On the road, again
In the words of the song:
On the road again Goin' places that I've never been Seein' things that I may never see again And I can't wait to get on the road again
Although the first day of any trip starts with very familiar roads that lead away from home and Tracy, which makes
it both easy (no risk of getting lost) and hard (leaving Tracy is never easy). So not exactly
places that I've
never been, at least, not yet.
I took my usual route south, via the M60 and A6 towards Buxton, cutting across the top at Disley and via Long Hill
so I could see how the bike handled with all the extra weight of my camping gear. It doesn't seem to make any real
difference, the excellent semi-active suspension automatically adjusting for the heavier load. The only time I notice
the weight is when coming to a stop, and I need to be very positive with planting my foot to keep the bike upright.
And when I come to get off, of course, as I can't swing my leg over the pillion seat due to the roll-bag strapped
there. From Buxton I took the A515 via Ashbourne to Derby, then the ring road to join the M1 South and the boring
part of the journey. It wasn't that bad, as I had a lot going on inside my head, with thoughts of the adventure to
come interrupted by watching out for dozy drivers changing lanes without using their mirrors (it happened twice, my
very loud horn jolting them awake!). I stopped once for a
splash and dash both fuel and ... erm ... well, you
get the idea. Then I made my way around the M25 and over Dartford Bridge, with it's constant warning signs telling
drivers to pay the Dart Charge by midnight tomorrow (I don't have to, motorcycles are free!). Then a short hop on the
A2 to Sondel Sport Yamaha, my friend Simon's dealership (which he bought last year). I popped by to have a natter and
a brew and to admire the bikes for sale - which includes my lovely Kawasaki z900RS which he bought off me earlier
this year. I also wanted to remind him to buy his flight ticket as he's supposed to be joining me in Montenegro,
where he has an apartment.
After departing the dealership it was a relatively short hop around the M25/M20 to my overnight stop at the Holiday Inn Express, close to the Channel Tunnel. If it hadn't been for the many stretches of 50mph average speed camera sections, it would almost have been enjoyable!
Once checked in, I unloaded the bike and took a shower before heading downstairs to the bar, where I'm now sat with a cold beer, about to order dinner. I need to be at the Tunnel tomorrow by 7:35am, so it won't be a heavy night, then it's off into France and another familiar overnight stop, but more of that tomorrow...
An early start saw me up, showered and loading the bike by 6:30am, which left plenty of time for breakfast, although I was still full from the burger and chips I had for dinner the previous evening. Making do with just a small bowl of cereal and some scrambled eggs, I figured that would see me through to this evening. Then it was a short ride to the Channel Tunnel terminal, where I arrived to be greeted with a cheery smile and the offer to get the train that was about to leave, rather than wait the 45 minutes before my scheduled one would be boarding. So I took the offer and rode through passport control - a cursory glance by the British side and an equally cursory glance at the French control (which is currently still in England). Then I joined the queue which quickly boarded and I followed a guy on a Harley as we joined at the back of the train, last to board. Once underway I got chatting to the Harley guy, who was heading down through France to Italy to meet up with his 26-year old daughter for a ride around Florence and the Italian Lakes. At first I got the impression he viewed my heavily loaded bike as typical GS rider, overloaded and going nowehere, until I told him about my planned route!
Chatting certainly made the journey pass quickly and had it not been for my phone buzzing in my pocket it
would have passed uneventfully, too. The buzz was a couple of texts - one to inform me of a voicemail and the
other from Scorpion alerting me to movement on my bike. I'd forgotten to put the tracker into
before boarding the train, and now the monitoring agents were trying to get hold of me in case my bike had been
stolen! I rang then back and apologised and put the bike in transport mode for the rest of the crossing.
Arriving in France to temperatures barely in double figures was not what I was expecting after the warm ride down yesterday, but at least I'd put my fleece on and it wasn't raining. Heading away from Calais I took the very familiar route that avoids the autoroute (and tolls), via St Omer and on south. My first planned stop was one I'd only just discovered despite having visted this part of France many times - La Coupole - an old WWII bunker and V2 rocket launching site just outside St Omer. Before I got there I was held up in a small traffic jam at a roundabout by a very large group of motorcycles arriving from the opposite direction and heading off to my right. There must have been a couple of hundred of them, and as they had right of way on the roundabout, we had to wait a few minutes for them to pass. Then a group of cyclists appeared, heading the same way as me, in full-on peleton mode, filling most of the road. Fortunately, they soon turned off and the road was clear again. At the next town one of the roads was closed for a market, meaning a short detour, and then I started spotting people sat at the roadside selling flowers. This was odd, as usually when I ride these little French roads I pass through lots of villages seeing no-one, the houses boarded up to keep the sun out. Today was definitely different, as there were people about and what looked like parties going on in some of the houses, the pavements strewn with vehicles haphazardly parked everywhere. When I arrived at La Coupole it was closed, which was unusual as it was around 10am on a Wednesday. So I made a mental note to check visiting hours before I come again and rode on.
My next stop was near Bethune, where one of Tracy's mum's uncles is buried. He died of wounds on 10th July 1918 aged just 19. Just outside town was a McDonald's and I love these places. Not for the food - I rarely eat there - but for the facilities. Toilets and wi-fi. Just what I needed. Using the wi-fi I discovered that today, being 1st May, is Labour Day - a national holiday in France - which explains all the strange goings on. Trust me to start my adventure on a public holiday, when everything is closed!
At least the cemetry was open. The British Cemetry is attached to the communual cemetry in Bully-Les-Mines and enclosed with
a small wall. Like so many that are dotted all over this corner of France, it contains hundreds of identical
white gravestones, each marked with the individual's regiment, name, date of death and age. If known. There are
several in each cemetry simply marked "A soldier known only to God". Behind a small brass door in a wall next to
the entrance is a folder listing all those interred here and a few basic details, as well as their grave
reference number. I soon found the entry for Harold Percy Ward, which read:
WARD, Private, H.P. 30155 8th Bn The Queen's (Royal West Surry Regiment) 10 July 1918. Aged 19. Son of C. H. and
Ruth Smith Ward, of 79 Greyhound Rd, Tottenham, London. Grave Ref V.F.6.
Armed with the information required I quickly located the grave and paid my respects, before taking a number of
photographs so my mother-in-law can see where her uncle rests.
After leaving the cemetry I continued on my journey, across the rolling fields of France, through little villages and past several other signs pointing to British, American and Canadian war cemetries. What it must have been like just over 100 years ago in this beautiful countryside I shudder to contemplate. Every time I ride these roads it fills me with a sense of peace - as though the horrors of the past have left a silence behind that still resonates a century later.
With the temperature gradually rising I opted for a short hop on the autoroute to make some distance, exiting at Cambrai and then following the back roads south-east once more. I had programmed my route into the GPS, taking the small D-roads to avoid traffic and make it interesting and apart from a few navigation errors (when I took the wrong turning and had to perform a U-turn to get back on track) it all worked out excellently. The roads were almost empty and provided plenty of opportunity for me to avoid the centre portion of the tyres! All too soon I was getting close to my chosen destination of Charleville-Mezieres, so I took a detour to view the small village of Rocroi, which was fortified in the 16th century, but I didn't stop to investigate, satisfying myself with the views of the grassy mounds as I rode past. On arrival at Charleville-Mezieres I road alongside the river, the campsite in view on the opposite bank and didn't need the GPS to find my way there. That's because, way back in 1998 (21 years ago!), this was a campsite I stayed at during my first solo motorcycle trip to Europe, when I spent a week riding round France. It's also where I've stayed with Colin (1999 and 2002), David (2001) and Tracy (2005 and 2007). I should be eligible for some form of regular visitor's discount!
When I first stayed here, the campsite had just a single toilet block (that's still there, but it's now very delapidated!), whereas now it has 2 modern shower/toilet blocks, although one is locked up and the other doesn't have any loo roll! With the tent pitched, I got out my Trekology camp chair (my one luxury item), made myself a brew, and sat writing this in the last of the day's sunshine. The temperature had peaked at 20degrees just before I arrived, but it's getting cooler now. It's also nearly 6pm, so it's time I stopped typing and cooked myself something to eat!
After a nice meal of Hot Tuna (first night camping's standard dish!), I wandered into town to have a look and see
how, if at all, it's changed in the past 21 years. But first, a little context. Charleville-Mezieres is the The
administrative centre of the Ardennes, on the banks of the river Meuse, and the birthplace of the poet
Arthur Rimbaud (who I've never heard of!). It is also famous for its world festival of Puppet Theatres, which
makes it the undisputed capital of puppetry. Between the International Puppet Institute and the Museum of the
Ardenne, there is the
Grand Marionnettiste, a monumental clock with automata. Every hour from 10 am to 9 pm,
it shows one of the twelve scenes of the Ardennes legend of the four Aymon sons. So naturally I wanted to see this
as on previous visits I've only seen it in it's dormant state. Having wandered across the beautiful Place Ducale,
which is a huge square surrounded by buildings built between 1612 and 1628 by the architect Clement Matezeau, at
the request of the Duke Charles de Gonzague. A listed protected area, the immense paved square is surrounded by
twenty-seven pavilions in the Henry IV or Louis XIII style, and is considered one of the most beautiful squares in
France! Sadly, as is so often the case, the square was filled with a big marquee, stage and wooden stall huts, all
empty and closed up - there was probably a big show on for Labour Day but it was over by the time I got there. The
Grand Marionnettiste didn't disappoint, though, as at 8pm he spoke (in French, naturally) and the curtains opened to
reveal a scene that looked like a little girl being hit over the head with a hammer. Perhaps I should look up the
legend of the four Aymon sons at some point. But not now. After wandering round the square it was time to return
to camp and read a while before turning in for the night.
I slept reasonably well, waking up just after 6am to a cloudy sky and a light dew all over the tent and my bke. Deciding to get moving as I wasn't hungry yet, I showered then packed up and loaded the bike before riding out of the campsite and around Mont Olympe (as the usual road was closed), through Charleville-Mezieres and onto the D roads heading vaguely south-east. My route followed loosely the one I'd taken with Globebusters when guiding their tour to Austria to visit the TriDays festival a couple of years ago. This sticks to the back roads, which in France are superb riding roads, as they undulate and wind their way through farmland and small clumps of woods, with hardly any traffic to interupt the riding flow. Dotted in the landscape are several more cemetries similar to the one I visited yesterday, only many are considerably bigger. I passed a huge one on a hillside to my left, and then a truly enormous American one to my right, filled with white crosses as far as the eye can see. I slowed down to have a look as I passed, and once again felt the sorrow that comes from knowing so many gave their lives on these rolling hills. Also dotted about are reminders of the second World War, including a derelict bunker next to the road and as I got nearer to the border with Germany, a much larger re-enforced bunker complete with a German half-track vehicle parked beside it (it has since been pointed out to me this is actually an American M3 half-track). This bunker must have been protecting a strategic route, as it sat on a slight hillside with panoramic views over the countryside to the south and north. Quite a view, but one I'm sure wasn't appreciated by the soldiers tasked with protecting the route.
By now I was getting closer to Germany and the landscape was changing, from rolling hills to small villages with wood-framed houses and road signs with the Alsace-language names alongside the French, denoting this region is quite different from the rest of France, having been almost shared with Germany throughout history. It wasn't long before I reached the bridge over the Rhine and into Germany proper. Now there were lots more wood-framed houses, some painted with mountain scenes and all immaculate. There was a palpable sense of pride in the community here, as well as money, with no little or graffiti and no run-down properties. It was only a short ride to my campsite at Rastatt, where the helpful English-speaking receptionist checked me in and told me about the facilities (hot, free, showers!). But as I was arriving I looked to the nearby hills and saw some ominous black clouds gathering. The wind had picked up too, so I knew I had to pitch the tent quickly, which I did but only just in the nick of time as no sooner had I unloaded the bike into the tent than the heavens opened. A quick check of the weather forecast on my phone revealed the rain was not only going to be here overnight, but with me all day tomorrow, too. Not great, as I wanted to get my washing done and wouldn't be able to get anything dry!
After eating the remains of last night's Hot Tuna with the bagette I'd bought from a French supermarket just
before crossing the border, I sat in the tent and read my book. It's called
Balkan Ghosts and was written
in the early 1990's by a journalist who was in the area at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the war
in the Balkans - where I'm heading in a week or so. It's very interesting, but more than a little disturbing,
although that didn't stop me from sleeping soundly.
It rained on and off all night, with some heavy showers and when I woke at 6:30am, it was still intermittent. I
put a brew on and was busy cooking the campfood breakfast I'd brought with me (that I bought to make sure I got
free postage when I ordered my new stove!) when there was a very load
BANG! that sounded like a shotgun blast or
a small explosion. A few minutes later a helicopter appeared overhead, circled then landed just out of sight behind
some trees at the far end of the campsite. Then an ambulance arrived, followed by 2 police cars and another car with
blue lights on. There was no commotion on the site, and no-one else seemed interested, as though it was a regular
occurrence, or perhaps they were all still sleepy. I've no idea what was going on, as I couldn't see and my German
is nowhere near good enough to enquire, so I simply sat down and ate my breakfast in the tent as the rain had
After eating I loaded everthing back on the bike and set off into the rain. My route was once more following the Globebusters' Austria route, down the infamous B500 through the Black Forest, a road I was really looking forward to riding again, especially as now I wasn't being followed by 20 other bikes all of whom I was responsible for! Only instead of the sunshine and dry roads we'd had in 2017, I was faced with rain and low cloud, reducing visibility to about 20m. Not ideal at all, and more than a little scary, on a road with lots of bends and the potential for oncoming vehicles mis-judging the road. It was only when I was clear of the B500 that the mist cleared and left just the rain and the the cold (the temperature hovered between 5 and 8 degrees all day). I learnt a couple of things about my kit, though.
First, my new Klim Badlands Pro suit is awesome (it's American, so the superlative is justified!), it being totally waterproof despite the deluge it had to deal with.
Second, my new Keis heated waistcoat is a life-saver. It's simply lovely having a warm torso, even if my legs were close to freezing (must remember to wear my long-johns tomorrow, the Klim pants don't have a thermal lining!).
So my day was spent on all the little back roads across Southern Germany to the Austrian border in almost constant rain, but it didn't dampen my spirits, which remained high throughout, the bliss of warmth from the heated waistcoat more than contributing to my good mood. Once across into Austria, I stopped for fuel and bought the vignette that's necessary as I was on a short section of Autoroute, then rode on and back into Germany, heading for close to Garmisch where last night, due to the poor weather forecast and the need to attend to some chores, I'd booked myself into an hotel. Which is where I am now, the Hotel GunglStubn. I've no idea what that means, but the room is warm, I've already washed my smalls and hopefully the wifi will start working again so I can post this before heading upstairs to dinner. I know I'm supposed to be a hardened bike-traveller, but I'm not a masochist. After a day being cold (lower half only) and wet, and with tomorrow promising more of the same as I head over the Alps into Italy, I think I deserve this!
Oh, and I've had a bit of a disaster. My laptop screen is broken, so please excuse more spelling and grammar mistakes than usual. I'm not sure how this has happened, it was in my Kreiga bag in my pannier, so didn't get wet. Looks like it'll be going back to Currys/PCWorld when I eventually get home...
Dinner in the hotel was very good, a perfectly cooked steak with vegetables and a glass of fine beer. Once my appetite was satiated, I went back to the warm room and read a while before turning in for the night. Having slept well, I was surprised to see blue sky when I woke at 6am, but with clouds gathering ominously on the horizon, I suspected it wouldn't last.
After a breakfast of cereal and a cup of tea, I was on the road by 8:30am, heading towards Innsbruck and the mountains. The road was good with very little traffic as it passed through several tunnels and into Italy. The temperature was still fairly low, around 8-10 degrees but I was comfortable enough. At Vipiteno I turned off the main road and followed the Jaufenpass or the Passo di Monte Giovo, which wound it's way via several hairpin bends steeply up into the mountains proper. As it did so, the temperature dropped lower and the road surface became more and more broken. But onwards and upwards I rode, ever higher into the mountains and I only became a little concerned when I saw the first sight of snow at the roadside. But I was committed now, and pressed on, wary that if it got worse I'd have to turn round and find another route across the mountains. Soon the temperature reached 0degrees and there was a light fluttering of snow in the air. As the road climbed every higher, the amount of snow at the roadside increased, until near the summit when I was riding with a wall of snow on either side, into fog, before finally beginning the descent.
