Panniering Through Europe

Discussion in 'Epic Rides' started by Schwer, Jun 3, 2012.

  1. Blader54

    Blader54 Long timer

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2012
    Oddometer:
    1,200
    I've really enjoyed your ride report! Thanks! :D:clapIt is also interesting to hear what you have to say about journeying itself. There are some riders out there who seem to have found their passion in the nomadic life (see Lightcycle's ride report, for example) and revel in the idea of motorcycling without end, and there are others who like a definite end-point. Some of these latter folks seem to re-integrate fairly easily with living a more conventional, shall I say, static, life, when the ride is over, while others find the readjustment very difficult. It would be great to hear more of your thoughts about motorcycling and travel....how they fit together, which one drives the other, if at all, and so on. For some, the idea of having to "get back" makes the trip seem pressured and rushed at the end, and can even make the second half of the trip kind of a downer, along the lines of the old saying: "how far can you walk into a forest? Half-way." Did it feel that way for you once you passed the half-way point of your trip? Would you have preferred to have made the trip with a GF or BF? Not as independent with a companion, but then there's someone to share experiences with. Or maybe the longer stops you made provided you with the opportunity for social interaction?
    #41
  2. Schwer

    Schwer Adventurer

    Joined:
    Dec 20, 2011
    Oddometer:
    39
    Location:
    Somewhere in Europe
    The reason the title of this thread is "Panniering Around Europe" was that it's supposed to be backpacking with pannier bags - hence panniering... I really wanted to do the backpacker circuit around Europe while I was still young and I also wanted to do a big bike trip, so I sorta combined them, not really knowing what kind of a traveller I was or what I'd enjoy. I've found that to be honest I'm not really a backpacker, but I'm definitely a motorcyclist, and as such in the future I'd rather be doing trips that are more riding and less fucking about in cities trying to soak up the culture.

    The reason I'd ideally like to have an end-point is that it seems to frame the whole trip in my mind a bit better and give the whole motorcycling aspect of it a bit more meaning. For instance, Lord of the Rings is about a bunch of guys going to a volcano, but the bit at the volcano isn't the important part, the important part is all the unexpected stuff that happens along the way. If it was about a bunch of guys drifting about with no real aim it'd be a bunch less interesting.

    That said, to be honest I've only recently (as in, recent enough that the RR's not even close to it) hit my stride with travelling. I've come to realise that hitting every tourist city for a few days and seeing all the sites isn't actually all that much fun - I've been plagued by this attitude that I've got to go slow and soak up the culture of the country. But it's crap - what I really want to do is be constantly on the move, going to places that I find interesting and if I'm bored pulling as many long riding days as I need to to get to somewhere better. I think next time I go on a trip like this (god willing) I'll be more inclined to pick a start point, an end point, no schedule and no real plan for what's supposed to happen in between - when I find interesting places on the way I'll stop there, otherwise I'll keep riding in the general direction of where I'm supposed to be going. As I type this (from Greece) I have to be back in England in a month, and far from being pressured to get back, I feel happy to have a goal and to know that I have to be covering ground rapidly in order to get there.

    In terms of being alone vs travelling with a girl... well, if I could find a girl who I could put up with being with 24/7 then that'd be lovely, but if I've ever met such a creature I'm not aware. To be honest when I'm riding I really enjoy the solitude and the independence - if I want to go to some random city on a whim there's no one to tell me it's a stupid idea. Staying in hostels as I have, being alone also really gives you a push to meet people, and I've met a really lot of amazing and interesting people on this trip as a result. The flip side is that for every amazing/interesting person I've met, there's been like 10 boring ones that I didn't get along with - when you find yourself at a hostel dominated by people like that, then you start feeling lonely. Ideally I'd quite like to be travelling with a bigger group (like 4+) people - that means that wherever you go you've got a decent amount of company, and there's enough people that no one's getting in anyone else's grill to too great of an extent.
    #42
  3. Schwer

    Schwer Adventurer

    Joined:
    Dec 20, 2011
    Oddometer:
    39
    Location:
    Somewhere in Europe
    Coming out of the Cold

    By the time I was done buying stickers at Nordkapp it was already 2pm. The next place I wanted to be was Rovaniemi – on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Finland. Getting from the Arctic Circle in Norway to Nordkapp had taken me 3 days. I punched it into my phone, and George reckoned 11 hours to get there. Next time I looked, it was 24. Restarted and back to 11 again. I decided to believe the more optimistic estimate and started riding. Embarking on a 11 hour ride at 2pm anywhere else would be completely retarded, but I had a number of things on my side:

    • My supply of daylight was infinite
    • One of those hours was actually a pretend hour stolen from my life by time-zone-black-magic
    • Most importantly, George gives me no credit for my Rossi-like riding skills and tends to underestimate how quickly I can get down empty roads. And roads up here are pretty empty, given that there’s not a whole lot of people around.

