leading in are perfect in order to accomodate the thousands of Australians and New Zealanders who stream in every year for the ANZAC day ceremony – and reportedly make a giant mess which the Turks then clean up. I was deeply, deeply impressed.



I nearly teared up a bit

And in turn, I found myself a victim of Gallipoli’s gravel carparks as I dropped the bike, picked up (helped by a Turkish tour bus driver – what a guy) then 5 minutes later, dropped it again down the road. Both times were stationary drops where it started slipping and I should’ve been able to save it, but I think 4 months out of the gym has wasted away my muscles a bit. The second time I was thrown sideways into the gravel and landed on my GoPro, which I’d cleverly put in my jacket pocket. The GoPro was fine but my ribs hurt like hell… and would continue to hurt for the entire remainder of the trip – I have a feeling I fractured or broke one.



Sigh... sorry about that Norway and Lithuania

Fortunately my panniers, which take a while to remove but seem to be nearly indestructable, held up with only a few scratches. My sticker collection took a toll though :(. Having checked out ANZAC Cove and the Lone Pine memorial I hopped on a car ferry over the Dardanelles Strait and headed south, trying to make it to Bergama before dark. Once again I found myself on a dark freeway, and once again I couldn’t see anything other than the cars in front – it was here that I finally realised that this was because I didn’t have a headlight anymore. Somehow I safely arrived in Bergama, found my hostel, ate some pide and went to bed.



What's left of the Pergamon acropolis, after the Germans stole a bunch of it


Next morning I had breakfast with my Belgian dorm-mate and took the long walk up to the acropolis in Bergama (known to the Greeks as Pergamon). As with the British Museum and the Athens acropolis, most of the statues and so forth have been removed and taken to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which is annoying, but it’s still really impressive – in some ways more than the one in Athens. Walking up is definitely the best way to see it – in addition to dodging a 20 lire ticket for the cable car that goes right to the top, you get more of a sense that you’re Indiana Jones, stumbling across an empty ruin.



It's a bit Indiana Jones

Turkey was great and I really, really wish I could’ve stayed longer – if I could do the trip again I would definitely have skipped more of Eastern Europe and made my way around the whole country. However, I had to consider that despite being 80% through all the time I had left, I was further from London than I’d ever been – and more immediately, I wanted to be in Northern Italy in just a week and a half to meet some friends I’d made in Estonia. So I got up early, streaked down the freeway and bought a ferry ticket to Lesvos, Greece. After waiting for half an hour to wait for the customs official to show up so I could get my papers dealt with, I found that what had been described as a car ferry on the internet was really just a normal ferry with two parking spaces at the back… and not so much as a nylon rope to secure the bike with. Good thing the Aegean is such a calm sea.



Goodbye Asia, hello again Europe


And with that, I started my journey on the long road back to London…
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Old 10-20-2012, 03:56 AM   #69
Ross1969
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Great story Alex - If you had come this way (Bristol area) you could have surfed my couch to explore the region.
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Old 10-29-2012, 08:25 PM   #70
Schwer OP
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:(.

Home now - the race is on to write everything down before I forget everything or run out of motivation!

The Marathon Commences
Greece is an interesting place – it runs according to its own sort of logic, the like of which is far beyond my feeble Anglo-Saxon understanding. For instance, one does not simply get a ferry from the Greek mainland to the Turkish mainland or vice versa… but it’s fine as long as you go via a Greek island. I imagine this might be the consequence of strained Turko-Greek relations, but at the same time I would think that if one country were to attack the other, it probably wouldn’t be via car ferry? Barely room for motorbikes, let alone tanks. It’s a different pace and a different lifestyle to any other country I’ve ever been to, and unfortunately it’s probably this lifestyle that hasn’t proven too sustainable economically. The government has no money to pay the bills, so it tries to spend less money, so the workers get paid less, so they pay less tax, so the government has even less money. Most Greeks I talked to (and they’re an incredibly friendly people) seemed so politically aware – much more than most other places – but also brutally fatalistic. Whereas the Portugese or the Spanish will complain that their country’s in trouble and it’s the government’s fault, the sentence usually ends with some suggestion of what needs to be done. In Greece the sentence goes more like “these are our problems… and we’re totally buggered”. I assume this is why even as the country collapses around them, Greek shopkeepers will suddenly stop understanding English if you want to pay with a credit card (as use of a credit card forces them to keep it on the books), then suddenly understand you again when you threaten to walk away. I suppose part of the issue is that solving the economic problems might mean giving up some of the relaxed nature and appreciation for living over working that makes Greece so special – to become more like the super-serious Northern European countries that now keep it afloat.