The descent didn't pose any problems and I was soon down in the valley below, where the scenery had changed considerably now I was in the South Tyrol region. The mountains gave way to lots of smaller rocky hills, covered with dark green trees, or plantations of olive trees and other small trees, planted in neat rows reminiscent of the graveyards I'd passed by a couple of days ago. I stopped at a roadside café for a coffee and a slice of cake (well, it was right there in the display cabinet, what am I supposed to do?). Then I took the roads less travelled, taking a route that followed the hillsides via the SS328, SS43 and SS421. These roads were almost devoid of traffic as they wound their way round the contours of the hills, through olive groves and past beautiful little villages with houses of a terracota hue. The roads eventually led me to Molveno after seemingly endless hairpun bends (some of which were quite slippy) and then on to Lake Garda's northen tip. From here I followed the road by the side of the lake, watching hordes of windsurfers, sailboats and kie-surfers making the most of the blustery but warm conditions. My chosen campsite was by the side of the lake, with pitches arranged on terraces so affording views of the lake and not long after checking in I had the tent pitched and the sun came out, making it very warm and pleasant.
The campsite wasn't cheap, though, at 20euro per night just for me, but at least the shower block was clean and there was loo-roll in the toilet! As I sat in the now hot afternoon sun, my reading was interrupted by the loud church bell from the church next door to the campsite (see photo). It went off every half-hour, and as I was to discover later, at 8pm it not only chimed 8 times but also played a little tune. But I didn't hear it all night, for reasons that will shortly become apparent.
After reading a while and planning my route for the following day via the foothills of the Dolomites to Kranjska Gora in Slovenia, I had a shower and then wandered down the road to the local Pizzeria. This was situated right on the shore of the lake, and sat there in the still warm (but increasingly breezy) early evening with a cold beer I was very content indeed. Even more so when the reason why I'd planned on coming to Italy arrived, in the shape of a delicious pizza with peperoni, several different cheeses and some chillies. It was as good as I had hoped, simply delicious!
Once I'd finished my pizza and settled the bill, I walked back to the campsite, and as it was still relatively early (around 7:30pm) I settled down to read some more of my book. Not long after the church bells had played their little tune for me it started to get a little dark and the wind picked up. With a few specks of rain in the air I took it as a sign to go and clean my teeth in preparation for an enforced early night and retreated to the tent a little after 9pm. Just as there was an almighty rumble from the sky that went on for at least 6-7 seconds and rolled all the way from the distant hills on one side to those on the other. Then the sky lit up in one great sheet of lightning before the sound of armaggedon came again. And the rain started, only not gentle raindops, ruddy great thumps on the tent as bucket-sized drops hit. As I lay there listening to the sounds outside, all warm and cozy, I could only hope that it cleared before morning (the forecast wasn't promising).
Sadly, the forecast was right. I was woken around 5:30pm to the sound of fury from the wind battering my tent and the stomping of raindrops on the roof. Not what I wanted to hear, that's for sure! I lay there a while in the vain hope that it may calm down a bit. I even checked the weather forecast again hoping that it would calm down soon, but that showed it was in for the morning, at least. With no option to get going if I was going to make it to the appartment I'd booked for 2 nights in Kranjska Gora (knowing I would have endured another day of bad weather and would need to get things dry again), I packed my bags inside the tent, then put the tent down in the pouring rain. So much for never putting your tent away wet!
So I was on the road early - by 7:15am - in pouring rain and a strong wind, heading north alongside
the lake, before turning east and picking up the A22 towards Trento. This turned out to be a toll
road, the signs and ticket booths only coming into view (due to the rain) when I was committed and
couldn't turn round. Just before my exit at Trento I came across the toll booth, which unfortunately
for me didn't take a card or give change (I only had a 20euro and 50euro notes and the toll was 2euro).
So I had to press the
Help button and speak to the operator, who issued me with a receipt and
raised the barrier. I would have ridden off quickly and triumphantly, only it took an age to put my
frozen hands back in my gloves. The temperature had started around 5degrees and had now dropped to
around 3degrees and my hands, despite my heated grips, were cold and my gloves sodden. Now following
the road east towards Belluno it only got colder and wetter. The rain was persistent, the only relief
coming from numerous tunnels, including one of over 5km, which was most welcome! As the road went
further towards the distant mountains, the temperature kept dropping, now down to between 0 and 2
degrees, the ice-warning icon appering on both my dashboard and my GPS further reminders my situation
was not improving. By now I was shivering constantly, despite my heated vest providing a lovely warm
feeling around my torso, and so I started looking for somewhere to stop for a coffee and to warm up.
Only this being Sunday, everything was closed. All the petrol stations had an inviting looking café
attached, only they weren't inviting-looking today as they were all shuttered up. Pressing on despite
getting ever more concerned about hypothermia, I stopped for fuel at a station that looked like it had
an open café (it didn't, it was also closed) and then encountered another problem. My money had
become damp in my pocket and the machine wouldn't take the 20euro note I needed to use for fuel. Nor
would it accept any of my bank cards or the Post Office Travel Card that's loaded with euros. Stood there
shivering and shaking my head must have got the attention of the nice Italian gentleman who had just
finished filling his car, as he came over to see if he could help. He swapped my wet 20euro note for
a crisp new one which he fed into the machine, only for it to be spat out in disgust as well. Unpeturbed,
my latin hero got out his bank card and forced the machine to give me fuel. I gave him my damp 20euro note
to cover the cost and my hand in thanks. A true gentleman of the road!
A full tank of fuel always makes me happy and so it did on this occasion, for at least 10 minutes before the onset of hypothermia kicked in again. The road then went through another long tunnel, which gave me some respite, before emerging into a snow-storm. Bugger. This prompted a quick re-think of my route, but whilst I was investigating the map on my GPS (it's fantastic how you can zoom in and out using the wonderwheel on the left handlebar!), the snow eased and turned back into rain. Phew! But with my planned route continuing further into the Dolomites before reaching my destination, I decided prudence was called for and changed route, skipping a couple of the waypoints I'd programmed in to force it to turn a little south instead. Only this took me onto another bloody toll road, and now I only had 50euro notes and still no change. Not to worry, I thought, I'd ride to the services and get some change when I get a coffee. Only that plan was also scuppered, with the toll booth appearing just a few Km down the road. This time I was not going to be caught freezing whilst I aksed for help, so I ducked down the closed truck lane and rode around the side of the barrier. I wonder if the fine will find me?
More miles, sorry kilometres, of shivering in the rain followed before I spied a coffee shop that looked open and pulled in to the car park. Thankfully, it was, and I waddled in, dripping water everywhere and looking like Captain Scott's windswept friend. When I tried to purchase a coffee and a croissant, my damp 50euro note was rejected by the machine they use to check for fakes. Thankfully, my pleading expression, lack of Italian and no doubt fear that if they didn't supply me with a warm drink I was liable to turn into a frozen statue, the kind woman behind the counter took pity on me and served me regardless. Now in the warmth I could sit down and think, whilst still shivering uncontrollably. A quick check of the weather forecast in Kranjska Gora revealed it was snowing there and with a severe weather warning that put paid to my plans. Now I needed to find somewhere warm to stay - camping was out as I'd not thaw out at all - so I chose a hotel mid-way between my present location and Kranjska Gora. I also got in touch with the apartment to move my booking back a day (I'd paid for it already) as the forecast is better for Monday and Tuesday. With that sorted and me now shivering a little less, I set off again, the rain having thankfully now eased and the temperature a positively balmy 5degrees. Arriving at the hotel at 1pm was early, but with check-in available from 1:30pm I was prepared to wait. Only I didn't need to, the English-speaking receptionist allocating me a room that was ready and so I grabbed my bags and headed there without waiting. As soon as I was in the room I stripped and stood under a warm shower for an age to thaw out. Only then did the shivering stop.
Whilst the room isn't exactly hot, it's not cold either, and the Spanish MotoGP races are on the TV (albeit with Italian commentary, which sounds even more exciting than the English I normally listen to!). So now I'm sat recovering from this morning's ride and hoping tomorrow will bring better weather, because if not, I'm going to point the bike South and keep going until I find some warmth!
The evening of the 5th May once again demonstrated the kindness of strangers, and
the weirdness of legislation. Let me explain. The hotel I'd selected to avoid the
onset of hypothermia was in a small town called Vajont, which doesn't feature on
my map, it's that small. The hotel was quite large and modern, and I had a very large
room which was more like a suite, with a sofa bed in one room and a double bed in the
other, and an en-suite bathroom (sadly only a shower, if there'd been a bath I'd
probably still be in it warming up!). The hotel doesn't have a restaurant, though,
so around 6pm I ventured out in my woolly hat and down jacket, and walked around
town looking for somewhere to get some food. Google maps showed a pizza restaurant
nearby - it was closed - and that was it. Nothing else on Google maps, and nothing
else nearby. Not even a takeaway joint. So I mooched back to the hotel, and asked
the nice receptionist if there was somewhere to eat in the vacinity. He smiled at
me, looked at his watch and said
Not at this time - the subtext being
any other, then he said
Do you like pasta? Naturally I said it was my
very favourite food (it isn't, but a little flattery wouldn't go amiss) and smiled
my best smile (through still chattering teeth). Regardless, this seemed to do the
trick and he said that as I was such a nice man he would prepare for me some genuine
Italian pasta. And what would I like to drink? I replied a small bottle of beer would
be just perfect and he replied telling me to return in 15 minutes - not a minute
later or the pasta would be ruined. I duly set the timer on my phone and went to my
room, returning 14minutes and 30seconds later to be told he'd set me a place at
the table in the breakfast room. There it was, a bottle of Birra Moretti (second
only to Pironi as my favourite Italian beer). And a couple of minutes later I was
presented with a bowl of Penne Arrabbiata, a spicy pasta dish, and some fresh
parmesan cheese. I was in heaven!
It was delicious too. Proof, if any were needed, that days that start really shitty often turn out to have truly fantastic endings.
Only that wasn't quite the end of the day, as I still had to go to sleep and as the
evening wore on it became apparent that the room was getting cooler and the heating
wasn't on. I tried to switch the radiators on (as I had earlier in an attempt to dry
my wet gloves), but to no avail. So I went back to reception to talk to my new best
friend. I asked if he could help me get the heating on in my room and I wasn't prepared
for his reply. He told me it was illegal! It transpires that due to local environmental
legislation, businesses are not allowed to run their heating systems after the 15th
April. That would normally be fine as that's when it starts to get warm, but the current
weather is freaky. Once again he smiled at me and said that as soon as it got dark
nobody can see he would turn it on regardless. And so I retired to my room, got out
my down sleeping bag and climbed inside that, underneath the thin bedcovers. At least I'd
not be cold whilst sleeping!
I slept well, despite dreams of being like the mammoths that are discovered frozen in blocks of ice, and woke warm at last around 6:30am. Opening the curtains revealed the previous day's storm had gone and there was a clear blue sky with a few fluffy white clouds surrounding the magnificent snow-covered mountains. I went downstairs and had a small breakfast of cereal and a boiled egg with some parma ham, then began loading the bike. The tent was in its bag in one of my panniers, where I'd left it rather than take it into the hotel, and it was still dripping wet and had filled my pannier with mucky water that had seeped out of it. I cleaned this out and completed loading the bike, the tent now strapped at the back and dripping all over the parking lot. I then paid my bill (including a very reasonable 10euro for the meal and beer) and bid my host goodbye, and was on the road around 9am. Within just a few seconds I was smiling in my helmet once more, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and the roll of my wheels underneath me. There is nothing like riding my bike in the sun to restore my naturally good mood.
Feeling relaxed and content I rode on the undulating small roads through little villages, taking the SS13 to Chiusaforte where I turned onto the SP76 via the Sella Nevea pass and into the mountains once more. As it was still sunny and with a gentle breeze, and I had some time to spare, I stopped by the river where I could lay the tent out to dry, and whilst I couldn't put it up to dry it fully, at least now it was still soaking wet. As I climbed further into the mountains, the temperature dropped, but less than yesterday, to a relatively warm 3degrees, and soon there was snow at the roadside on both sides of the road. The scenery got better the more I rode, until I just had to stop and take some pictures, of Lago di Predil. Quite beautiful...
After the lake, I turned onto SS54 and across the border into Slovenia - thank goodness for the EU, as there was no actual border, just the remains of the old border post, a derelict bunker of WW2 origin, and some snow on the road. Descending down the mountain via tight hairpins with snow blowing off the trees and water running across the road was fun, the temperature slowly rising as I dropped down into the valley below. I was heading for Bovec where I knew I could get fuel. Or I hoped so, as I didn't have enough to turn round and ride back to the last petrol station which was now over 60km behind me. I was in luck, as the petrol station in Bovec was open, and with a full tank of fuel I rode out of town heading first to the WW1 cemetry at the edge of town. The cemetry was extended after the end of the war, when the remains of some 600 Austro-Hungarians were interred here. At the time, the cemetry was also home to a number of Italian war dead too, but their remains were moved in 1938 to the charnel house at Kobarid. Despite the number of remains in the cemetry, there are only a relatively small number of headstones, all identical and all without names, despite the names of the soldiers buried here being known. The graveyard is nowhere near as well kept as those of British war dead in France, but then again, it is in a very remote location.
On leaving the cemetry my plan was to ride over the 206 to Vrsic and on to the
apartment I'd booked at Ratece, near Kranjska Gora. Only just by the cemetry was
an ominous looking roadsign, and a quick check via Google translate revealed the
CLOSED. So that put paid to that idea!
I had to retrace my steps back up the mountain road and into Italy again, before following the SS54 all the way to Tarvisio and then back into Slovenia (another seemless border crossing!) and on to Ratece where I quickly found the apartment building. I then called Igor, who arrived some 10 minutes later (but sadly without a humpback and bad accent!). He showed me the apartment, a nice single room with double bed and small kitchenette and en-suite shower room, and explained he had cancelled my booking via Booking.com (as I couldn't make it yesterday) but put me in for 2 nights starting tonight as requested. I paid him and then unloaded the bike, almost filling the room with stuff. At least I didn't have to try and put the tent out to get it dry!
I then rode the much lighter bike down the road to Kranjska Gora in search of a supermarket. I bought some ingredients for my evening meal, chicken and vegetable fried rice (I already have the rice). And some cans of beer, because I've never had Slovenian beer before, and it would be rude not to.
My evening meal was delicious, and I discovered the TV was showing the Manchester City game, so despite not being into football, that kept me entertained well past my normal bedtime.
Once again I slept well, and woke to a crisp morning with frost covering my bike and the temperature showing just 1 degree. Poor Zippy, who'd been left guarding the bike, looked frozen...
Due to the outside temperature, I had a very leisurely breakfast of boiled eggs and bread with a good cup of tea (I have my own Yorkshire tea-bags!). Once it had warmed up outside I set off to explore the area. First stop was Bled castle, or Blejski Grad as it's called, which sits on a hillside overlooking Lake Bled. I parked the bike and paid the 11-euro entrance fee, jostling with the hordes of Asian tourists as seems to be the norm these days. Avoiding being clouted by selfie-sticks or bumped over the ramparts by teenagers taking selfies or posing for their friends (making peace-signs and pouting), I explored the castle.
First mentioned in a deed of donation issued by Emperor Henry II in 1011, the castle is a mix of buildings arranged around 2 courtyards, with a tower believed to date from the middle ages. The views from the ramparts are simply stunning, with Lake Bled and it's small island housing a pilgrimage church dedicated to the Assumption of Mary built at the end of the 17th century.
After leaving the castle, I rode through Bled and around the lake, taking in the views, before stopping at a cafe and going for a walk to take some pictures. They don't do the beauty of this place justice...