    [​IMG]
    HURRRRYYYYYY


    The road back from Nordkapp was just as lovely as it’d been on the way up, except that every moose or reindeer in Norway seemed to have come out of the woodwork to see me off. I’d never even seen a moose until I got this far north – Joseph had even driven me around in Sweden just so that I could see one but to no avail. Now, however, they were around every single blind corner, and this continued all the way to Rovaniemi. My only consolation was that I had my GoPro on and I was going to get some sweet reindeer shots… except that I later found that a raindrop had landed exactly on the lens and stayed there the entire time I’d been recording, ruining every single photo. Sigh. Please accept this artist’s impression instead.


    [​IMG]
    Screw you, I'm a moose!


    I’d always considered reindeer to be some kind of exotic, nearly mythical animal known for pulling Santa’s sleigh about and little else. On the road to Finland I got to know them as the road pest they are though – what the kangaroo is to Australian drivers, the reindeer is to the Finns. To be honest that’s not even a fair comparison, seeing how a kangaroo moves around a ridiculous amount and as a result is quite visible – through some miracle of either evolution or intelligent design (read: god messing with me) reindeer are impossible to see until you’re right next to them, even if they’re standing on open ground. You’ll be riding along happily and then suddenly there’ll be a reindeer standing right in the road, 5 metres away looking straight at you. You can practically hear it saying “Sup bro!” as you panic-lock your rear wheel. I’m completely confused as to why people hunt these things – how hard can it be to kill something that willingly runs in front of moving vehicles? I came out of a tunnel in Norway only to find the exit blocked by a whole gang of loitering moose – I half expected them to be spraying graffiti or something.


    [​IMG]
    I considered drawing some moose on this one too but I guess the joke is wearing thin


    Around the Finnish border I lost my magic hour and the road stopped curving left and right and started curving up and down instead – miles and miles of dead straight road consisting of millions of elevation changes. I amused myself by trying to get some air off them but wasn’t successful. Mainly I was just happy to be gaining ground so quickly. Around about 9pm I was only 80km from Rovaniemi, but needed some petrol and figured I’d better get some food too. After some pasta and frankfurters I came back to my bike and had a look at the rear tire.


    [​IMG]
    The Pirelli Scorpion Trail's soft nougat centre


    Ahhhh shit. I’d realised my rear was looking a bit bald but I hadn’t seen a motorcycle shop since I rode past Tromso, Norway… over 1000km ago. I realised that the safest thing to do here would be to find some other way into town and come back with a tow truck for the bike later. Obviously what I actually did was put my helmet back on and limped the last 80km into town, every second expecting the rear to blow out and send me sliding across the wet road. Fortunately the closest place that had a tire turned out to be Rovaniemi, so the next day I limped out again, found the only motorcycle dealership for 100km and got a new tire. Unfortunately all they had in Os’ size was a stinking sport-touring tire, making my pretend-adventure-tourer even more of a pretender. :(.


    [​IMG]
    As soon as I went inside the dealership the heavens opened... just check out all the water landing on that mower.


    Once I’d figured out my tire issues I had the rest of the day to explore Rovaniemi. I had a quick look at the museum there, which is supposed to be one of the best in Finland. Says a lot about Finland’s museums I guess… I was far from impressed. Rovaniemi’s claim to fame, however, has nothing to do with museums and everything to do with Santa Claus. I’m not sure how exactly it came to be, but somehow Rovaniemi is the official home of Santa Claus during the off-season. I thought he was supposed to live on the North Pole rather than the very edge of where the arctic circle used to be, but maybe I’m just a purist. The result is that on the main road there’s a Santa’s workshop where you can get your picture taken with the man himself, surrounded by a metropolis of dodgy Christmas-themed souvenir shops.