It’s not a bad way to live for now though

If you’ve got a ferry to catch in Greece, for instance, it’s a bad idea getting a coffee. Between ordering, getting what you want, paying etc you’ll be there for an age, but you’ll enjoy every minute of sitting there soaking up the ambience anyway. No one in Greece seems to be in a hurry, ever… except maybe when they’re on the road. Like a lot of the mediterranean cultures, there’s just so much more of an appreciation for enjoying the little things – a cup of coffee and a game of backgammon, a swim in the Aegean. Definitely a far cry from Northern or Eastern Europe.



If I had to pick any other vehicle to tour around on, I think I’d pick a yacht

Given the aforementioned rule about going from Turkey to Greece, my first stop in the country was the island of Lesvos, famous as the birthplace of Sapphos, who invented lesbians. Or something. To be honest I didn’t really know too much about the history – I was only there because it was a convenient place to change ferries, but it turned out to be gorgeous. I don’t often hear of Greek Islands being talked about as great motorcycling destinations alongside Romania or Turkey, but the island turned out to be covered with hundreds of kilometres of tight, twisting roads with beautiful views. Perplexingly the whole island seems to have a 50km/h limit, prompting the locals to drive at whatever speed they want, seeing how there’s no way they’re wasting hours going that slow.



I was hoping to explore some of the dirt roads but my increasingly smooth rear tyre combined with these big ole’ rocks resulted in bricks being shat whenever I went uphill… makes for a nice photo though.

The day certainly wasn’t without its inconveniences though – the first order of business was utilising the free time and sunlight to replace my blown headlight bulb. On a car I believe this takes a few minutes – I wasn’t quite expecting to have to remove pretty much everything further forward than the seat to get it out, then put it all back afterwards… by the time I was done it was 3pm – fortunately still enough time left for a nice ride through the sweaty Greek sunshine. As the sun set I thought it’d be nice to go for a swim at the beach… my efforts at playing Ewan and Charlie and riding on the super-fine dirt that European countries tend to pretend is sand resulted in me digging my stupid rear road tyre into a hole so deep that the bike could stay up without the aid of a stand. Having realised this, I stared out to sea for a second (“ffffffuuuuuuuuuuu!”), then after I’d had my moment, a look in the rear view mirrors revealed two Greek guys walking up with a plank of wood to help unbog me. It’s one of those funny things that I’ve noticed while travelling (as I write this on the plane home) – if you find yourself in deep enough trouble that you can’t get out on your own, there always seems to be someone close at hand. Warms the heart, frankly.


Making the most of the weather with some topless sunbathing

That night, I rolled onto the ferry (a much bigger one this time) and spent a comfortable night sleeping through the journey to Athens. Fortunately this time the bike didn’t have to go unrestrained – instead the ferry company supplied a single, not particularly thick rope with one end tied to a railing and one end tied to your handlebars. Perfect. I did note that Greece has one of the highest proportions of motorcycles to cars I’ve seen, as well as the lowest proportions of people wearing safety gear – a great deal of people don’t even bother wearing helmets. I’ve never seen so many sorta-kinda-dual-sports bikes in my life either. Every second vehicle is a Transalp or a V-Strom or even a Versys like mine – even saw the police using them.



What I really like about the landscape of Greece is that it’s so easy to imagine the same mountains and plains playing host to ancient civilisations – or even mythological creatures

Athens is a place where you’ve really got to pick your accomodation carefully – being located away from the centre doesn’t mean you’ll be slightly inconvienced, it might mean you’re completely isolated given that public transport is subject to frequent strikes. It’s a city with a million things to see, but unfortunately most of the sights only really need a quick look. The Temple of Zeus is little more than a collection of giant columns, the Acropolis only allows you to walk past its buildings without ever getting too close. It was great to see but I was a bit underwhelmed – I think I was expecting something more like Rome – you can walk all around the Collisseum, for instance. To be honest you don’t need more than a few days to have a decent look around, which was lucky because that’s all the time that I had.