After a coffee and a chat with some Austrian bikers who had parked next to me, I rode back through Bled and into the countryside, heading into the gorge towards Pokjuka and once more into the mountains. Yet another superb road, not much wider than a single track, winding up into the mountain in a series of hairpins and short straights. Roads like this are both challenging and rewarding to ride, and I love it when the pink line on my GPS appears to be overlaid on itself as the road goes almost vertically up the side of a mountain! It opened out soon, though, then passed by some roadworks and logging buildings, and I wasn't surprised to see the odd truck coming the other way, making staying alert imperative as always. I was heading towards the town of Tolmin, with the intention of then going via Bovec to the pass that was closed yesterday, only once again my plans were to be thwarted. This time it was preluded by the smell of warm tar just before a down-hill left hand hairpin. Slowed to a crawl as I turned the corner, I was confronted by road-working machines spread across the whole width of the road, laying a new surface. The road was closed, with no prior warning! I had no choice but to turn round and retrace my steps again, travelling back the full 20 or so Kilometers of dead-end I'd been down!
Determined to visit Vrsic, I rode back to Bled and then on towards Kranjska Gora where I
could enter the
Russian Road from the opposite end. During the first World War,
Kranjska Gora was an important cross-roads of military passages. When Italy declared war
with Austria in May 1915, the connection with the frontline on the river Soca was of
strategic importance. So between 1915 and 1916, the Austrian military command engaged
more than 10,000 Russian prisoners-of-war to build the road from Kranjska Gora over the
Mojstrovka (Vrsic) mountain pass to Trenta. In March 1916, more than a hundred Russian
prisoners and a handful of Austrian guards were killed in an avalanche. Two burial grounds
were created in Erjavceva koca and in 1917 the Russian prisoners built a small wooden
chapel in memory of their fallen comrades. It was this I was keen to see.
After visiting the supermarket yesterday, I'd ridden the first part of the road, but snow on the road had forced me to turn round. Today there was no snow, but there was a new hazard of cobble-stone hairpins! These would be treacherous on a bike in the wet or snow conditions, so it's just as well I didn't force the issue yesterday as today was dry and not too cold. I soon located the chapel and parked up in the car park opposite, then grabbed my camera and went to pay my respects. What life must have been like here in the Winter of 1916 I can't even imagine, but with snow still lying all around, it's another beautiful place that has seen a terrible tragedy. The small wooden chapel is lovely, and at first I had the whole place to myself before another group of tourists arrived. Once again, I don't think the photos do it justice...
Once I'd finished exploring the chapel, I made my way back to the apartment where I sat down to write the blog, reflecting on two fantastic days riding in some beautiful countryside. Tomorrow I'm heading down via the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, and back into Italy for one more night, somewhere near Trieste. But as I've already found out several times on this trip, which is just one week old today, plans often change!
I left the apartment at Ratece as soon as the sun had warmed the saddle, riding once more towards and through Bled, round the lake, dividing my attention between the road ahead and the spectactular views. I took the 209 and a narrow road over the hills and away from the traffic. This road was typical of those I seek out when I'm out riding on my own - too narrow for 2-way traffic, a bit bumpy and going somewhere most tourists don't go. This road was no exception, getting extremely bumpy in places and meandering through a forest and up hill and down dale. It passed through several small settlements, each with its own church, which are a dominant feature of the towns and villages all over Slovenia. They are all beautifully maintained, with a tower topped with a spire combining a dome and a point. As I rode along they were often the first sign that I was about to pass through some civilisation before emerging once again into the unspoilt countryside. Once the road had dropped down from its high point - once again with snow at the roadside - the scenery opened out with rolling hills and a distinct Alpine feel to it. Soon I found myself on the 403 passing through Skifja Loka and Medvode towards the capital, Ljubljana.
Having stopped for fuel on the outskirts, I rode into the city and picked up the signs to the castle - Ljubljnski Grad. The signs took me through a tunnel by the castle, which was on the hill to my right, then through some narrow streets and finally up a narrow winding road that I could have sworn had a no-entry sign at the start! But it brought me out to a small parking area right next to the castle, and with a dedicated (and empty) motorcycle parking bay too! Once parked up I bought a ticket (10euro) and wandered into the castle. To my mind, it's not as impressive as Bled castle, but that's perhaps because it lacks the spectacular view of the lake, the views being of the city below, but also because in the main courtyard was a massive marquee set up for weddings. I suppose it needs to make its money somehow...
Once inside the castle I made straight for the tower and up the narrow winding staircase, which was a work of art in its own right, each step cast with an image and with contra-rotating steps leading down. At least they meant I could concentrate on going up without worrying about having to let someone descending pass me mid-stairs. The view from the top was pretty good, looking over the city below, with it's wide boulevards and pastel-coloured buildings by the riverside. It's a pity I don't really have time to explore the city more, but as is going to be the case for most places on this trip, I just want to get a flavour of them.
After leaving the castle, I rode out of Ljubljana and once again onto the small roads back into the countryside, via VRHNIKA, dodging the oncoming vehicles. It seems that the Slovenian drivers do not understand that when faced with another vehicle coming towards them on a narrow road they need to move over a little to create a safe distance between them and the other vehicle as they pass! More than once I was faced with a large SUV coming towards me, straddling the centre of the narrow road and with barely enough room for me to pass. And no, they don't slow down either! But dealing with different driving standards is part of the fun, and it could have been much worse had I still been guiding through China!
My next stop was to see the remarkable Predjamski Grad - a castle built directly into the rocks. Dating back to the 13th century, it is actually built underneath a rock arch and back into the cave below, making access to it difficult, except from the front. It's certainly a spectacular sight and well worth the detour to view it, although I didn't pay to go and have a look round, after all, there's castles everywhere and if I went round each one, I'd never get anywhere!
From here I once again used the
Curvy Roads option on my GPS to plot me a route
using the more interesting back roads to the campsite at Trieste. I arrived at
Campeggio Obelisco around 3:30pm and checked in, pitched the tent and made myself a
brew before heading down the hill to Trieste itself. Now this was a mini-adventure
in its own right, the road down to town extremely steep and with cobbled sections, I
was only glad it wasn't raining, otherwise I'd be testing the GS's excellent ABS!
The traffic in town was typically Italian, all husling and busling, with scooters
zipping in and out of the traffic and required my full concentration. Well, the bit
that wasn't navigating, trying to locate the Piazza Unita d'Italia, one of the city's
famous landmarks. Situated opposite the water front, this huge open square is bounded
on three sides by spectacular buildings - the Palacio del Governo (1905), the Town Hall
(1875) at the back and the Lloyd Trestino maritime company building (1880-1884). In
front of the Town Hall is the Fountain of Four Continents (1751) - the four continents
being those known at that time: Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Around the statue are
four figures, representing the four major rivers on each continent - the Danube (Europe),
Rio de la Plata (Americas), Nile (Africa) and Ganges (Asia). As the source of the Nile
was not known, her statue is veiled. (I noticed the statue was veiled and the other 3
weren't, so did some digging to find out why - now you know too!).
After leaving the piazza, I rode around Trieste's back streets until I found the other landmark I wanted to see - the Teatro Romano - or Roman Theatre. This is tucked away on a back street behind some ordinary-looking office buildings. It's quite remarkable that it has survived all the building work around it that has created the modern city, leaving just a small patch of great archaeological significance untouched. I stopped breifly to take a photo, before heading on and back to the campsite.
Once again the ride out of the city went almost vertically upwards, Trieste being built in
a natural amphitheatre of its own, surrounded by steep hills. Once back at camp, I took a
shower and then made my way to the campsite's restaurant. This was a small, family run place
occupying an old wooden building at the entrance to the campsite. Behind the counter was
a middle-aged round Italian gent who spoke no English and called for what I assumed was his son
who must have been in his 30's to serve me a beer. All the while I was being watched by another
old chap sat in the corner who continued to have a loud conversation with Pop, none of which
I could understand. Then
Mom arrived, a stereotypical Italian grandma, and she busied
herself in the kitchen. No sooner had I sat down and opened my kindle than a family arrived
with Mum, Dad and teenage daughter, and the conversation now flowed between everyone present,
myself excluded for obvious reasons. After finishing my (small) beer, I went back to the
counter to enquire about dinner (and order another beer), there was no menu, so I had to try
and select from a list being recited by the son (who appeared to be the only one who spoke any
English). When he got to
Clams with Spaghetti I stopped him and said I'd like a plate of
that, knowing how close we are to the sea and having already smelt the delicous aroma emanating
from the kitchen.
With my food ordered and a beer in my hand I returned to my table and self-consciously continued to read my book, whilst at the same time trying to make out what the conversation going on behind me was all about (I failed). The food soon came and it was everything I'd hoped for, truly delicious and well worth the slightly embarrassed feeling of having interrupted the other diners' normal routine.
Once I'd eaten and paid my bill I went outside to discover it had started raining, and quite heavily too. This wasn't unexpected, as I've been glued to my weather app since I left home, trying to plan a route that avoids the worst of the bad weather hitting Europe just now. I'm not doing very well at that, as evidenced by my almost freezing to death leaving Lake Garda! It rained all through the night and was still raining heavily the following morning, when I woke around 6am. So I went to the loo and then back to my tent where I slept a little more until 7:30am - I couldn't leave early as I hadn't yet paid for my pitch and the office wasn't open, and with it only being a short riding day, there was no rush to get going. Eventually I had to get moving, so packed up in the rain, something I hate doing as I know the tent will be soaked through when I next get it out. Once on the road I rode back down the steep hill and through Trieste to pick up the coast road south. The rain was now very heavy and obscuring both the road ahead and the no-doubt spectacular views of the sea. At one point I got a very strong smell of milky-coffee, the sort that you used to get from roadside truck stops, and thought perhaps all the rain had me hallucinating, until I spotted the enormous Illy coffee factory at the side of the road! With the rain still very heavy, it was with some relief that I spotted a McDonald's and stopped to get dry. Armed with a coffee and an Egg McMuffin, I sat in the window seat and watched the rain bouncing down, whilst researching options for where to stay that evening. My original plan was to camp, but with the rain showing no sign of slowing and the forecast for more of the same all day, I didn't fancy that idea - I'd never get anything dry. I decided to continue to where I'd planned on stopping and then look again once I'd got a feel for where things were, so once again I fastened my damp jacket tight and headed back out into the rain.
I rode on to the coastal town of Piran, a place I wanted to visit as it's supposed to be full of beautiful buildings and is completely pedestrianised, but as I got close I realised this meant I'd have to park my fully-laden bike in a public car park about 3Km from the town and walk there in the pouring rain. So I turned round and continued along the coast to Portoroz, where having ridden around the sea-front part of town a couple of times, I decided would be a good place to stay, if I could find a hotel nearby. I parked up and found somewhere on Booking.com, then noticed I was hungry. As I was surrounded by restaurants, I chose one and sat outside on the terrace, not wanting to drip water all over the posh interior. This had the distinct disadvantage that now I was surrounded by smokers, but I'd deliberately chosen a table as far away from them as possible. Having ordered a bowl of vegetable soup and a pizza, I sat and started people-watching. I noticed a number of coaches pulling up outside the hotels on the front and disgorging their contents of middle-aged Austrian tourists onto the pavement, some in groups all wearing the same fluorescent trilby hats. One group had bright green hats, another bright pink and a third bright orange. Travelling alone may seem odd to some people, but to me, travelling like a sheep being herded around and forced to wear the same thing to mark me out as part of a group, would drive me insane.
The soup and pizza were both excellent and very filling, but the best part about my late lunch was that
whilst I was eating the rain stopped and the sun came out. Just after I'd had a text mesage exchange with
Tracy in which she said
I wish I had a magic wand, I'd make the sun come out for you. Now I'm
worried that she might actually have such a wand and could use it to change other things too!
With the sun now out, I rode to the campsite I'd originally chosen, just a couple of miles down the
road at Lucija and next to the marina. Having checked in, I cancelled the hotel booking before laying the tent
and all my wet gear (gloves, jacket, trousers) on the grass and watched as the sun dried them out
quite quickly. I sat in the sun reading my book - On the Move by Dr Oliver Sacks (the neurologist who
wrote the excellent
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and was portrayed in the film
Awakenings by Robin Williams (based on a true story). The book is autobiographical, but the main
reason I bought it was because he rode across America on a bike and had a passion for motorcycles. He
sums up the joy of riding thus:
There is direct union of oneself wth a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one's proprioception, one's movements and postures, that it responds almost like part of one's own body. Bike and rider become a single, indivisible entity; it is very much like riding a horse. A car cannot become part of one in quite the same way.
I don't think I could put it much better myself.
A little while later I took a stroll along the promenade to watch the sunset over the distant peninsula, where you could just make out the buildings of Piran. A great end to a day that hadn't started very promising...
When I went to bed last night some of my washing hadn't dried, and with the tent damp from the early morning dew, I decided on a leisurely start. It was around 9:50am before I left the campsite and rode the few miles down the road to the Croatian border. Croatia is in the EU, but still has a border, so I had to present my passport on exit from Italy and on entry to Croatia, although it wasn't looked at at either stage. The scenery changed almost immediately, with hills and trees as far as the eye could see. Or would see, if I could take them away from the terrible road surface. On every bend the surface had been scraped back, like they do to roads in the U.K. before laying fresh tarmac, only here it seems to be deliberate as there is no sign of the surface being relaid any time soon.
The road was also quite twisty at first but then opened out to long, undulating, straights as I made my way to Pula. This was another of those little towns I'd discovered doing my research that warranted a slight detour. Perched on the coast, it has a particularly impressive Roman arena, the only remaining Roman Amphitheatre to have four side towers and is well preserved. Built between 27BC-68AD, it is in remarkable condition and whilst I didn't go inside, I had a good look around its exterior, having climbed some interesing interlocking stone steps.
From Pula I followed the coast road to Rejeka, which was a beautiful road winding its way around the contours of the coastal hillside, mostly devoid of traffic until I got closer to Rejeka. This is a major port, but also has a lovely harbour that reminded me a little of Auckland (the building on the harbour-side very reminiscent of the one there), but with smaller cruise ships. I passed through the main port and onto the small coast road again, and once clear of Kraljevica this became on of the all time great bike rides. The sun was out, the road was twisty with a smooth surface and there was almost no traffic. Just perfect. The views were stunning too, with great veiws of some of the smaller port towns, like Bakar (see below), but with such a great road to ride, I didn't stop too often to take pictures. It was a genuinely wonderful afternoon's riding, and I was slightly disappointed when I reached Pizna where I was to catch the ferry to Pag Island. But with the time now 4:30pm, I had to think about finding a campsite soon. The ferry cost 47kruna (about 5quid) and took just 15 minutes, and I boarded just behind a group of Austrian-registered bikes. There was a group of 5 Harley-clones, a Triumph Tiger and a BMW S1000XR, with the Tiger and XR riders being solo riders, like me. No sooner had they parked up than the Tiger and XR riders went to the onboard bar and bought themselves a beer. I don't drink at all when I'm riding, but the idea of a cold beer was quite appealing as we set sail across the short stretch of dark blue sea under a pale blue sky.
Once disembarked I rode a short distance to a fuel station before the remaining few kilometers to the campsite. I'd chosen this one online too, Camping Strasko, and it was on the far side of the island, right alongside the beach. I checked in and chose my pitch amongst the Dalmation oak and olive trees just 20metres from the sea. The ground was almost like concrete covered in stones, so pitching the tent was awkward and I was a little concerned that I might not get a comfortable night's sleep, but my thermarest was more than up to the job. I bought some cheese and bread and a single can of beer from the supermarket for my tea, then checked the weather forecast for the next few days once more. With the forecast for tomorrow (Saturday) looking good, then more rain, I decided to stay put for 2 nights so I could enjoy some sunshine. I updated my booking and returned to my tent where I had my dinner and read a while before turning in, thoughts of twisty coast roads uppermost in my mind. Another excellent day!