    [​IMG]
    Damnit, I just couldn't resist


    I just couldn’t abide being in Lapland and not going to meet Santa Claus. He’s actually a very talkative fellow – I almost felt bad for the elves trying to get him to shut up so they could take a photo and usher me out of there. Upon me saying I was from Sydney, he said “ah yes, near Turramurra?”… which is two suburbs over from where I actually live. I was pretty impressed. Rovaniemi also has the world’s most northerly McDonalds – fans of will be happy to know that this one too is surrounded by dodgy teenagers getting into fights on a Saturday night, just like every McDonalds in Australia.


    [​IMG]
    One side cold, one side hot



    I’d had just about enough of freezing my arse off in literally arctic conditions though – it was time to head south. Because my retarded plan hadn’t taken me to Stockholm when I was in Sweden, I stayed on the Swedish side of the Gulf of Bothina, had an uneventful stop in Umea and found myself in Stockholm the next day. It was a nice little town that I probably should’ve stayed in for a bit longer. It was the first one on my trip to have a specific “Old Town” with narrow streets and cobblestones and so on – a pattern that would become very very familiar as I made my way down through Eastern Europe. The best thing I saw in Stockholm was easily the changing of the guard. Unlike boring old Buckingham Palace, the guards at Sweden’s palace wear shiny spike helmets and they have a full marching band mounted on horses that whirls around playing music. It’s pretty cool.


    [​IMG]
    THAT HORSE HAS DRUMS


    Although I do love Sweden, it quickly came time to move on. I planned to take the 7:30am ferry across to Helsinki and enjoy a day of watching the islands go by and writing my blog. Cleverly, after failing to obey my alarm and taking way too long for breakfast, I turned up to the port at 7:25am, to find the gate firmly closed and the ferry pulling away. Damnit. Forced with the choice between a more expensive overnight ferry ticket or an equally expensive extra night in Stockholm, I chose the overnight ferry. Never been on one before, might be fun. The ferries between Stockholm and Helsinki have massive reputations as party boats – sailing between the two countries allows for duty free alcohol to be sold on board, so it’s bought, consumed in the rooms and then there’s a big party later. Or so I’m told – I barely saw another person my age on board, it mostly looked like families and pensioners. After going to the bar and seeing a lot of middle aged people dancing to Boney M (not that Boney M isn’t awesome) I decided to take advantage of the fact that no one else was in my room and enjoy a rare night in private quarters.


    [​IMG]
    Goodbye Sweden!


    Rolling off the ferry in the morning, I met up with Ahmed, a guy from couchsurfing who’d kindly offered to host me – I didn’t even send him a request, he just saw that I was looking in Helsinki and said I could come along. The fact that he didn’t have any information on his profile at the time made me a bit suspicious, but he turned out to not only not be a serial killer, but also one of the most interesting people I met while travelling. Ahmed was from Iraq, of all places, and had come to Finland because he’d worked as an interpreter for the coalition forces there, and when the insurgency found out he and his family were threatened. As a fluent English speaker with an IT background he tried to make it to the UK to apply for asylum, and figured the easiest place to enter the EU would be in Finland, miles away from the Middle East or Africa. While changing planes in Finland, he lost his passport during the flight, thwarting his plans to get through the border unnoticed – his only choices were to apply for asylum in Finland or go back home.


    [​IMG]
    I have a *massive cannon* between my legs, if you know what I mean


    Ahmed was a really good host – he took me around some of the sights and some of the bars at night, as well as for a walk around the area where he lives. Helsinki wasn’t what I expected at all – it’s the capital of Finland, but it’s *quiet*. Oddly the city it reminded me most of was Canberra, the capital of Australia and regarded by most Australians as one of the most boring cities on the planet. Which isn’t to say that Helsinki (or indeed Canberra) is boring, they just both have this empty feeling – you can walk for an hour and only see a few people. The night-life in Helsinki seems very similar, with small, not particularly special places gaining massive amounts of significance just because there’s not that many people or that many places to go.


    [​IMG]
    This part of Helsinki looks *exactly the same* as a suburb of Canberra called Kingston. Freaks me out


    That said, Helsinki’s saving grace is that it is basically a factory for beautiful people. Have you ever watched a video clip for a song that shows some street scene where every pedestrian just walking by is impossibly attractive, and you’re thinking “well that’s just silly, no street anywhere looks like that”. That is what Helsinki is like. Going out on a Saturday night there poses a danger of spinal injury as your neck twists left and right – it’s not even a voluntary, you can’t help yourself.


    [​IMG]
    Unfortunately I don't have any pictures related to this, so have a picture of some water instead. Sorry lads!