Athens – no building is allowed to be tall enough to block the view of the Acropolis (extreme right)

I wanted to be in Northern Italy by the 28th of September – a little more than a week away at this point. It was time to head north, rapidly. So I fought my way out of the crazy Athens traffic, intending to camp just south of the Albanian border on the Adriatic. Unfortunately at this point I suffered for my schedule – which would become a theme until I got to Italy. A stop at Ancient Corinth yielded some lovely photos but I didn’t have time to go inside anything. Some complacency on my part regarding fuel (turns out when every bit of the dashboard starts flashing and spelling out “FUEL!!!”… you should go get some fuel) meant that I came perilously close to running out – the engine was just starting to splutter and die when I coasted into a big petrol station, where I filled my 20L tank (including the air bubble at the top) with 19.734 litres. Eek.



All this will be yours!

As darkness approached I arrived at my campsite and set up my tent, finding I had just enough time to go for a swim before the sun set completely. As nice as it had been to be in a developed country and pay in euros, I wasn’t done with transitional economies yet – it was time for the scary and numerous border crossings of the Balkans, which I knew very little about – especially Albania, the next country on my list. To make matters worse, the border crossing that I intended to use looked like it might be so small that it wouldn’t be able to provide me with third party insurance, and an attempt to try to plan my route for the next day showed George the GPS seemed to be only aware of one road in the entirety of the country – and it wasn’t one that I even wanted to take. Gulp.

That could wait until tomorrow though – it was time to enjoy the bluer-than-blue waters of the Adriatic, and use the time I had left to enjoy a country that had become one of my favourites of the whole trip.



How’s the serenity?
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Old 10-29-2012, 08:30 PM   #71
Schwer OP
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Balkan Blitz
Having realised that I was going to be without GPS support in Albania (a maze of a country) unless I did something quickly, I stopped at a cafe before the border and used the wifi to get another GPS app – it’s one of the nice things about using your phone for navigation – if something doesn’t work, just switch apps. Easy.



Not a bad view to wake up to

With my fingers firmly crossed, I headed to the border – contrary to some older reports I’d read on the internet, the border closest to the sea between Greece and Albania did in fact offer third party insurance – and it was only about seven or eight euros. Bargain. The lady selling it even gave me a map of Albania, which I thought was just a cute gesture until I actually got to Albania and realised that you really want every map you can get. I imagine they started giving them out after someone went through and came back a day later thinking he’d got to Bosnia. Actually communicating that I needed insurance was (and continued to be) a bit of a problem though – I found that handing over my green card with Albania crossed out helped the situation a bit.



A curvy road, a mountain view and a rubbish tip. Albania in a photo.

Albania isn’t a country that you’d get confused with Greece. Really it’s not a country you’d get confused with anywhere – it’s one of the most unique places I’ve ever been. As I rode I immediately found myself in spectacular mountains – the Balkans (at least the Yugoslav Balkans) had begun. I also immediately found that I was lost… a realisation I’d come to repeatedly that day. Albania doesn’t really have road signs, so you rarely have any idea what road you’re on – and in Albania a major arterial road might be a paved dual-carriageway, or it might be a narrow track covered in fine dust. I repeatedly missed a turn-off for the road north because there was a petrol station built right in the middle of it. The roads of Albania are covered with tiny curiosities too – there’s a petrol station seemingly every two or three hundred metres, with the signs promising all kinds of fuels, restaurants, shops, hotels etc – and upon pulling in you’ll find a single uncovered pump. There are many multi-story buildings that only have the first story actually built, leaving a skeleton frame above. Dusty old Mercedes are everywhere – I remember seeing this on Michael Palin’s New Europe, where he expressed some wonder about where they all came from. I’m not sure how much of a mystery it really is – on a lot of them you can still see the half-chipped-away NL and DE plates.



The Adriatic is pretty blue, as blue things go

It’s far from the isolated Maoist republic that it once was though – the southern coast of the country’s a funny sort of budget riviera crowded with Italian tourists who get the ferries over the Adriatic. If you wanted to hang out on a beach in the Mediterranean, Albania’s certainly not a bad place to do it – all the prettiness of Croatia or Corfu for a tiny fraction of the price. Once I figured out which way I was supposed to be going, the roads were amazing though – they wind along the side of the cliffs as the sea glitters below… it’s like being in a sports car commercial.