The campsite was very peaceful and I slept well, despite the rough ground on which I'd had to pitch the tent. The only disconcerting thing was that when I got up to go to the toilet last night there were 2 birds in the toilet block. The feathered kind. A pair of barn swallows (yes, I've looked that up too!), one of which flew in through the door as I opened it and joined the other on top of the emergency light. Now I'm not bothered by most things, but birds indoors give me the heeby-jeebies, although these two were very calm and small and the toilet block quite large, so I just ignored them.
I got up around 7am and after a shower (thankfully without interference from my feathered friends) I went to the supermarket and bought some fresh croissants for breakfast. With a cup of tea, they were delicious, and set me up pretty well for the rest of the day. Under clear blue skies I set off for a ride around the island. The whole island is very reminiscent of the one Tracy and I stayed on in Greece, Kefalonia, very rocky with scrub vegetation and olive groves, with villages of square pastel-coloured houses dotted here and there. I first rode North, to Lun at the tip of the island, and here I discovered a site that claims to be the oldest olive grove in the world, with some 80,000 trees, some of which are claimed to be 1,000years old. I didn't go inside the grove - another tourist group had just entered and I was more interested in exploring the island - so headed up to the port of Lun itself, where I sat and made some notes in my journal, snapped a couple of pictures and turned round to head south.
I spent the rest of the morning riding around the island slowly, taking in the sights and some of the little roads leading to small ports on the coast. The main towns, like Pag itself and Novalja, where the campsite is located, are quite touristy, but this being out of season are all quiet. There are still a fair few motorhomes about, though, mostly piloted by retirement-age Austrians or Germans. There are a few signs indicating the island has some wild nightlife in-season, so I'm more than glad it's out of season now, I love the peace and quiet!
After returning to camp I sat in the shade of the trees and read the rest of my book, then walked to the on-site restaurant for dinner. I had planned on cooking something, but I was just too relaxed and the supermarket didn't sell chillies or chicken in smaller than 4-breasts in a packet. I had a tuna salad for starters and spaghetti carbonara for main, and despite being asked if I wanted them separately, I think they made them to be served together as the carbonara was congealed by the time it came. Maybe next time I'll cook for myself!
The forecast said it was going to rain heavily from around 10pm, but it didn't. Even at 5am this morning it was still dry with high clouds as I got up and used the toilet. However, it did start raining just before I got up around 7am, and boy, did it rain! It was absolutely bouncing down, so I had to put my waterproof bike gear on to walk the 50m to the shower block for my morning wash, and when I returned to the tent there was a little stream running from the road down to the sea. I packed up everything inside the tent, then sat reading inside on the off-chance that it would ease a little. It didn't, so around 8am I started loading the bike and once again had to pack away a sopping-wet tent. I then rode round to reception to pay my bill and collect my passport, before heading out onto the waterlogged roads.
I rode south down the island, dodging the bigger puddles and avoiding the splashes from oncoming cars, taking the main road the length of the island all the way to the mainland and then on to Zadar, where I stopped at a McDonald's for the by-now customary dry-out and rethink. Due to the forecast, I'd booked a hotel in Split, which now seemed like a very good idea, so I programmed the GPS with it as a final destination and headed back out into the downpour. On arriving in Split I took a detour into the old part of town to try and get a look at Diocletian's Palace, but despite parking up I was too soaked to contemplate walking around to have a look. It was too wet for photos, too. Reasoning that the weather may be a little better tomorrow, I made the decision to investigate the possibility of staying 2 nights in Split, and went to the hotel instead. Having checked in I went to the room where I distributed my wet stuff over every possible surface and turned the a/c up to 26degrees (yes, really!) to try and dry it out. I then got out my maps, phone and GPS and started to re-plan the next couple of days. I need to be in Dubrovnik on Tuesday as I'm staying there 2 nights so I can have a proper look around before meeting up with Simon on Thursday. With me staying an extra night here it means on Tuesday I'll be heading to Dubrovnik via Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina, so that promises to be a good long day. I just hope this bloody awful weather clears before then or I'll have to grow gills!
Tonight's hotel is the Hotel Zagreb in Split, a cheapo 2-star hotel I found on booking.com
for around 38quid a night, including breakfast. The room is a bit pokey, but has a balcony
where I could let my jacket and trousers drip dry for a while, 2 single beds, one of which
I've covered with stuff that needs drying, and air-con that I've turned up way too high in
order to facilitate said drying. It's also out of the way a bit, so there are no restaurants
within walking distance, especially as that would involve going out in the pouring rain again.
I asked the nice receptionist chap what time and where dinner was - there is a restaurant -
only to be told
It's complicated. I kid you not. Apparently in order to have dinner
in the restaurant, you need to book a place the day before. Which obviously I hadn't done. But
as I explained my predicament - I don't want to put my soaking wet bike gear back on again
- he offered to call the kitchen and see what they could do. This was at 4pm. He managed to
get them to agree to me having a table at 7pm, but warned that the hotel was busy with people
celebrating blessings or Christenings or something. That I had already guessed, due to the
number of loud teenagers milling about all dressed to the nines. Anyway, with a table booked,
I returned to my room where I started writing all this stuff, and at 7pm went down to the
restaurant. Which was completely empty. No staff, no customers, nothing. Back to reception to
enquire and he said he'd phone them and I could go back down. Which I did, and out came a
waitress who set me a place in the empty restaurant, then brought out a soup-bowl and a large
silver bowl full of watery noodle soup with a ladle, some bread, and a small bowl full of
sliced tomatoes and cucumber. Then she left. So I served myself some soup - it was actually
quite good - and ate it with some bread. Just as I was about to go for a second helping, she
emerged from the kitchen with a plate of food on a trolley, then took the silver soup bowl
away back to the kitchen, with the plate of food. Not long after I'd finished slurping the
last of the soup I'd managed to serve myself before it was taken away, she re-appeared with the
same plate of food and put it in front of me - obviously my main course. On the plate were
2 pieces of unidentifiable meat (I think pork), one escalope (probably veal), 3 small
pieces of spicy sausage and some very greasy roast potato wedges. She also brought an
apple on another plate. The meat was actually not too bad, but the whole experience was
a little surreal, just me, sat in a large banquet-sized restaurant, eating what looked like
the waitress had managed to grab from one of the buffets going on for the Christening
After the wild excitement of dinner in the Hotel Zagreb, I slept remarkably well, with no
significant after effects of the meat feast. The morning dawned pretty much as the previous
day had ended, with torrential rain still pouring down outside. I had deliberately planned
a 2-night stay in Split so I could explore the ancient part of town, but the rain wasn't
going to help matters. After a simple breakfast of cereal and a couple of fried eggs (the
hotel's idea of bacon would ony have pleased Jack Spratt's wife), I read for most of the
morning in the off-chance that the rain might ease towards lunchtime. This would also enable
me to have a late lunch and so avoid having to eat for a second night in the hotel's
It goes without saying that the rain didn't ease at all, but not wanting to miss out on seeing Split, I got back in my soggy bike gear and rode back into town. Parking up in the free motorcycle parking area by the port, accessed via a slalom of concrete barriers, I left the bike and began exploring. The main attraction in Split is Diocletian's Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is an old Roman complex that apparently has featured as a set in Game of Thrones (I'm one of the few people not to have seen this show). It is basically a massive square structure with high walls inside which are various buildings including the Temple of Jupiter, the Cathedral of St. Domnius and the medieval Brace Radica Square which has a 15th century tower (the Marina Tower). Ideally I would have booked a walking tour with one of the many guides, or taken my notebook in which I'd made notes of things to see and where to find them, but with the persistent rain, I opted for a much more hap-hazard approach to the whole tourist business, and simply wandered round taking photos on my phone (it was raining too hard to get my expensive camera out!) not really knowing what I was taking pictures of. There were the usual hordes of tourists about, and a lot of my attention was taken up trying to avoid having my eyes poked out by their umbrellas. The Palace is pretty impressive, though, and I vowed to come back at some point, preferrably a little later in the year when it's sunny, to explore properly (I won't be staying at the Hotel Zagreb next time, though!).
Having got thoroughly soaked again, I stopped at a restaurant in one of the Palace's many
plazas for some lunch. Sitting underneath a big canopy so still outside, where my dripping
jacket wouldn't make a mess, I ordered a coffee and then a dish that sounded exotic and
Medallions of monkfish with calamari and prawns, served in a rich tomato
sauce and presented in a parmesan basket. However, I think the chef must have escaped
from the Hotel Zagreb kitchen for the day, as it was crap. The monkfish
were basically a big bone with some tough fish meat attached, the calamari was whole and
rubbery, the prawns (2 of them) were still in their shells and overcooked to the extent their
meat was crisp (how this had been done is beyond me!). But the sauce was ok and the parmesan
basket tasted of cheese. The coffee was good, though!
After paying my lunch bill, I continued wandering around the outside of the Palace and down to the port area, but the persistent rain made exploring further an unattractive option, so I rode the bike back to the hotel via a supermarket where I got a snack for tea and a large bottle of water. Back at my luxurious accommodation, I tried (in vain) to dry my gear once more and sat contentedly reading my book for the rest of the day...
I woke to an unfamiliar sight - no rain! Ok, so it was overcast and very windy, but the
main thing was the rain had finally stopped, which was very good news as today I was planning
on riding from Split to Dubrovnik via Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina. With an apartment booked
in Dubrovnik from 4pm, I had the whole day to enjoy, and with the rain gone, I was excited at
the prospect. Following another exciting breakfast in the Hotel California's (sorry, Hotel Zagreb's)
restaurant, I packed away my gear and loaded the bike, then handed in my room key and made my
escape with the words
You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave going
through my head.
The ride to the Bosnian border was uneventful despite the wind and the close attentions of some dozy drivers. Once at the border I had my passport checked as I left, then got myself stamped into Bosnia-Hercegovina and enquired about temporary import permit for the bike, but was just waved on by an impatient border guard, so off I went. The first thing that struck me about B-H was the number of old Mk1 and Mk2 VW Golfs about. Every second vehicle was an old Golf. They were absolutely everywhere. The other thing that struck me on crossing the border was the number of scrap yards with cars cut in half - I passed at least 5 in the first mile or so. Taking it extra steady in case this was an indication that driving standards had dropped dramatically, I continued on towards Mostar.
When I was putting my route through the Balkans together, Mostar was one of the first places I put down, as
I remember back in late 1993, during the Croat-Bosniak War, this iconic ancient bridge was blown up by Croatian
paramilitary forces. The original bridge dated back to 16th century Ottoman times and had stood for 427 years before
it was pointlessly destroyed. Back when it was first built it was considered a true wonder, due to its height (20m above
the river below) and span of 28m. The 17th century traveller Evliya Celebi wrote:
... the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the
other... I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never
seen such a high bridge, it is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky
On arriving in Mostar, I found a place to park the bike and wandered to the bridge, then walking up and over it. This is interesting in itself, as the bridge, which is made of limestone, has raised steps running across the pavement in stripes, I suppose to provide grip in poor conditions. Either side of the bridge are the inevitable gift shops and small restaurants, and I had a pleasant walk down some of the side-streets and down to the river to get a better view of the bridge from below. Whislt I was there one of the locals started teasing the crowd by climbing over the railings and standing on the very edge at the apex of the bridge. It is very common for the local lads to jump from the bridge into the water below, and every year in late July there is a diving competition. Whilst I watched he didn't jump, but when I walked back over the bridge a while later he had gone, so I'm not sure if he jumped or not (the river is notoriously cold, even in summer, so even with a wetsuit like the one he was wearing, it would be unpleasant).
After wandering round I chose a suitable looking restaurant for lunch and enjoyed a local chicken dish served with rice, then found a souvenir shop so I could add to our fridge magnet collection. After returning to the bike I rode out of Mostar, passing numerous damagaed buildings that looked like they'd been left since the conflict in the early 1990's. Mostar was subject to a seige lasting from April to June 1992, and again between June 1993 and April 1994, so it's quite likely these derelict, battered, buildings date from that terrible time.
After leaving Mostar I rode to the Croatian border at Metkovic and crossed back out of Bosnia - this time the border guard wanted to see my bike's title (V5) before she stamped my passport to say I'd left the country and then into Croatia (a cursory glance at my passport). Riding up a small hill outside Opuzen, I was struck by the strange geometric shapes of the irrigated fields, so pulled over to take some photos.
A little further down the coast I had to cross back into Bosnia-Hercegovina again, to cross the Neum corridor, a short stretch of coast that prevents Bosnia-Hercegovina from being land-locked. This time the border guard was even less interested, both as I left Croatia and as I entered B-H. No stamp, no examining the passport, nothing. This left me wondering what would happen if I turned inland in Neum (the town), as officially I wasn't in the country. But I didn't, I continued down the coast and crossed back into Croatia at the next border, which was only a few Km down the road. Again there was no real check of my details, although the Croatian border guard at least scanned my passport, so I'm officially in Croatia again.
With a final stop for fuel and a cold drink, I arrived in Dubrovnik around 3:30pm, in perfect time to meet the agent at the apartment and to get settled in. The apartment is lovely, smells a lot of lavender (at least it did when I arrived, I suspect now it smells of wet biker - a bit like wet dog but not as bad!). It has one large room with a double bed and small kitchenette (2-ring electric hob, sink, fridge, microwave), toilet and shower room and a small outside terrace. No sooner had the agent gone than I grabbed all my gear from the bike, including the tent, which I set up on the terrace to try and get dry. I then did my washing and spread my wet clothes out to try and get them dry too. I took a shower and got changed, then, with the weather forecast showing the rain coming again later, watched the weather closely as I tried to make sure the tent dried. I managed to time it just right, packing it away just before it started spitting with rain. Unfortunately, this meant I had to walk to the supermarket in the drizzle in order to get something to cook for tea and for breakfast, but I was happy again now the tent was fully dried out, especially as I won't be using it for a few days. At the supermarket I treated myself to a bottle of red wine and bought some tortellini which I later cooked with a spicy tomato sauce, before having a long conversation with Tracy on Facetime. Another great day.
I don't know why, but every time I get chance to do some proper exploring, it starts to rain, but it does. And so
it was this morning, as I woke up to more rain, but with the forecast showing it would stop around 10am, I had a
leisurely breakfast of cereal, then waited for the rain to stop, which it did, on time. I then walked from the
apartment to the Old Town, which took around half an hour. Once I arrived, I descended lots of steps (the walk
from the apartment had been all uphill) and then walked through the gateway in the outer walls of the old town.
It was incredibly busy, with large groups of tourists following their guides and stopping without warning, usually
just inside an entrance-way, or right in the middle of the main walkway. But I managed to avoid muttering too much
under my breath, as I made my way down the main street, taking in the sights. I had the map the agent had talked me
through back in the apartment, but didn't bother referring to it, as I preferred just wandering aimlessly about
taking photos of whatever took my fancy. Which was quite a lot, as the old town is full of interesting architecture.
And this is depite it being bombarded during the war in December 1991 - I remember the images of the city burning
from the news at the time. Most of the buildings that were damaged have now been restored and the old town is a
glorious place to wander, despite the hordes of tourists and the shops selling
Official Game of Thrones
As well as wandering around the Old Town, I paid a visit to the War Photos Museum, hidden down one of the small side-streets off the main street. This had been recommended to me by an old colleague and it was very moving. There were 2 sections, one dedicated to black-and-white photos taken during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) and the other to the fall of Yugoslavia and the subsequent Balkan conflicts. The latter was perhaps the most relevant as it including photos of both the seige of Mostar (including one showing the aftermath of the blowing up of the bridge) and the bombardment of Dubrovnik (including one iconic image of the old town burning). Obviously, I could not take photos in the exhibition, so can't include any here.
Whilst I was in the museum, the weather turned once more, with torrential rain falling and causing small rivers to flow down the narrow side streets and off the awnings above the shops and cafés. This made negotiating my way round even harder, as now the hordes of tourists, still in their groups but now resplendent in plastic ponchos, all had umbrellas up, with their spikey bits at eye-poking height. Needless to say, this caused me to find a suitable restaurant to hide in, which I did, and to have some lunch. I had a delicious bowl of Seafood Pappardelle, which filled me up and kept me busy until the rain had almost stopped.