    The journey down from Nordkapp had been a blast, but it was time to kiss goodbye to the brutal prices of the Nordic nations and say hello to Eastern Europe and being able to afford something other than sandwiches. Next stop Estonia!
    #43
  4. Kurro

    Kurro Adventurer

    Joined:
    Jan 6, 2012
    Oddometer:
    38
    Location:
    Marbella - SPAIN
    Ride safe, Im waiting for you in South Spain.
    #44
  5. Blader54

    Blader54 Long timer

    Joined:
    Jul 29, 2012
    Oddometer:
    1,200
    Thanks for the thoughtful, well-written reply. It's interesting to me to get a feeling for an author's "sense" of the ride. Thanks again -- hope your'e having a blast wherever you are....and keep the rubber side down! :D
    #45
  6. Cameleer

    Cameleer Worldcrzer

    Joined:
    Aug 20, 2012
    Oddometer:
    110
    Location:
    Dubai, UAE and for now, Italy
    Great posting amigo, hope to be able to follow the example (minus the camping with bugs and bad hostels). All the best, C
    #46
  7. Schwer

    Schwer Adventurer

    Joined:
    Dec 20, 2011
    Oddometer:
    39
    Location:
    Somewhere in Europe
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.

    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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).


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.
    #47
  8. Cameleer

    Cameleer Worldcrzer

    Joined:
    Aug 20, 2012
    Oddometer:
    110
    Location:
    Dubai, UAE and for now, Italy
    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
    #48
  9. Bogfarth

    Bogfarth Fridge Magnet Safety Tester

    Joined:
    Dec 26, 2011
    Oddometer:
    179
    Location:
    The Northwet
    :lurk
    #49
  10. mg-t

    mg-t Adventurer

    Joined:
    Mar 30, 2009
    Oddometer:
    22
    Location:
    Riga, Latvia
    We should have met while you where in Riga. Welcome next time.
    #50
  11. cvcaelen

    cvcaelen Guzzi-rider

    Joined:
    Mar 15, 2012
    Oddometer:
    120
    Location:
    Merelbeke, Belgium
    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 :evil

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

    Greetings
    Christiaan
    #51
  12. RobP

    RobP Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Apr 25, 2009
    Oddometer:
    162
    Location:
    Almonte, Ontario
    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
    #52
  13. CaptnSlo

    CaptnSlo Derelicte

    Joined:
    Jul 16, 2012
    Oddometer:
    1,174
    Location:
    VA
    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.
    #53
  14. Schwer

    Schwer Adventurer

    Joined:
    Dec 20, 2011
    Oddometer:
    39
    Location:
    Somewhere in Europe
    :-( 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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.

    [​IMG]
    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.


    [​IMG]
    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.


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    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.


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    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.


    [​IMG]

    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.


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    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.
    #54
  15. bonzodg

    bonzodg 24/7 B-road hooner

    Joined:
    May 18, 2007
    Oddometer:
    97
    Location:
    Guiseley, Yorkshire, U K
    Bloody good read.
    So where are you now?
    #55
  16. fredster

    fredster Clueless Adventurer

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2010
    Oddometer:
    80
    Location:
    Spartanopolis, MI (East Lansing)
    This is what makes life worth living right here.

    Thanks for sharing your story!
    #56
  17. Il Grande Baboomba

    Il Grande Baboomba Daajjeeee!!!

    Joined:
    Aug 3, 2012
    Oddometer:
    4
    Location:
    Palude Padana, Italy
    I think that Versys.....overtake me in the traffic of Dubrovnik last month....right?:thumb

    Enjoy your ride.:D
    #57
  18. Schwer

    Schwer Adventurer

    Joined:
    Dec 20, 2011
    Oddometer:
    39
    Location:
    Somewhere in Europe
    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.

    :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.
    #58
  19. bonzodg

    bonzodg 24/7 B-road hooner

    Joined:
    May 18, 2007
    Oddometer:
    97
    Location:
    Guiseley, Yorkshire, U K
    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!
    #59
  20. Il Grande Baboomba

    Il Grande Baboomba Daajjeeee!!!

    Joined:
    Aug 3, 2012
    Oddometer:
    4
    Location:
    Palude Padana, Italy
    No no don't worry, your riding was good.:D
    I only remembered your plates number in this photo.....it's harder to forget an Aussie in Europe.:lol3
    #60