Shame I didn’t have a bit more time to waste here

From Albania I made my way north to Dubrovnik, taking me out of Albania, into Montenegro, out of Montenegro and into Croatia – the first of a number of occasions where I’d go through three countries in a day. Cunningly I found myself without a decent GPS map again, and on stopping at a petrol station to buy a paper one I met a nice Dutch couple traveling south in an FJ40 Landcruiser they’d imported from Australia – sure hadn’t seen one of those in a while. Having found that my new map didn’t have the names of any roads printed on it, they explained that there was no point in labeling roads on the map because there were no signs to mark them anyway, and kindly gave me some directions without which I’d surely have been very very lost. I can see why they’d bring an FJ40 to this part of the world too – for some reason the first 16km of the main highway into Croatia from Montenegro is a crappy, undulating gravel road full of little invisible holes. My normal gravel-road MO of pretending KTM has hired me to ride the Dakar and going way faster than I probably really should very nearly resulted in me going flying as my front wheel found the side of one of these holes, pushing the bike sideways and nearly over. I’d like to think it was my elite dirt riding skills that saved me, but I suspect the thanks should really go to whatever genius at Kawasaki designed the beautiful front forks on my bike.



I stayed just long enough in Montenegro for it to have its own photo album

Dubrovnik is another heavily heavily heavily toured town – I’ve heard the old town sometimes gets so crowded that you can barely move. Its location halfway up the Adriatic makes it a perfect stop for big cruise ships, which disembark passengers in their thousands every day. The hostel I stayed at had a view of where some of them docked – when a fellow traveller googled one of the big ones he found that it had 2000 guests and 1000 crew. Ridiculous. I still loved it though – riding towards it along the cliffside just as the sun set reminded me of that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean where they’re coming into Tortuga, with the lights from the city dancing on the shimmering water.



Not my best photo ever, but there’s not a lot of parking places along the cliffs.

The old town of Dubrovnik during the day turned out to be just as beautiful as it’d been from the cliffs at night – I exhausted the space on my memory card as a result of seeing a beautiful photo every couple of steps. What I never realised was that it’s actually the city used for filming King’s Landing in the Game of Thrones television series – I went into the fort next to the city to find it decked out in medieval ladders, barrels, banners etc. It was just as crowded as I’d been warned though – and the weather made it sweaty work walking up and down the many stairs. As such, I spent the rest of the day hanging about the beach (turns out that going to the beach with a fractured/broken rib is much more difficult than going without one) and chilling with a beer on the hostel balcony – it was a well-earned rest.



It’s much more poorly defended against foreign invaders than it is in the TV Series

Another 3-country day took me for a very short jaunt through Bosnia, then back to Croatia, then over the border to Slovenia. I really wanted to spend another night camping on the Adriatic but alas I just didn’t have the time. Upon rolling up to the Slovenian border I found two booths, the first one empty and the second one manned. I made to stop at the second one only to find a border guard jumping out of nowhere shouting at me.

Pointing at himself… “POLICE!”
… pointing at the stop sign next to the first booth “WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!”.

He seemed to think I was trying to run the crossing at 5km/h, and explaining that I was stopping at the only manned booth didn’t really seem to help. I can only guess that the source of his irritation was that I caught him having a smoko when he shouldn’t have been. After checking every single page of my passport I was free to go through, and I didn’t have to stop at the second booth even though it said STOP on that one too- and I can only presume it meant the same thing as the first.

Not the best first impression.



The cliff roads of Croatia

As I rode north, it also started got cold and started raining – no more chilling on the beach for me, this was serious alpine weather now. Fortunately I also started seeing some serious alpine roads – around the north of Croatia I started picking up some beautiful curvy roads through little mountains and farms, and the road from the border of Slovenia to Ljubljana was great to ride even as night fell.



The perils of self-time photography with a point and shoot

Slovenia notable for being the most developed of any formerly-socialist economy. If you didn’t know that it used to be part of Yugoslavia you would never really know – it looks just like Austria, in terms of prosperity and architecture. Ljubljana’s a lovely little city, but there’s not much there that’s distinct from the many other lovely little cities in Europe – there’s a castle and a bunch of statues and a bridge with dragons on it. The reason I really came though was to see Lake Bled, which a lot of people along the way had told me was a gorgeous place to visit. It was, indeed, a gorgeous place to visit, in fact it looked exactly like the photos… leading me to wonder why I’d bothered coming to see it with my own eyes. Still, got some nice photos of my own and had a fun run riding up a creek bed because George the GPS thought that a hiking trail was actually a road. As the “road” became harder and harder I got off to have a look ahead and found that it quickly turned into 45 degree slopes filled with loose rocks that nearly caused me to fall over just walking on them. Having learned my lesson about pretending I’m in a rally I just walked up.