Back outside, I had another wander around the Old Town, and was going to take a walk along the walls, despite the constant drizzle, until I was told I had to buy a ticket costing 200Kn (about 25quid!). So I contented myself with a final wander round before walking back to the apartment, by which time I was once again dripping wet.
The last 3 places I've visited - Split, Mostar and Dubrovnik - all warrant a much longer visit, preferrably in better weather. I suspect that I've barely scratched the surface of what there is to do here, but that's the nature of this trip, and I like the idea that there is still some unfinished business that will draw me back here again. But for now, I'll just have to dry off ready for tomorrow, when I'm meeting up with Simon for a few days at his holiday apartment in Montenegro!
Despite not being in a particular hurry to be anywhere, I still woke early around 6:30am and once I'm awake, then I have to get up and get moving. After showering I ate the last of the cereal for breakfast, washed down with a couple of cups of tea (the cups were much smaller than the one I have at home, so 2 cups are barely enough!). I then started gathering up my stuff which I'd spread around the appartment over the past couple of days, and loaded the bike in the garage underneath the apartment. A look outside confirmed the weather had finally improved, with clear blue skies and a temperature of 18degrees greeting me. Much better! I quickly tidied the apartment to leave it as it was when I arrived, then rode the bike out of the garage before closing the door and depositing the shutter button in the post box as requested. I then rode down the steep access road and onto the slightly bigger road that would lead me out of Dubrovnik. A couple of miles out of town the road afforded me some great views of the Old Town to my right, so I found a place to pull over to take a couple of photos, then made my way a little farther down the coast to where there was a tight left turn that would take me up to where the cable-car station sits atop the mountain. As the cable car isn't running at the moment, the only way up to get the view from high up on the mountain is the access road, and it was this I took. It was very steep and narrow, with no real passing places and a couple of very tight hairpin bends to negotiate. Fortunately, I only met a couple of cars coming the other way, and managed to pull over sufficiently to let them past. It was quite nerve-wracking for someone with a fear of heights, but the view from the top was more than worth it. I parked up next to a people-carrier that had disgorged its compliment of Asian tourists across the mountainside so they could gabble incessently and take endless, posed, selfies (why the stupid pose every time?), then made my way to the rocky edge so I could get a few photos myself, and so I could admire the view.
Once I'd taken my pictures I made my way back down the steep access rosd, following a train of 3 other people carriers, which at least gave me warning of approaching cars, people carriers and even a small truck, that were all heading up as I was heading down. Once at the bottom safely, I breathed a sigh of relief and turned out onto the coast road heading south to where I'd agreed to meet up with Simon. Only I didn't get very far, as about a mile or so down the road was a long traffic jam caused by some roadworks. I watched a couple of aeroplanes coming in to land at Dubrovnik Airport from my vantage point stuck on the coast road, including the Easy Jet plane that was bringing Simon. Eventually I made it through the traffic lights and dirt-road section that was the cause of the delay as they were re-laying the road, and was free again. Just 12Km later I arrived at Gruda and the petrol station that was our agreed rendezvous point. I parked up, bought a can of cold drink, and waited for Simon to arrive. Once he did we had a quick chat and then set off with me following him to the border with Montenegro. Here we passed out of Croatia relatively quickly, then a few Km of no-mans land led us to the Montenegro customs, where there was a bit of a queue. The queue moved slowly, but when each of us arrived at the border control we were processed very quickly and into Montenegro we went.
Only we didn't get very far before we were stuck in another traffic jam, this one not appearing to move at all for quite some time. Whilst waiting in the sun, the woman passenger from the car behind came up to ask me where I'd ridden from - she was another Brit - and we had a nice chat about where I was going and her road-trip from Dubrovnik to Budva and then back to Mostar and Split. The chat lasted until we saw movement ahead and then we departed wishing each other well, the queue finally moving, although it stopped again for another 10 minutes before we actually reached the roadworks, again the whole road was dug up for resurfacing. Whilst we'd been waiting in the queue, Simon and I also had chance to discuss the standard of driving in Montenegro, as we witnessed cars passing the entire queue, going straight through the red traffic light and disappearing ahead. Even when faced with oncoming traffic they would do this, including one nutter who had to take avoiding action at the last minute, using a muddy cutting to avoid a head-on collision. Another only got part way down the queue before being forced to sqeeuze their car alongside the queue, the oncoming HGV then barely having enough room to get past. No wonder it took a while to get through the roadworks when the light finally changed to green!
Once we were clear of the roadworks the going was better, although we did still get overtaken by speeding MNE-registered locals, including on the narrow road by the side of Lake Kotor just before we got to the ferry (the speeding cars were only just ahead of us in the ferry queue, not making progress that warranted the risks they were taking). At the ferry we bought our tickets (a grand total of 2euro for the bike and me), then waited to board. There were two ferries active, both unloading and loading quickly before sailing across the narrow neck of the lake to the other side. We boarded and the crossing took around 10 minutes, then disembarked and were once again on our way, following the road by the side of this beautiful lake. We stopped at a supermarket for some supplies (pasta, sauce, bread, cheese, jam, olives, salami, beer and wine) and then continued south.
We passed through Budva - very busy with lots of traffic but looks interesting - and a little further south Simon turned off onto a narrow road and I followed. The road dropped steeply, then passed in between a few houses, winding its way through some blind corners, before emerging towards the coast and then a final tight left turn and through some security gates (opened by the security guy who came out of his mirrored-glass box as we approached). We had arrived at Simon's holiday apartment, one of a few in 3 multi-story buildings right on the sea front. Simon gave me a quick tour, then we sat on the terrace, with a view over the sea to the distant horizon, and had a beer or two. The apartment is spectacular, and has a view you would never get tired of looking at.
A while later, we headed ouy, walking back up the hill and along the main road (taking our lives firmly in our
hands as the traffic whizzed by a little too close for comfort) and to a local restaurant. Here we had a lovely
meal, with starters of salad and stuffed mushrooms and then
Lamb and Veal under the Bell which was really
lamb and veal cooked in a clay pot similar to a tagine. And a bottle of very good red wine, whilst watching the
sunset light up the sky a bright red. Not a bad spot to have my evening meal!
After dinner we strolled (once again taking our lives in our hands) back to the apartment, stopping briefly at the little shop at the top of the lane for a couple more cans of beer, where we had a nightcap before turning in for the night.
But with the sun out and a full day ahead of us I didn't immediately start updating the blog or my plans on the laptop, we went out exploring in the hire car. It was odd being driven around rather than riding (I know which I'd prefer, but it's nice to have some company), and Simon drove us back up the road we'd driven/ridden yesterday, first passing through Budva and then on past the airport and onto the road around the Bay of Kotor, where the ferry had landed us yesterday. We followed this road around the bay, a narrow, single-track road with old houses on one side and the lake on the other, moving over wherever required to let oncoming vehicles past. We stopped at one point so I could take a photo of the churches built on the islands - the church of Saint George (left) and Our Lady of the Reef (right).
Eventually we emerged from the single-track road into Kotor, and old fortified port town dating back to the Venetian period (1420-1797). We found somewhere to park and then walked through the city walls and into the old town, which had a very strong resemblance to Dubrovnik, with its white stone buildings, narrow streets and multilple plazas. It's a lovely place to wander, which we did, and also to have lunch in, which we also did, in one of the many restaurants that are scattered about the plazas all across the town. Quite a beautiful place to while away a day...
Simon was surprised at how busy Kotor was on this visit, as it's usually fairly quiet, but the monstrous cruise ship moored up in the harbour may have had something to do with it. The ship dominated the view of the port, being several stories taller than any of the buildings in town. Once we'd finished exploring Kotor we went back to the car and drove out of town into the mountains. Here we got a great view of the town from above, although it was ruined somewhat by the bloody great white monstrosity filling the harbour...
The road took us high up into the mountains and then around them, bringing us back to the main road from Kotor to Budva just south of the airport. As we crossed over the top, we got a great view down onto the plain and the plane taking off...
Our final photo-stop on the way back to the apartment was at Sveti Stefan (St. Stephen) island, which is yet another beautiful island with terracota-tiled houses set in an idyllic blue sea...
After a quick stop in Petrovac to pick up some washing powder, we returned to the apartment and whilst Simon had a snooze, I did my washing and updated the blog. It seems like such a lot happens between entries that I end up writing a huge amount each time, so I must try (now that my laptop is fixed) and write it daily. It's now 8:44pm and I've not even mentioned the house-martins or the sunset... I'll include them in tomorrow's entry!
Before I get into the story of our day out exploring Montenegro by car, I need to mention the house martins that have made Simon's apartment block their home. These beautiful little birds - there must be 8-10 of them - whizz around the skies in front of the apartment, darting this way and that, then fly onto the underside of the terrace above, where they have their nest. A couple of them are also building what looks like a new nest along one of the supporting beams of the terrace above. They are extremely difficult to photograph, as they move so quick, but I did manage to capture a little sequence of shots that illustrate their lives and explain why they are such a joy to watch. These two seem to be having a domestic discussion about how their new home build is going. I imagine it went something like this:
Ok, so perhaps I've been on the road too long!
The view of the sunset, when you can drag your eyes away from bird-watching, is truly spectacular...
After another good night's sleep, I woke, showered and enjoyed a bowl of cereal whilst Simon and I discussed the plan for the day as we want to go exploring Montenegro, and to use the opportunity to visit a part of the country he's not been to before. With the map our we settled on a route that would take us towards the capital, Podrogica, then north via Niksic towards Zabljak and the national park there. So we jumped in the hire car - a small engined Ford Fiesta - and off we went.
Initially following the coast road south, hugging the line of the sea-side mountains, we dropped onto the plain that skirted the edge of the massive Lake Skadar, running alongside the railway. It was odd, for once not being surrounded by huge mountains. Bypassing the capital we turned north and began a gentle but steady climb as the road headed towards Niksic, Montenegro's second largest city. Although that doesn't mean much, as the population is less than 60,000, the total population of Montenegro only being just over 620,000. Before we reached Niksic, we turned off to visit the the old Monastery at Ostrog, which is the most important pilgrimage site in the Balkans. The road up towards the monastery was entertaining, as it was very narrow, climbed very steeply, and on my side of the car there was a drop-off down to the valley, a long, long, way below. The side of the road only had a few small boulders or concrete blocks to prevent us dropping off to meet a very squashed end, so I encouraged Simon to keep his eyes on the road whilst I tried not to look down.
Built high up on the side of a mountain, this is a Serbian Orthodox church and monastery founded in the 17th century by Vasilije, the Metropolitan Bishop of Herzegovina. He died in 1671 and his His body is enshrined in a reliquary (shrine) kept in the cave-church and dedicated to the Presentation of the Mother of God to the Temple. He was later glorified as St. Basil of Ostrog, and it is claimed that pilgrims visiting him were cured of all sorts of ills, and so the pilgrims still make the journey to the monastery to this day. True pilgrims walk up the mountain to the monastery barefoot - no mean feat as it's a long way up, but as neither Simon nor I are religious, we decided to take the bus...
Whilst investigating where to get the bus, we took a look around the small Serbian Orthodox Church that sits in its own grounds half-way up the mountain. Inside this small church was decorated with the most vibrantly coloured paintings, covering every wall and the ceiling. Quite beautiful.
The road up to the monastery is very narrow and steep, so rather than drive, we opted to take the minibus that runs
the less pious pilgrims there. We joined a small group waiting for the bus, then when it turned up we clambered aboard,
Simon and me, a group of 4 teenage girls, and a family group consisting of an old woman, a middle-aged woman and two
bear-like men. No problem, there was enough room inside for us all. But we didn't set off as the driver waited until
several other groups of babushkas (old women) had arrived and clambered aboard, together with another middle-aged
woman and her small son. In total there were now 18 of us crammed in this minibus along with the driver, every seat,
including the small fold-down temporary ones, filled. Hardly able to move and surrounded by locals chattering away
and accompanied by some Serbian
music on one of the girl's phones, we set off up the mountain. The driver was
taking no prisoners either, as he raced around the hairpins and squeezed past vehicles trying to come back down
the road. Thankfully the journey didn't last too long (the smell of B.O. was mildly unpleasant) and soon we were
at the top and able to untangle ourselves and disembark.
Outside the monastery there we hundreds of people lazing about on blankets which they had collected from a storeroom in the monastery, clearly part of the rituals the pilgrims follow. We had a quick look round and took some photos, but with the queue to enter the main building long and hardly moving, we opted to make our way back down again, walking rather than risking another bus journey. The walk was spectactular, dropping down into the forest as it descended on a well-worn path back down to the car park. Passing us going up were pilgrims of all ages, from small children with their parents to old ladies - but we only saw one group that was barefoot. The ground was uneven and rocky, so I was glad I'd got my trekking shoes on!
After negotiating our way back down the narrow access road, this time with Simon nearest the sheer drop-off, we
rejoined the main highway to Niksic and then turned off at a sign to the Emperor's Bridge. We didn't know what this
was, but the joy of just exploring and making it up as you go along is you can sometimes find a hidden gem. Taking
a narrow road that seemed to be heading nowhere passed a few rural homesteads, complete with cattle in the middle
of the road and some very large potholes, we crossed a very long stone bridge. This was Carev Most, or
named after Russian Emperor Alexander III, who financed the building of the bridge in 1894. Back then it crossed the
Zeta river and its valley, a river that today is little more than a small canal, the river-sides having been
propped up with concrete, surrounded by flat fields. It's still quite an impressive bridge, though, spanning some
270m and with 18 individual archways.
We made our way back to the highway and turned North once more, heading uphill some more. Just before Savnik the road got seriously interesting as it headed down into a valley, the sweeping wide bends leading up replaced by tight hairpins and variable radius bends leading downhill. Simon was having a lot of fun driving, and I was just glad that I don't get car sick! Beyond Savnik the road rose uphill again towards Zabljak, opening out onto Alpine like flatlands dotted with small houses with impossibly steep roofs. We were trying to work out why such a main road would lead to Zabljak, as from there were no main roads leading out, just a few smaller roads crossing the mountain passes. It soon became clear that Zabljak is a ski resort town, with a lot of construction of new resort buildings in amongst a few part-built and abandoned ones. Zabljak has had a chequered history, being completely destroyed during the Balkan Wars and then rebuilt only to be completely destroyed again during WWII. We had a drive round town and then headed back the way we'd come. Normally I try to avoid re-tracing my steps on a journey, looking for options to take a new road, but due to the time (it was now gone 5pm) and the lack of alternatives, we had little choice. However, driving the same roads in the opposite direction gave a completely new experience as the views changed. It also gave Simon another chance to drive the road out of Savnik, this time heading uphill and ragging the poor Fiesta, which had little so little power he had to try to maintain momentum wherever possible (i.e. not slow down unless essential!). Great fun, even from the passenger seat!
Approaching Podrogica we took a different road over the mountains back to Budva, a fast open road with some great sweeping bends and a good surface, the sort of road that, like all the roads we drove today, would have been brilliant on a bike. From Budva we took the familiar coast road back to Simon's apartment, arriving at 7.30pm just in time for the sunset. A few glasses of wine and some cheese whilst putting the world to rights saw the end of yet another great day...
Today, Simon and I have decided to have a bit of a chillin' day, as he has to fly back to the U.K. early tomorrow morning and I've got to get back on the road. He also had a meeting with the agent for the apartment mid-morning, so we went out early to attend to a couple of jobs and pick up some more supplies from the supermarket. One of these jobs is to register me as a tourist with the authorities, something I should have done within 24hours of arriving. This is something that's done for you automatically if you're staying in an hotel, or even on a campsite, but not if you're staying with a friend in his apartment. When we went out on the first day I hadn't taken my passport with me (Simon registered himself, though), and yesterday we were out of the municipality all day, so couldn't do it then either. Only today is Sunday and the Tourist Point where we are supposed to register was closed. No problem, we'll do it later in Budva... At the supermarket, I bought a new iPhone charger and lead as I can't find mine, reasoning that despite me remembering to put it in my tank-bag before leaving, I appear to have left it in the apartment in Dubrovnik. Back at Simon's place I updated yesterday's blog whilst he discussed business stuff with the agent, then went to find socket in my room where I could plug my phone in to charge - only to discover the socket was already full with my original charger. I appears that on Thursday, after a few beers, I plugged my phone in before going to bed and forgot I'd done so (I would have taken it off charge in the middle of the night on my once-a-night trip to the loo). Ah well, at least now I have a spare!