Yup.

Being underwhelmed by a lake that looks like that because you’ve seen so much beauty over the past few months is a pretty good problem to have, by my reckoning. I went back to the hostel, packed my bags and got some sleep – tomorrow I’d be back in Western Europe. The final act had well and truly begun.
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Old 10-29-2012, 10:56 PM   #72
Blader54
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I had a similar thing happening at a crossing from Croatia to Slovenia. Two sequential sets of booths. Went through first set fine. They checked my passport, etc. Second set was unmanned. Went through. Immediate sirens, flashing lights, etc. Went back. Got yelled at for not stopping at customs. First booth was immigration, second was customs. Not that they have any signs on them or anyone tells you that.....and considering that in the EU you just roll through borders. Even at US/Canada crossings there's only one set of booths. Funny place.

Glad to hear you enjoyed Dubrovnik. Did you get to that bar that hangs outside the city wall over the sea? Pretty cool place and a good escape from crowds although it can get crowded there too. Hit it when you go back. I went there a few Octobers ago....fewer tourists (like me). If you decide not to stay in hostels you might want to consider staying in the little village that is just north of the main gate into the old city. It's nestled between the road to the new town and the sea, scrunched into a tiny little cove. It's pretty quiet and gorgeous, as you have the city walls looming to your left (as you face the sea) and a castle on top of the ridge to your right. For accommodations there is a restaurant on the right, up a little bit from the shore, that also has rooms. Ate breakfast there in the morning and talked to some folks from England who were quite pleased with it. The other alternative is to find George and get a room through him. George lives in the village but seems to be the major fixer in the city. He meets every bus when they stop by the main gate to discharge tourists and hits people up with offers of rooms. I stayed in one of his, which was in a private house. Room was very basic but the view was stunning: window opened directly above the tiny beach. George is actually a very nice guy and is a single-handed tourist agency. His enormous wallet is crammed with brochures, ferry schedules, and business cards. He hooked us up with an excellent restaurant in the old town when we asked him to recommend a place where locals would eat, and he saved us much aggro re getting a ferry out to one of the islands. I still remember sitting on the terrace of the restaurant in the cove and hearing my name called from far away. Looked up and saw George high up on his balcony a block away giving me a big wave.
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Old 11-10-2012, 06:21 PM   #73
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What's Alp?

Goodbye, cheap food. Goodbye, shitty roads. Goodbye Eastern Europe – hello again Western Europe.

As terrifying as Western Europe is from a budgetary perspective, I was glad to be back – while the East certainly provides more of a sense of adventure, I do find that the stress involved with adventure… wears at you a bit. To be honest you appreciate the adventurousness of doing something the most before you’ve actually done it – when you’re doing it it’s stressful as hell, and afterwards it doesn’t even seem like it was a big deal. Having woken up early in Slovenia, I rushed through the Alpine roads over the border to Italy, where I had an appointment with some old friends from Estonia.


Could be an album cover for some terrible Il Divo-style group

This was what I’d rushed through half of Europe for – Nicola, who I’d met at a hostel in Tallinn, had been showing Anthony and Simon (also from the hostel in Tallinn) around in Italy and had said that seeing how there was a big party for the Bassano del Grappa rally in the Italian alps that I should come along. I’d been pretty good in keeping to the Krakow party ban described in an earlier post, but it was about time to have a night off. I arrived at midday, and immediately sat down to an amazing Carbonara cooked by Nicola’s mum – immediately vindicating my stereotypical idea of Italian hospitality. That afternoon Nicola took us around and showed us some of the beautiful little towns around the area. Buildings in Italy have this certain way of ageing – cracks in the walls, vines growing all over them, exposed bricks from where the render’s fallen off… but you wouldn’t want it to look any other way.