Once all the business stuff had been attended to, we set off out to Budva to have a look around the Old Town and to register me. On arrival we went to the Tourist Registration point, but it too was closed, meaning that I'll now have to wait and see if this causes a problem when I try to exit Montenegro tomorrow morning!
The Old Town is exactly how I would imagine and old port town on the Adriatic to be, surrounded by a large walls enclosing white stone buildings with terracota roofs. These are arranged around multiple small squares each with a church or other communal building and tiny little alleyways leading maze-like between them. We ambled round for a while admiring the architecture and looking in the shop windows - which were either tourist souvenir shops or high-end fashion or jewellry shops. I took plenty of photographs, see below. We found a lovely little cafe selling pasta dishes including chicken tikka massala pasta, which naturally I had to try (Simon had the equivalent dish served in a rissotto instead of pasta). Once again a small plate of food filled me up, so we carried on our aimless wandering, including strolling alongside the very expensive looking boats in the harbour.
Back at the apartment we prepared for our last evening in Simon's wonderful apartment and my last night in Montenegro, with me uploading the latest routes to my GPS and Simon putting the dishwasher on. How Rock'n'Roll!
And now it looks like there's a storm brewing, hope it clears by tomorrow morning!
With Simon needing to be up and off early in order to catch his flight back to the U.K. we were up before 6am and after a hurried breakfast packed and on the road just after 6.30am. I took the coast road south following the route Simon and I had taken on our day riding round Montenegro, then turned off to take the smaller road over the mountain to Lake Skadar. With the sun out and the road good, I was enjoying taking my time and even stopped at the roadside to take a couple of pictures.
The mountain road rejoined the main road and then followed alongside the railway track, and just before the bridge
was a sign proclaiming
Panoramic road between two shores which I took, turning right off the main road and
onto a single-track road through a small village and then up and alongside the lake. Here were some fantastic views
of this amazing body of water - Lake Skadar lies on the border between Montenegro and Albania (the border runs through
the middle of it) and is simply massive, with a surface area of around 200 square miles. Looking back towards the bridge
we crossed earlier in the week gives an idea of the scale, but it's only when you cross the headland of the mountain
the panoramic road follows that you get to see just how big it is, when you can't see the opposite shore. The road itself
was something of a challenge, too, no wider than a single vehicle and with a surface that showed more than a little
evidence of landslip and subsidence, with cracks, bumps and potholes galore! It also twisted itself around the side
of the mountain and up and over the headland, sometimes with sheer drops and other times with both sides of the
road walled in by tall green vegetation, making the chances of seeing an oncoming vehicle negligable. I got lucky and
only had a couple of other vehicles coming towards me, and always managed to catch them at a point we could pass and
not in the middle of a narrow, steep, blind section! By now the weather had started to turn a little too, with a constant
light drizzle, a portent of what was to come...
With the drizzle increasing in intensity, I finally reached the turn off the panoramic road and back on the
road to the Albanian border at Muriqani. There was a queue of cars at each of the border control booths, but I
was waved to the side to join another bike on what appeared to be the pavement to the left of the booth. With
me not having registered as a tourist in Montenegro, there was a little trepidation as I put on my best
border-crossing smile and handed over my documents. No problem, the border official keyed something into his
computer and waved me on to the next window, a few metres down the same booth. Behind this one was the Albanian
border guy, and after he'd taken my documents from his Montenegran counterpart, he too keyed stuff into his
computer, scanned my passport, and gave me my documents back with a cheery
No, Paul, I
replied, still smiling, and rode off into Albania.
I'd heard all sorts of horror stories about the driving standards in Albania, but having witnessed them in Montenegro, I have to say that in my experience they were no worse. At least not at this stage, when I was out in the county still... The first sight that greeted me was a large castle on a hilltop, but with it still drizzling and me wanting to cross Albania today, I didn't stop for, but I did capture one photo from the bike. Riding on, my intention was to head East and over the mountains to the border with North Macedonia, but in that direction were some pretty horrible looking clouds, the tops of the mountains not even visible. So I decided instead to head further south before turning east, to try and miss the worst of the weather. This would take me through the capital, Tirana, or at least I hoped it would bypass it.
The road to the capital was mostly dual-carriageway and quick, with little traffic and apart from the odd car travelling much faster than everyone else, very easy. Even a section of roadworks that resulted in a long traffic jam was relatively sensible, with only one or two cars trying to overtake and force their way in - except for one VW Golf that went flying past the queue at high speed. The road passed through a continuous stream of built-up areas, mostly industrial and with petrol stations on every corner and on both sides of the road. I've never seen so many petrol stations so close together in my life, they were everywhere! Looking at the shops, every second or third one appeared to be selling car parts - mostly headlamp clusters - giving the impression that Albania is a country of petrolheads. It also appears very populous, with people milling about everywhere, or just lazing about in one of the roadside bars, drinking beer (it was before 10am I noticed this!). When I reached the city the traffic got really interesting, with no road discipline in evidence at all at each of the many roundabouts. At one, I put my helmet video camera on to try and capture some of the madness, see below...
The weather also took a turn for the worse as I hit town, with torrential rainfall flooding the streets and creating puddles that hid the worst of the potholes. With sections of muddy roadworks too, it was quite a mini-adventure but I was glad when I finally emerged south of the city and onto a short stretch of motorway leading to Elbasan. At Elbasan I took the road out into the country towards Librazhd, and away from the chaos. Now the riding was much calmer and the rain gave way to a persistent drizzle. Just after Librazhd, the road climbed a big hill and provided options to the north or south to skirt Lake Ohrid. I opted for the north route, which crosses the border into North Macedonia after just a few Km. The border was again very quick and simple - one building to check out of Albania then a short ride to another to get checked into the Republic of North Macedonia. It was simply a case of handing over my passport, bike title (V5), and insurance green card and once my details were entered into the computer I was free to go.
The Republic of North Macedonia was until recently called the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and has
been having arguments about its name for years. The Macedonian region dates back to ancient Greek times, and Macedonia
is still the name of a region of Northern Greece. The region of North Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia and declared
independence in 1991 using the name
Republic of Macedonia, but when it became a member of the United Nations in
1993 and was formally recognised as a country, the Greeks objected to the use of the name, hence it became FYROM. It's
only recently - in June 2018 - that the name issue has finally been resolved.
Once I was across the border at Radozda, and into the 10th country of my trip so far, I rode the relatively short distance to the shore of Lake Ohrid, where I intended to camp. Only the skies were very dark, there was evidence of heavy rain recently and it was only just 2pm. I pulled over to have a re-think, not wanting to camp where I would get another soaking, and consulted the map to discover that I wasn't that far from the Greek border. Going into Greece today would make life a little easier, as I'd have a mobile phone and data (Greece being in the EU) as well as not having to change any money as it uses the Euro. Decision made, I rode through the town of Ohrid for a look around - in this weather it had the appearance of an out of season seaside resort - and then onto the country road towards Bitola. This road bore resemblance to some roads in the lake district, bordered by trees, with the road wet and slippery from the constant drizzle. The temperature had dropped too, to a quite chilly 11 degrees, so I had to stop to add a layer. The road became better towards the Greek border and in the distance I could see patches of blue sky, so onwards I went. Just south of Bitola I crossed the border into Greece - again very quick and simple - and out into the Greek hills. Passing through small settlements of farms and over rolling hills, the temperature began to climb again and I had to pull over to remove my pullover.
By now it was getting a little late, but looking at my GPS and my phone I could not find a campsite close by, so chose the nearest one and headed there. The road dropped off the hills and onto the plans, become much straighter and allowing my speed to increase, but I had to keep my wits about me as there were a lot of slow-moving tractors making their way home after a day in the fields. At 7:35pm I pulled into the reception area of Camping Agiannis, but there was no sign of life. A helpful Dutch camper told me there was a little shop within the campsite that the manager might be at, so I headed there and found him. Once I'd checked in and paid my 10euro fee, I quickly pitched the tent, got changed and headed to the restaurant for something to eat, realising that I'd not had anything since breakfast! With the time jumping an hour further ahead, I'd been in the saddle for around 12 hours, covering 571Km (355miles). A long, but very enjoyable, day!
Due to yesterday's mammoth journey, today is a relatively short day as I head around the Macedonia region of
Greece to Thessaniki, where there is lots to see with remains from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. So
despite the short day, I was up early and showered, then went to use the table and chairs outside the closed
campsite restaurant to write up yesterday's journal. By the time I'd done that it was gone 10am, so I packed the
camping gear away (nice to do so when it's all lovely and dry!) and hit the road. Rather than heading north and
around the coast to Thessaniki directly, I headed south first, to get a closer look at the
Home of the Gods,
Mt. Olympus. Even seen from a distance the mountains (there are other peaks as well) are impressive, with patches
of permafrost evident. Rising from the Greek plains, and therefore generating their own weather systems which would
then reach the plains, it's little wonder the ancients thought they were home to the gods.
Having stopped for a coffee and sandwich en-route to where I took the photo, I programmed the GPS to take me
directly to my next campsite and off I went, heading North on a fast dual-carriageway. This gave way to the ring
road around Thessaniki and the traffic became busier, with 4 lanes moving at high speed, but all relatively
good-mannered. Passing Thessaniki I got a good view of the city as it streches out for miles around the bay,
seemingly going on for ever in a sea of terracota roofs, with the central part of town, closest to the sea front
being the only place I could see tall buildings (and these were not that tall). There were ships coming in to
port and in the distance, the ever present Mt. Olympus. After about 50Km, I turned off the ring road and onto some
country lanes, passing through a couple of small villages and eventually arriving at the coast, where I turned
onto the unpaved, sandy, track for about 400m to the entrance of Atki Retzika, the campsite. I parked up by
reception and went inside where there was a friendly middle-aged Greek woman who spoke reasonable English and
who checked me in, before getting me to follow her outside so she could show me where to pitch my tent. Outside we
met a younger woman, who I assume is her daughter, and they had a conversation in Greek, part-way through which
the younger woman explained (in perfect English) that they were debating where to put me. The campsite was
practically empty (it's still out of season), so I assume this was to avoid me camping on the nicely grown
fresh grass pitches. But the pitch they found me is plenty good enough, the ground soft from recent rain, and
so I happily pitched my tent then quickly got changed into my shorts as by now I was getting a tad hot. With the
tent up the next job was to attend to my washing, and to hang a washing line of bungee cords from one of the trees
to my bike so I could try and get it dry. Whilst I was preparing to do my chores a guy on a bicycle rode over
You're a long way from home in an English accent. He had spotted the English numberplate on
my bike and come over for a chat. He explained he was travelling with his friend and their wives (in identical
UK registered motorhomes), something they do every year from April to June to escape the crappy UK weather. He
also has a GS at home and we got talking about motorcycle travel, and it turns out he works for the publisher
that produced the Long Way Round books and that they were currently discussing the next one, as apparently
Ewan and Charley are finally going to do the third trip - the
Long Way Up starting this September and
heading up from Ushuaia to Los Angeles (not quite the Long Way Up if they don't go all the way to Prudhoe Bay,
but who am I to complain!). One to keep a look out for, although it probably won't hit our TV screens until
late next year (they've yet to agree who will produce the programme). After our chat I got on with my chores,
then went back to reception to get the wifi code, as the wifi
reaches all the way to my tent, and then I caught up on some re-planning...
Back home, Tracy has been given dates for her knee operations, of which there are now two. She needs another
operation on her right knee (the one she had partially replaced) following a fall caused by her dizziness, and
this has been scheduled for 5th June, which means she can't now come around Turkey with me in the
hire-car as originally planned. She will still be coming out to Istanbul, though, where we've booked a hotel for
4 nights (she'll arrive in the wee hours of the 1st night), so at least we can explore that great
city together. I'm having my bike serviced and new tyres fitted at the BMW dealer there, so needed to change
the arrangement to ensure I can now pick up my bike and travel round Turkey on that instead. With the changes
sorted out and the hire-car cancelled, I could think about getting something to eat. I chose to go to the
restaurant on-site as there's very little in the immediate vacinity, and it was very good, the large green salad
ensuring I got my vitamins and the mussels in special
local sauce providing the protein. The one glass
of beer provided some much needed refreshment.
After dinner I went back to my tent and read my new book - it's called
It's on the Meter and it's
the story of 3 university friends who on graduating buy a 20-year old London Black Cab and drive it around
the world. It's very funny and just the sort of thing I'd have loved to have done at their age (early 20's),
except I was already married and bringing up my kids...
I slept really badly, but still woke around 6am, so got up and showered (the shower initially was a perfect
temperature but got colder the longer I was under it), then made myself a brew whilst sorting the plan for
the day. I decided to head into Thessaniki in the morning whilst the temperature was still bearable, and to
try and see some of the sights before getting back to camp early afternoon so I had time to chill out. Riding
into town without all the heavy luggage was a pleasure, although the traffic on entering Thessaniki was
anything but. Not quite as bad as Tirana, but not far short, it was like London in the rush hour but with
sunshine and distracting sights everywhere. The helmet-less guys on scooters zipping in and out of the chaos
like London couriers were particularly entertaining. My first stop was the Tourist Information office by the
sea front, the address of which I'd put in the GPS, and when close I found somewhere to park and walked a
couple of blocks to find it. There a very helpful young man gave me a map and asked how long I had, then drew
me up an itinery that would take me a couple of hours. Armed with this information I made my way back to the
bike and programmed the 4 or 5 destinations I particularly wanted to see into it and set off again into the
traffic. My first stop was the iconic
White Tower, which is the most common symbol of Thessaniki and is
right on the sea-front. I parked (illegally) on the pavement at the side of some traffic lights (the pedestrians
making way for me as I rode onto the pavement) and grabbed my camera then went for a walk around it. It's
quite impressive, standing 34m tall and 23m in diameter, and was the scene of executions during the Ottoman
empire. It was remodelled and the exterior white-washed in 1912 when Greece took control of the city, and is now
Thessaniki's official symbol.
Riding off the pavement and back into the chaotic traffic was fun, as I then had the additional challenge of trying to navigate (follow the pink line on my GPS, whilst checking it wasn't taking me down any one-way streets the wrong way) as well as avoid other vehicles, people crossing the road without looking, obey traffic lights that change to red with no amber phase, and try to absorb something of the city. My next stop was Galerius' Triumphal Arch - built in 298 to 299 AD and dedicated in 303 AD to celebrate the victory of the tetrarch Galerius over the Sassanid Persians at the Battle of Satala and capture of their capital Ctesiphon in 298. This is connected to the Rotunda, a large building that has served as a mosque and orthodox Christian church but is no longer used as such. Parking up on the pavement once more (there were other bikes there this time so I don't think it was that illegal!) I had a bit of a wander and took some more photos, before once again rejoining the chaotic traffic around the back streets of Thessaniki following the pink line steeply up a narrow hill, only to discover it had taken me to the wrong side of a housing block to where I wanted to be. Negotiating another steep, off-camber, narrow, downhill, 90-degree left turn followed immediately by one the same but going right, I was glad the bike wasn't fully loaded (and that it is so impeccably balanced at very low speeds). I finally worked my way round the back streets to where I wanted to be, alongside the walls of Ano Poli - the Upper Town. I parked up and went exploring, walking around the walls a little and admiring the views over the town and out over the sea to Mt. Olympus before buying the obligatory fridge magnet then finding a café for a coffee and small snack as I'd not yet had breakfast.
By now it was getting rather hot and had gone noon, so I used an ATM to replenish my dwindling euros and
put my jacket back on (I'd stashed it in the empty panniers so I could walk round in relative comfort) then
set the GPS to direct me back to the campsite and off I went. Heading out of town the traffic was lighter and
once on the ring road it was almost deserted, so travelling a little quicker I was able to get some
breeze flowing through the vents in my bike gear and cool down a little. I stopped at a shopping centre
(thankfully air-conditioned!) and went into the supermarket to get something for lunch (a small pack of
local cheese with peppercorns and a loaf of bread) and for dinner (I intend to cook a chicken curry once it
starts getting cooler later). No booze today, though, just a large bottle of water as I think I've been
dehydrated for the past few days. On the way back to camp I spotted a car wash and as the bike is filthy
decided to stop and give it a wash. The machine was all in Greek (if I hear myself say
it's all Greek to
me one more time I think I'll strangle myself!), so I couldn't understand the instructions, but how hard
could it be? The cheapest programme was 1euro, so I opted for that (it's all I had in change anyway) and as
soon as I'd put my money in the lance started spurting water. Simple. I grabbed it and pointed it at the bike
and after a few seconds it started ejecting soap - even better! I covered the bike liberally with the soapy
water, trying to blast it at the layers of French, German, Austrian, Solvenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegran,
Albanian, North Macedonian and Greek insects that covered the screen along with mud, sand and general muck
from the rain and snow that was baked on by the sun. Once the bike was glistening white all over the
machine beeped and switched off. What, no rinse cycle? Maybe I'd chosen the wrong programme. I didn't want
to leave the bike covered in soap, so I walked to the shop at the petrol station next to the car wash,
bought a Magnum ice-cream (I needed change) and asked the girl behind the counter if she spoke English.
Of course she did (everyone seems to), so I asked about the car wash machine and how to activate the rinse
cycle to wash the soap off.
No rinse she explained. Ah. So I ate my ice-cream and looked at my bike,
which by now had dried with white smear all over, the bugs still evident (one wash clearly wasn't going to
be sufficient to remove 3 weeks of road-grime). A second euro cycle was needed to try to remove the bugs, then
a high-speed drying session back on the dual-carriageway. Once back at camp I sat in the sun and ate my
lunch whilst contemplating what to do - the bike needed a clean now more than ever, or the detergent used
in the soap could damage the paint. So I broke out the camping kitchen sink (yes, I did pack the kitchen sink,
although originally as a joke, it's a fold-down bowl that collapses to circlular tube about 2 inches in
diameter and an inch thick), filled it with water from the camp standpipe and some washing up liquid, then
gave the bike a proper wash in the sunshine, rinsing it off with the hosepipe that's attached to the
standpipe for good measure. So now I have a clean bike ready to get it dirty again riding back out of the
campsite tomorrow morning along the dirt beachside road that leads back to the main road.
Last night I broke out my cooking gear and rustled up a Hairy Bikers' recipe for Chicken Jalfrezi, cooked with rice. It wasn't bad, especially considering I had to make do with pickled chillies as the supermarket didn't have any fresh ones. And the best bit is I've saved a portion for tomorrow night as well, so that's two night's meals for the price of one! After eating, I sorted out a route for tomorrow that would hug the coast and still deliver me into Alexandropouli late afternoon. Then I got out my kindle and sat reading, whilst being eaten alive by blood-thirsty insects. The part of the campsite where I'm pitched is now deserted, even the motorhome twins have gone, and that means that I'm now the only target for these blood suckers, who can reap the benefit of the anti-platelet (i.e. anti-clotting) medication I'm taking. No wonder they seem to be attacking any bit of exposed flesh... As it gets dark around 9pm, I moved in to the tent for some more reading, hoping the mesh tent door would keep them out, before finally calling it a night.
After a fitful night's sleep, I was woken by the dawn chorus at around 6am. Now I say
chorus when in actual
fact it was more like being woken up by a badly coordinated teenage grunge metal band who had decided to make a
concept album using bird-songs from every type of bird, all played at once and at maximum volume. Still, at least
the sun was up and it wasn't raining. I went for a shower to be confronted by a pair of house martins, who had
obviously quit the band and taken up residence in the roof of the shower block. Once again I managed to keep calm
despite my phobia of birds indoors, and took a shower. As appears to be common amongst campsite showers, this one
started lovely and hot, only to go cold very quickly, just as soon as I'd covered myself in soap. Rinsing in cold
water whilst trying not to make noises that would give the impression I was joining in with the dawn chorus took a
lot of energy. I consoled myself with a brew and some bread for breakfast and then packed up and was on the road for
Following the route I'd plotted the night before took me along to the coast to Sithonia and then turning north to follow the coast to Metagkitsi before heading up and into the coastal hills via Gomation to Stageria-Akanthos where I rejoined the coast road north again all the way to meet the E90 motorway. These coastal roads provided some truly beautiful views of the Aegean Sea, dotted with little port towns, but I had to concentrate as the road surface had a couple of rather unfortunate features. First, it was polished as smooth as glass, meaning it was quite slippy, so I had to be very smooth with the controls and not too aggressive when cornering. The second issue was worse, though, as on each bend, right on the desired line, were deep grooves where the trucks had depressed the road surface. Normally these grooves can be used like berms on a motocross track to help maintain a line, but here they suffered with severe bumps as the trucks had been braking when cornering, so they had to be avoided if I didn't want to go po-go-ing around the corner and bounce into the opposite carriageway. Once I'd sussed out how best to avoid them, they weren't too much of a problem, unless I became distracted by the beautiful scenery, that is.
once on the E90 the going was much quicker, but I came off it for a little while to get something to eat and to avoid a section with a toll. This also helped relieve the tedium of being on a fast dual carriageway / motorway. After Kavala I rejoined the motorway, glad of the breeze through the vents in my jacket and trousers now the temperature had got up to 27degrees. I turned off the E90 onto route 2 to get me once again off the boring motorway, and this took me past the rather large lake known as Limni Vistonida. Vistonida was named after the Vistones, a Thracian tribe who once dwelt in the area and whose legendary King Diomedes was famous for his man-eating horses. The beasts were captured by Hercules who took them to Mycenae as number 8 of his 12 labours. It is also the site of a very pretty church in the middle of a part of the lake. Ever since entering Greece I'd noticed some rather ornate looking miniture chuches at the roadside. On closer inspection, these are actually shrines, put up where someone has met their end in a road accident. They last a lot longer than a bunch of flowers, too...
I arrived in Alexandropouli just after 4pm and made my way to the Municipal campsite, which is right on the beach, and checked in, having covered 440Km (around 270miles). Once I'd pitched the tent I changed into my swimming shorts and went for a dip in the Aegean Sea. Apart from some floating seaweed it was very pleasant, a little salty perhaps, but that just helped me float. Once I'd had enough of pretending to be a great white whale, I went and showered the salt off and got changed into some dry shorts, then bought a bottle of beer from the campsite bar and sat reading in the sunshine. A little later, I re-heated the saved portion of last night's Chicken Jalfrezi and cooked myself some rice, and enjoyed another beer whilst eating al-fresco.
As I settled in to read after dinner, a large group of noisy kids starting arriving and playing games, running around between the campsite bar (20meters from my pitch) and the beach (50m the other side of my pitch). I didn't worry too much, reasoning their parents had probably come for a meal at the campsite and that they'd be gone soon, but as it started to go dark around 9pm, the disco music started blaring out from the bar too. Not what such a peaceful setting required. Despite the noise, I turned in around 10pm and somehow managed to fall asleep, waking around midnight to peace and quiet, so it hadn't gone on too long. In the night I was woken by a large rumbling that sounded like an aircraft, but when I caught a glimpse of lightning through the tent walls I realised it was thunder. It was off in the distance and there was no rain, so I went back to sleep. I woke again around 6am and went to the loo, under a cloudy sky with no sign of the sun. As I only had a short day planned, I went back to sleep, waking around 7:30am to the sound of heavy rain pounding on the tent. It seems the weather can't stay good for very long on this trip!
The rain stopped around 9am, so I started packing my stuff away and was going to try and wait until the tent was dry before packing it away (as I won't be using it for a while), but it started raining again so it went away wet, again. I paid my fees at reception and then hit the road out of town, taking in the main sight of Alexandropouli, which is a lighthouse on the sea front, surrounded by parked cars. With nowhere to park and a constant drizzle (and the lighthouse being singularly unimpressive) I didn't stop, but continue on towards the Turkish border, some 40Km away. The road there was motorway, so I made good time, passing a number of army tank transporters (without tanks) on the way. On the opposite carriageway were some army transporters, complete with tanks, heading the other way. I did wonder if I should be trying to read the news more often...
A few Km before the border there were what looked like some roadworks, directing us onto the opposite carriageway, where
all along the hard shoulder was a very long queue of trucks. I kept going and soon arrived at the Greek exit
border post, where I handed over my documents and was processed out of the country quite quickly. The queue of
trucks didn't seem to be moving at all. I then rode the short distance, probably around a mile, to the Turkish
border, the queue of trucks now extending all the way from the Greek to Turkish borders and the other way too.
Just before the Turkish border I crossed a bridge (it didn't appear to go over anything apart from fields) with
Greek soldiers in huts on one end and Turkish soldiers in huts on the other end. Leading back from the Turkish
passport and customs booths was a fairly long queue of cars, too, there only being one lane open and therefore
everyone having to queue for the same booth. This inched along, taking me around 45 minutes to get to the booth,
where I handed over all my documents - including the e-visa I'd purchased before leaving home - and was processed
reasonably efficiently. Only to rejoin the queue for the next booth along. Here were some customs guards peforming
checks on every vehicle entering Turkey. They checked in the boot and back seats of the cars, whilst the drivers
handed their documents to another border official in another booth. When it came to my turn the customs guard
gave me a
What am I supposed to do about all this stuff on your bike? look and asked to see inside my roll-bag,
which was the most accessible bag. I explained it's contents as he poked around
Sleeping mat, sleeping bag, shoes,
tools, collapsible chair... then he waved a hand at me and I rode to the booth to have my documents checked
again. The border agent hesitated, asked me where it was a O or an 0 and then made a phone call. I stood there
with my best
I've got all day, I've been through borders much worse than this, bored expression on my face
and she handed me back my documents with a cheery
OK, all done. I then rode about another 50m before having
to stop at another booth for the guy there to check my registration plate was the same as the one entered in the
computer (it was) before lifting the final barrier and letting me into Turkey. This is what it's likely to be like
getting out of the U.K. and back in again soon, thanks to Brexit.
Once in Turkey I continued along the motorway, still crossing the flat, flooded plains of Evrou delta and the
flat countryside of Turkey, before starting to go up and down some undulating hills. All the time it was drizzling,
and the temperature had dropped to around 16degrees, which felt cold after yesterday's heat. At Kesan I stopped
at a shopping centre - there was a Burger King! - and found a Turkish fast-food joint where I had a delicious
chicken and peppers cooked on a pitta bread dish and a truly horrible Greek coffee. Now my stomach had stopped
complaining about me skipping breakfast, I hit the road again, taking the E87 south towards the Gallipoli
peninsular. Riding along with the Dardanelles to my left - the narrow stretch of water that connects the
Sea of Marmaris with the Mediterranean - it was clear to see how strategically important this peninsular was
during both World Wars (and still is). At Akbas, I came across a large cemetry and stopped to have a look around.
Akbas was home to a mobile hospital for the 19th Division of the Turkish army and was also the main
port where they re-supplied the front lines, so through this area many wounded and dying soldiers passed. The
cemetry was renovated in 2013 and marks the passing of 1,213 soldiers (or
martyrs as they are referred
to in the literature). As with many war cemetries, all the gravestones are the same, plain white and engraved
with the name, rank and dates of birth and death of those interred. It's the first of many sites to the
Gallipoli conflict I want to see in this area, as I try to understand a little more about the conflict that
cost my great-grandfather his life.
But more of that tomorrow. Today I had to find and check in to my hotel, the wonderfully named
House in Esceabat. It's not that big, only 26 rooms, but has a yard out back in which I've parked my bike,
having ridden it up a couple of steps following the instructions of the owner, Paulo. I've now checked in,
washed my smalls, and used the wi-fi to update the journal and check my emails. I've also been given a brochure
The Guidebook of Gallipoli Historic Site which lists (mostly Turkish) war memorials and other sites
around the peninsula. So I'm going to spend the rest of the evening planning the next couple of days exploring.
Last night I went for walk around the town of Eceabat and by the sea-front, next to the ferry port, are some big statues and a huge diaroma of the Gallipoli peninsula marked with the sites of the various battles here during the Great War (WWI), which is my main reason for coming here. It was here, on 10th August 1915 that my great-grandfather was killed. Thanks to my mother's cousin, Michael, I have an almost complete history of the Gallipoli campaign from his perspective, and you can read his story here. It's worth reading prior to reading the rest of today's post, as it will provide some much-needed context for most of the day's exploring.
I had my breakfast in the hotel and was delighted to discover that Turkish tea, if served in a cup, not a glass, and served without spoonfulls of sugar, is actually quite good. Once set up for the day I got changed into my bike gear and retrieved my bike from the back yard of the hotel where it had been parked. I rode south on the coast road for a few kilometers before stopping at Kilitbahir Castle for a quick photo-op. This castle complex, and the Namazieh Fortress that's next to it, overlook the narrowest part of the Dardanelles Straight, with a corresponding castle on the other side. These were not really involved in the conflict during the Great War, as the main battles were fought further south at Cape Helles or on the Western coast around Anzac Cove and Sulva Beach. I took some pictures, and decided to visit the castle tomorrow when I can have a proper look around.
Atfer leaving the castle, I turned off onto a steep cobbled road leading up the hill behind it in order to see if I could get a better view across the straight. This turned into a mini-adventure, as the road first became very pot-holed, then turned into a dirt road. Now I've lost all my confidence when it comes to riding on dirt, so I had to give myself a good talking to and force myself to relax. I made it up without a problem (I know the bike is more than capable of dealing with a simple dirt road like this), and at the top stopped to breathe again and take some pictures. I also took the opportunity, as I was in the middle of nowhere and it was quite warm with a gentle breeze, to put the tent up and get it dry. Once it was dry I packed it away again, and headed back down, my confidence a little better for forcing myself to take the dirt road despite having the jitters. On the way down I stopped at a suitable point to get some photos of Namazieh Fort too, so all in all the detour had been worthwhile.
From here I continued south, then the road turns away from the coast and heads inland. After a short distance along the inland section, I saw something interesting on the hill to my right and turned off to investigate (this is the joy of riding a motorcycle and being alone, I can go explore wherever I want!). It turned out to be a relatively new cemetery - most of the cemeteries and war memorials in this area are relatively new - dating from 2005 and commemorating those who died at the Sogandlidere Hospital. The headstones were beautiful, like Turkish soldier's helmets, in white and inscribed with the Turkish star and crescent and the name of the deceased. They were arranged in a large circle, overlooked by a tall spire on a star and surrounded by grass and rose bushes. Quite beautiful.
After leaving the cemetery I continued on the main road inland, then south again before arriving at the town of Alcitepe, which during the conflict was known as Krithia, and was the Allies objective for the first few days of the conflict. They never made it here. The Turkish Red Crescent had a field hospital here during the conflict and have now built an impressive outdoor museum or exhibition to show what that would have been like, complete with sound system that gave a semi-realistic impression of what life was like. I think it was a little tame, as I'm sure given the number of actual casualties that it was an awful lot busier, and with a lot more noise, than the current portrayal. If it hadn't been for the large contingent of teenagers taking selfies (there were 2 coachloads of school-kids there at the same time), it would have been even more impressive. I did get chatting to one of the teachers, though, and after he'd asked me where I was heading (around Turkey for 2 weeks) he mentioned he had an hotel in Mersin, and when I told him I'd already booked my accommodation offered to host me for a coffee. Which was very nice of him, except he forgot to tell me the name of his hotel!
As if to match my mood exactly, there are red poppies growing everywhere, all along the roadside and sometimes whole fields full of them. It's nice to see that the flower of rememberance is not confined the Western Front.