Italians drive down alleys this wide… in both directions

After a bit of tourism we picked up our camping gear and drove up the mountain. After some lovely twisty roads endured as a passenger in Nicola’s Seat Ibiza, we got to the party – and were we three Australians ever impressed. I always thought that Australians had a pretty good system for outdoor drinking – a few eskies full of beer cans, a gas BBQ, a campfire… you lil beaudy! The Italians take it to a whole new level though – they’d brought a whole bar complete with proper beer taps… camping. It even had a modified car stereo set up to pump out music, and a car horn so that they could honk at the cars going by. It was great, cars would come by during at the night, be honked at, then stop just to laughingly exchange horn broadsides for a few seconds before continuing up the mountain.



Pretty impressive setup

Unfortunately I can’t say I represented my country too well in the drinking stakes – the Italians insisted that we, their guests, drank and drank and drank… and that’s about as far as I can remember because the next day I woke up in my tent feeling very poorly and with no real memory of how I got there. Egh. Nonetheless, I stumbled out of my tent and went to investigate the roaring engines that I could hear – the rally was about to start.



Robert Kubica deftly handles the hairpin

I’d never seen a rally, and it was pretty cool watching all the cars go by even if it took me a while to feel well enough to enjoy it. In between the cars, it was also fun watching the Italian people deal with each other – it’s such an outgoing, friendly culture. At one point some another group of guys who were watching from the other side of the track started shouting and jeering at Nicola and his friends, prompting him and his friends to flip ‘em the bird and shout back. After this went back and forth I a few times I was starting to wonder if a fight was going to break out. But this was a long way away from King’s Cross – eventually some of them did come over and were poured a beer, then stuck around chatting and watching the race for an hour or so before going back to where they were sitting. This wasn’t unusual – a number of people came by, got chatting and had a beer with the guys. One crazy old Italian guy called Franco kept coming back again and again for beer, keeping the glass each time – at one point he came up with a bag full of (framed) photographs and showed Simon the history of his life. A couple of times he was getting changed, prompting all Nicola’s friends to shout “Nudo! Nudo!”, then when he called their bluff “noo, Franco, nooo!”. I was however, assured that this wasn’t a typical Italian man – “ee is eh typical Italian crazy man!”. I was quite amused.



Ciao Franco!

Despite my now chronic inability to hold my liquor, it was a great night and day – one of those travel experiences you always hear other people talking about and think “man, I bet I’d never have the opportunity to do that”. Going into the mountains with a bunch of mates and a bunch of beer is something so universal, but it was funny to see how different the whole ritual was on this side of the world. It must be freaking difficult to be a shy Italian – everyone’s always talking, always joking, and it’s always so friendly. Admittedly I didn’t understand a lot about what was said most of the time, but everyone’s always smiling when they talk, so I assume they’re saying friendly things. It’s a lovely culture, and I’m so grateful to Nicola for inviting me and letting me experience it. Couldn’t stay much longer though – Nicola had to work the next day, and I had 3 weeks more trip to fill. So I picked up my bike, which had fallen over in the rain-soaked garden and, after a beautiful degustation meal at a local restaurant, I was off to Austria.



If there was ever a country that looked exactly the way you hoped, it’s Austria

Unfortunately it was already really late by the time I left, and I pretty soon realised that my handlebars were twisted… although I managed to get them pretty untwisted at the side of the road,my plans to ride the whole route over the alpine passes were quickly dashed and I found myself slabbing it the whole way north to Innsbruck. Upon arriving late at night, I located the local campsite in the dark and the next morning went to the local motorbike dealership for a service. I didn’t think it’d be too much of a big deal… an oil change and a tire, really. That was up until the mechanic read the size of the rear tire and noticed a massive dent in the rear rim… one that I’d completely failed to notice up until now. After originally telling me it’d take at least a week, a few calls later and they said come back in two days. Phew.



Not bad for 10EUR a night with internet

Innsbruck wasn’t the happiest time… like I mentioned before, if the bike is unhappy then I’m unhappy. I ended up spending three days there, which is two more than I really needed… staying in a campsite and not talking to anyone, in combination with not really having anything that I really wanted to see, was a bit of a downer. Unfortunately most of the time I was in Innsbruck there was dense fog everywhere too – it wasn’t until my last day that I finally realised the campsite was surrounded by dramatic mountains. It’s a nice little town though – particularly cool is the Tyrol panorama, a 360 degree painting depicting a battle where a bunch of Austrian peasants defeated a professional army of Bavarians lead by one of Napoleon’s generals.



It even has 3D props. Solid effort.

Getting my bike back from the dealership was a rude shock. I certainly wasn’t in Hungary any more – the new wheel, the new tire and labour costs totalled over 1000 euro. Adding insult to injury, somehow the dealership didn’t accept credit cards, so I had to withdraw the entire amount at an ATM and physically had over this stupidly massive amount of money… the can of chain lube that they threw in didn’t even end up working. Scheisse! The euros didn’t all go to waste though – upon getting the bike back it felt good as new. The steering that’d been loose since Slovakia had been tightened back up, the engine that had felt out of breath ever since Turkey was back to being as powerful as it had ever been… proper job, Innsbruck. I was back in business – and just in time for the Alpine roads.



The bikers' promised land

A short ride later and I was staying in Imst, a small town not too far from Innsbruck, but right in the middle of Austria… and indeed the middle of the Alps. I was at a beautiful little hostel in an Gasthof that dated back hundreds of years, but this being the end of the season, there was barely anyone else there. Given how nice it was, I decided to stay two nights and spend the next day on my newly serviced bike exploring, particularly the Dolomites which I’d missed on the way out of Italy. I was, after all, really impressed by this part of the world – I’ve heard of hotels in other places being deliberately unfriendly to motorcyclists, but in the Alps, you’re not a real hotel unless you have a picture of a motorcycle on your sign. I must have seen hundreds of “Biker Hotels”, as well as “Biker Cafes” and other themed establishments – to be honest there was probably as much tourism centered around motorcycling as there was skiing.



Totally worth the backtrack

It also marked my first time going over the proper passes in the Alps – the first and the last one of the day was the Timmelsjoch pass, which goes over the border between Austria and Italy. On the way up I paid 18 euros for a return ticket, was given a free sticker and a bunch of pamphlets, and subsequently froze my arse off going over the high, foggy pass. After a great day exploring the endless awesome roads of South Tyrol, I put the hostel in Imst into the GPS only to be given an ETA of 9pm. The pass closed at 8pm, and it was itself about an hour away from the hostel. Uh oh. I raced back to Austria – Italian signs gave way to German which was encouraging, but at the same time the blue sky gave way to a cloudy one, and the sun quickly dropped out of the sky. Eventually I got back to the pass before 8pm… but it was pitch dark, raining, foggy and I wasn’t sure exactly what part of the pass they closed – if I encountered a boom gate I’d have to turn around and take an incredibly circuitous, hours-long route all the way back through Innsbruck. And so I found myself going as fast as I dared up a wet, winding mountain road, freezing my arse off and finding that what little was illuminated by the headlight was obscured by the fog. I’ve never wanted to see the top of a hill so badly. But eventually I found it, and after a similarly gnarly but far shorter ride down the mountain I saw a bunch of red lights looming up at me out of the fog ahead.



Hallelujah!

Finally I’d reached the tollbooth, handing the disappoving attendant my return ticket just before the clock hit 8pm and he closed it down. No massive trip through Innbruck for me tonight… one hour more and I could be back in my nice warm hostel bed. Curiously, there was a tiny cafe still open right next to the tollbooth, so I stopped to have a coffee and warm up, finding the host enjoying a few shots of jagermeister with a lone, middle-aged woman. None of this is particularly remarkable, but the whole image struck me as being rather artistic – these two sharing a lonely drink on the side of a foggy Austrian mountain. It was one of those moments you have travelling – the ones where you feel more like you’re in a movie or a book or a painting than real life.



Pretty lakes : )

The next day was a big milestone…



Only one place with this ridiculous of a map…

My TopGear tour of Europe continued, as I finally hit the Stelvio Pass. To be honest I wasn’t that impressed – it’s not really a great riding road, unless you’re a massive fan of endless blind hairpins. Really what does make it notable is that it’s very high and very spectacular.



No one will notice how terrible you are at going around hairpins if you just stop in the middle of one and take a photo

Nonetheless, it is a mecca and I had to go there if only to get the sticker and the photo.



Jeremy Clarkson must *love* doing U-Turns

From the Stelvio it was a quick and convenient trip down into Italy to see Lake Como. I only stayed one night there – as a smelly motorcyclist with barely any money and a wardrobe consisting of a couple of crumpled T-shirts, I don’t think I was really the target market. It was one of those places that I went not to experience, but just to have a squiz and make sure it looked the way I thought it did. And it did indeed even exceed my expectations for how beautiful a place could be. If I had a few billion lying around (and once I make the next Facebook I’m sure I will), I could think of worse places to buy a holiday house.



This place was used for the filming of the Star Wars movies. Supposedly. I don’t recognise it so I’m guessing it was from the rubbish ones.

Two days ago, Austria. Yesterday, Italy. Today… why not Switzerland? And so I found myself on the Grimselpass to Interlaken. If Austria looks exactly the way you hoped it to be, Switzerland is much more of a surprise. There are bits of the landscape that look really alien – green-tinged stone bordering turquoise water. Much of it does look exactly as you’d expect though, which is good because that’s what I’d come to see. Having checked into my hostel in Interlaken, I went for a quick walk down to the supermarket, and out of the corner of my eye realised that I was basically looking at the North Face logo… the Eiger was right there… as long as there was no fog. Which there often was. C’est la vie, as they’d say in other parts of Switzerland.



What planet is this supposed to be?!

I’m not sure how heinously prejudiced mentioning this makes me, but I was surprised to find that Interlaken (and a lot of Switzerland in general) seems to be ridiculously popular with Aian (particularly Korean) tourists. I saw barely any in Austria, which is nearly the same country in a lot of ways… is it the chocolate? The watches? The knives? The ultra-brutal prices? Puzzling. Sure was interesting wrestling for kitchen space with Korean grandmas rather than the normal filthy backpacker crowd though. Also rather confusing is that everything in Switzerland is expensive except petrol, which is cheaper than nearly anywhere in Europe. Given that the region isn’t famous for being oil-rich, I’ve no idea what’s going on there. However, Seeing how I spend more on petrol than on food, accommodation or really anything it worked pretty good for me.



A more conventional view of Switzerland

I expected to do a bunch of hiking around Interlaken, but constant rain and fog made it a bit pointless. I’d also hoped to ride the Jungfraubahn to see the from the top of the Alps, but didn’t realise that it cost in excess of 100 euros for a half-hour train ride there and back. Nein danke. I still braved the rain to see waterfalls and glaciers, but truth be told the scenery was starting to get a bit dull. Although I was entertained to pull up to a petrol station and find that some kind of Bollywood movie was being filmed there. I’d love to know the story behind that one.



The hell?!

Moving westward, I said a sad farewell to German-speaking Europe. Although Swiss-German threw me for a loop every time I tried to listen to it, I still enjoyed the feeling of safety in knowing that if I had to communicate with someone who didn’t speak English, I probably could make myself understood. Back in Austria I’d been doing nearly everything in German – eating, buying stuff at shops, I even managed to have some really limited conversations. Alas, now I’d be in French Switzerland, where I was limited to “oui”, “non” and “ooh-la-la”. But that was a cost that I had to bear.



The Aletsch Glacier

Having left Interlaken I stayed a night in Lausanne. Lausanne was one of the few places I ever got asked for ID on my trip… for buying a single can of beer to drink with my crappy microwave meal, in a country where beer is legal to drink at 16. Oh dear . On the upside, Lausanne has an art gallery which collects the art of non-professional artists with mental health issues and learning disabilities, and contains some amazing pieces of art. I was expecting the whole thing to be a complete wank, but there was really something raw about the pieces they have on display there… naturally they didn’t allow photos (lame!), but if you’re ever in Lausanne I do recommend you check it out.



Bub-bye Switzerland

There was a lot more to see in Switzerland, but the date of my flight back home was looming, as was bankruptcy – and paying 40 euro a night to sleep in a dorm bed wasn’t going to help that. After having a quick think about what I really wanted to see in Europe before I came, I realised that I really wanted to see the Nurburgring, and I also really wanted to see Monaco. Those of you who’ve ever looked at a map of Europe might realise that both of those places are quite a distance away from Switzerland… and in completely opposite directions. But what was I, afraid of a bit of long-distance riding? Never! Filled with cheap Swiss fuel and expensive Swiss croissants I started the long journey south – there wasn’t much time left for this trip, but it was hardly over yet.
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Old 11-10-2012, 10:00 PM   #74
Blader54
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Awesome update!!!!!!

Keep'em coming! I seem to recall another RR here where the writer's way in Italy was blocked by a rally...but....naw...couldn't be.
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Old 11-15-2012, 04:38 AM   #75
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don't forget your race to write everything down before you forget everything or run out of motivation
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