Now already in a sombre mood, I made my way to the southern tip of Gallipoli, Cape Helles. This is where the land forces first landed in April 1915 and where Joseph first set foot in Gallipoli. It's also where the main Allied memorial is located, a tall white tower looking out to sea, surrounded by a wall around which are grey stone panels listing the names of the fallen (who don't have a marked grave elsewhere) arranged in order of their regiment. Unlike my previous stop there was hardly anyone else there when I arrived, just a French registered campervan, the couple travelling in it just leaving as I arrived. I therefore had the whole memorial to myself, and it was rather emotional, standing there looking at all the names and then looking out across the entrance to the Dardanelles that they had fought valiantly but in vain to capture. On the front side of the wall to the right of the steps leading up to the tower are the grey stones of the Royal Lancashire Regiment, otherwise known as the King's Own Royal (Lancaster) Regiment, to which my great-grandfather, Joseph Howarth, belonged. And there, on panel 33, is his name.
Next to the memorial at Cape Helles is the remains of the fortifications that were destroyed by the Allies during the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign. This was a navy-only attack involving British and French ships led by HMS Queen Elizabeth which tried to force a passage through the Dardanelles. From February 17th through to March 17th they bombarded the Ottoman positions, including Fort Ertugrul at Cape Helles, before on March 18th they started a major attack involving 18 battleships supported by destroyers and cruisers and accompanied by minesweepers, in the straight's narrowest point (see above). Here disaster struck when the French battleship Bouvet struck a mine and sank, the Allied minesweepers (which were manned by civilians) withdrew, and then 2 more ships - HMS Irresistible and HMS Inflexible - hit mines with the former sinking and the latter being forced to withdraw. HMS Ocean hit a mine on its way to help HMS Irresistible and had to be abandoned, eventually also sinking. The battle had been lost and the naval force withdrew - confirming a land force was also needed to secure the Dardanelles. They had knocked out the major defences at Cape Helles, though, including Fort Ertugrul.
From Cape Helles I headed north and west, following the road that hugged the coast the Allies travelled up in search of secondary landing sites. The terrain is very hilly, with lots of gorges, and drops steeply down to the sea, with hardly any places suitable for landing. All along the road were numerous signs at various points of relevance to the battle, in Turkish and English explaining what occurred where. I stopped to read most of these, looking for ones that were familiar from the story of Joseph's involvement. In that it mentions how difficult the terrain was as the troops tried to fight their way from the beaches up into the hills where the Turks were dug in. One such was Gulley Beach, where I stopped and walked down as far as I could along the sort of path (if you can call it that) they would have faced. Only I wasn't being shot at or trying to shoot back.
From Gulley Beach I continued on my way, the next stop being Lone Pine. This was an area of headland that saw intense fighting from 6th to 10th August and may well have involved Joseph at some point. Lone Pine was named due to there being a single pine tree on the small plateau where the current cemetery lies. In this area, the opposing trenches were initially where the opposite ends of the cemetery now are - they moved closer as the battle here raged. This saw some of the fiercest battles of the campaign, mostly fought by Australian forces. On the spot of the battle now stands a beautiful memorial building and a very well kept cemetery, along with a large, lone, pine tree.
From Lone Pine the one-way road loops up to the top of the most important hill on Gallipoli, Chunuk Bair. This mountain range was the target for the Allied forces landing at Anzac Cove and Sulva Beach, as the high ground offered significant opportunity to control the land around it. Had the Allies been able to take (and keep) this hill then they would have managed to out-flank the Turks and probably gone on to control the Dardanelles. However, there stood in their way a fierce force under the command of one Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who realised the strategic importance of the hill just as the Allies were landing at Anzac in April 1915, and he immediately moved a large force into the area to defend it. The rest is history, as this force repelled wave after wave of Allied attacks, including the fierce battle that resulted in the death of Joseph on 10th August 1915. At the top of the hill now stands a huge statue of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as well as a large memorial to the New Zealanders who lost their lives in the area. There are some beautiful views too, including one looking towards Sulva (Salt Lake) and the beach where Joseph landed prior to his death on the hills around The Farm.
The satue of Ataturk has the following words on it, describing the moment he became a hero to all of Turkey - he went on to become the founder of the Republic of Turkey (modern Turkey) and was its president from 1923 until his death in 1938. It also refers to the day Joseph was killed...
The moment when Mustafa Kemal was granted to our nation (in his own words) On 10th August 1915 the British forces of 20,000 settled into their trenches where they had spent days digging and waiting for the moment to attack and occupy Chunuk Bair, and thereby dominate the Dardanelles. The darkness of the night had began to disappear and dawn was about to break. I called the commander of the 8th Division and other officers. I told them that I have total faith in us and I know we will defeat the enemy. However, don't hurry. Firstly, I will go forward and when I raise my whip to give the action sign, you will attack all together. I wanted them to inform the soldiers about that. It would be a descent. I walked through to the enemy silently about 20-30metres. There was absolutely no sound on Chunuk Bair where there were thousands of soldiers. Lips were praying quietly on this hot night. I paused, lifted my whip over my head and rotating it before bringing it down rapidly. Bedlam broke loose at 4:30am. The English were in rude awaikening. Sounds ofAllah, Allahtore the skies in the darkness over the front. Smoke covered all sides and the excitement dominates everywhere. The enemy's bombs tore deep holes in the battlefield, sharpnels and bullets drop like rain from the sky. A piece of shrapnel suddenly hit me over my heart. I was shaken. I put my hand on my chest. There was no blood. Nobody except Lieutenant Colonel Servet Bey saw the incident. Lifting my finger I commended him not to make a sound. If it was heard that I had been shot, it could cause mass panic at the battlefront. The pocket watch which was over my heart had been shattered. That day I fought until the evening with even greater passion and ambition, commanding my troops. The shrapnel however had left a deep red mark which didn't recover for months. During the same night, 10th August, I gave my watch, which was in pieces and had saved me from certain death, to Liman von Sanders, Commander of the 5th Army, as a souvenir. He was very surprised and excited. In return, he gave me his golden pocket watch as a gift. As a result of this attack the English withdrew completely, leaving thousands dead behind and fully understanding that the Canakkale Straits could not be passable
It's chilling to read the account of the battle in which Joseph was killed, more so when I read that the attack mentioned in Ataturk's words above was a bayonet charge as they were low on ammunition.
By now I was getting quite emotional, so sat on a bench overlooking the area where all this took place and let my mind wander.
A short while later I went back to the bike and squeezed past the coach that had turned up and pulled alongside me
almost blocking me in (I'm glad to say that whilst I was at Chunuk Bair it was almost deserted, the coach parties
turning up as I was leaving). I then rode slowly down from the hilltop to the large and modern museum building
that sits at the start of the one-way loop up and over Chunuk Bair. I went inside and decided to skip the
recreation videos and have a look around the museum instead. One thing I have to say is that so far all the
sights I'd been to see relating to the conflict had been free, the museum was only 5TL (about 60p) so excellent
value too. The museum extended over two floors and outlined the history of the conflict, including a very interesting
view on how it came about due to the large powers and the impact of the Industrial Revolution (basically the large
powers, including Britain, needed to keep expanding their empires so forged alliances which were split into two
opposing factions, the Allies and the Central Powers, making war inevitable). It was interesting but poorly laid
out, with some of the displays not in chronological order based on the way they had signed for visitors to walk
through. That said, I did find a couple of the recruitment posters on display interesting, and wondered if they
had any impact on Ada or her support for Joseph volunteering to fight.
From the museum I rode along the coast to Anzac Cove, a 600m stretch of beach that was protected from enemy fire by a plateau above - known as Plugge's Plateau - and where the bulk of the Allied fighting force landed (mostly Australian and New Zealanders, but also British, including Joseph at one point). Under normal circumstances, this would be an idyllic beach on which to sunbathe, have a picnic, or just swim in the clear waters. But it is steeped in history and, like the area surrounding Chunuk Bair, dedicated as a living war memorial. On the coast is perhaps the most picturesque cemetery I've ever seen, Ari Burnu, where the graves of many Australian soldiers lie. The soldiers landing here had been trained in Egypt and so called the rocky pillar you can see in the photo below The Sphynx. It looks lovely and calm now, but photos of the time show what a busy and dangerous place this was.
From Anzac I rode north, wanting to try and reach Sulva Bay and the final landing point on Joseph's journey, but
I encountered some roadworks and a
dead end sign. There seemed to be a way round onto the dirt road beyond,
though, so as I'm riding a GS and wanted to try and build some more confidence on the loose stuff, I continued on,
ignoring the signs. This took me onto a narrow single-track dirt road that initially followed the coast heading
towards Sulva Bay, but then turned inland and became rutted, passing through a couple of farmsteads before
reaching a junction. Sulva Bay was signposted left, but there was a massive earth-moving truck blocking the road
and shifting large amounts of earth about, so I had to abandon my plan and either carry on or turn round. I
opted to carry on and no more than 500m further on encountered another earthmover doing its thing blocking my
path. There were some workmen there, who instead of shouting at me for ignoring the road-closed and dead-end
signs signalled for me to squeeze past the big machine and the large pile of twisted metal rods that were sticking
up out of the ground. I did as instructed, riding slowly as one of the men held the metalwork out of the way
of my passing bike and once clear gave them a cheery wave and continued on. Eventually the dirt road turned
into broken tarmac and then proper tarmac again. I breathed a sigh of relief and switched the bike back from
Enduro Pro to
Road mode (for those that don't know what this does, it makes the bike easier to
ride on the loose stuff, apparently!).
Back at the hotel, I wrote up most of the tale of the day then went and took some photos of the statues and the
History Park on the sea-front here in Eceabat before getting some dinner.
In summary, today has been a very emotional day, remembering the sacrifice of my great-grandfather, Joseph Howarth, and all the 36,000 Allied soldiers who perished during the Gallipoli Campaign. The end result of the campaign, a battle Britain lost to the Ottoman's who had just been kicked out of the Balkans following the Balkan War, was that the country we now know as Turkey emerged, strong and confident. The Turks are rightly proud of their victory, and from what I've seen it looks like they are sufficiently reverent towards those who came to try to control their land. Perhaps I should leave the last words to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk himself, with these words which are attributed to him in 1934 and appear on a large stone wall at Anzac Cove:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours ... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
After seeing most of the sights concerned with the Gallipoli Campaign and related to Joseph's story, today I
decided to see some of the other sights on Gallipoli. Even they are connected in some way with the campaign,
such is the importance of that 8-month long battle in the eyes of the Turks and those who live here. Almost half
peninsula is dedicated as a
war grave due to the number of Turkish soldiers who perished here - almost
87,000 died and nearly 165,000 were wounded - as well as nearly 45,000 Allied dead and 142,000 Allied wounded.
My first stop was just down the road, Kilitbahir Castle Museum, which sits on the coast at the narrowest
point of the Dardanelles, directly opposite its counterpart castle, Cimenlik Castle at Canakkale.
Kilitbahir Castle was originally built around 1465 and then extended to include the Kanuni (or Yellow) Tower (the round
building in the pictures, so-called due to the colour of its brickwork) in around 1541. It has an interesting
layout, with a low coastal outer wall protecting the outer courtyard and tall clover-leaf shaped perimiter walls
enclosing the central courtyards and heart-shaped 7-storey main tower. To explore the castle properly, I paid an
extra 5TL (about 60p) for a set of audio headphones as well as the entrance fee of 15TL (just under £2). This
sounded like a bargain, except I didn't know where to start or which direction to walk in, so the first board I
encountered was number 4! This was in the outer courtyard and explained the purpose of the low arches in the
low outer wall, where there was a re-enactment of a guy firing a horizontal cannon through one of the arches.
Apparently, this was so the cannon balls (made of stone) flew horizontally out onto the strait and hopefully into
the enemy ships passing by. I then wandered through the inner wall and found 2 paths, one heading around the
front of the castle and the other up the hill behind it. I took the latter and this brought me round to the
far side of the outer courtyard wall where there was another numbered audio-guide board. Showing number 15!
I clicked on this on the audio-player and heard the words
...this concludes your tour! Not quite
what I was expecting, even given the low price! Feeling decidedly confused, I continued around the clover-leaf
shaped wall and found an entrance, which when I entered led me into an inner courtyard with another audio-guide
board, this time showing number 5 - I was back on track! Just as I was listening to the audio-guide and
wandering around looking for the next board, a helpful security woman shouted at me and pointed inside a little
building in the courtyard. Here was board number 6 - the story of Piri Reis. Born on Gallipoli in 1470, Piri
travelled extensively, joining expeditions that took him by sea all over Europe. He then returned and lived in
the castle, where he produced the first ever map of the world in 1521, using information from multiple sources,
including Columbus' Americas expedition. On the wall was a replica of his first map, in front of which was a glass
partition with the modern world drawn on it, and it looks similar, especially given the lack of information
available to Piri at the time.
Once I stepped outside the small building the ever helpful guard pointed me through into the next courtyard, and up the very steep steps onto the ramparts. Have I ever mentioned that I don't like heights? Well, this was yet another instance where I had to swallow my fear and clamber upwards on the very uneven stone steps, my sweaty hands slipping on the only guard-rail and trying not to look down. I got to the top and the view was worth it, looking out from the castle walls directly over the Dardanelles Strait. I could also see back up the hill I rode up yesterday, above the mosque, and over the top of the fortifications on Namazieh (or Namazgah Bastion as it's also known).
The next stop on my audio-guided tour was inside the heart-shaped main tower, where there was a museum laid out over several floors, the centre portion of which was open with just netting to catch anyone falling from above. This seemed quite possible, as the steps leading from one floor to the next were as steep as those to the ramparts, but with an added twist. No, they actually twisted as they rose, not quite in spiral-steps fashion, but enough to be disconcerting for someone suffering from mild vertigo (and sweaty palms). Inside the museum was an exhibition showing an aerial model of the castle, which clearly demonstrated its clover-leaf shape and the heart-shape of the main tower we were now inside. Further exhibits illustrated various aspects of castle life, including cooking, buying food, praying and archery. Each floor had a theme and a numbered audio-guide board, and by the time I'd been instructed to descend the not-quite-spiral-but-still-bloody-steep stairs, I had completed all but numbers 2 and 3.
Back outside in the bright sunshine, I made my way over to the Yellow Tower (it's no longer that yellow), where I found audio-guide point number 2, which welcomed me to the Yellow Tower and encouraged me to take a look out over the strait. Which I did. It then told me to go inside the tower for the next (and final, for me) point on the audio-tour. Only I couldn't as there was a chain and padlock on the door, so I'll never know what was inside (I didn't think to try listening to point number 3 on the audio-guide to find out).
Now that my audio-guided tour was over I handed back the kit and walked across the road to the fortifications of Namazieh (Namazgah). These are spread out over quite a large flat area adjacent to the shore of the strait and used to house some fairly heavy artillery, including in 1915 16 coastal guns made up of 7 x 210/22mm, 5 x 240/22mm, 2 x 260/22mm and 2 x 240/35mm (all German-made Krupp guns). During the conflict, only the 240/35mm guns could be used as the others didn't have the necessary range. They only fired 33 shells during the battle, the damage to Allied ships coming from mines placed in the Straits. There's not much there now, though, no old guns, just the places where they used to be and a viewing platform that looks out across the Strait. And lots of poppies growing amongst the grass...
The next planned stop on my sightseeing day was going to be the road leading to Farm Cemetery, where I believe
it's possible that Joseph's remains are buried. There wouldn't be a headstone as his remains would not have
been identified (or his name wouldn't have appeared on the Helles Memorial). However, the road leading to Chunuk
Bair (off which leads a track to Farm Cemetery) was closed by the police, I assume due to the Gallipoli Triathlon
that is taking place today (I saw lots of people out cycling yesterday as well as advertising signs and barriers by
the roadside). With that plan scuppered, I rode gently round the peninsula looking for anything interesting and
stumbled across perhaps the largest memorial of them all, the Chanakkale Martyrs' Monument. This is a massive
structure, standing over 40m high, consisting of 4 column atop which sits a large stone with the Turkish flag
painted on the underside. It sits facing out towards the entrance to the Dardanelles and is set in some
beautifully kept grounds. There is a huge bas-relief wall depicting the Turkish troops in battle along one side
of a big square, and behind that is a large graveyard filled with bright red
head-stones on each of
which are the names of many martyrs. It really is impressive and so nice to see it so well kept. If it wasn't for
the young tourists taking endless Instagram-type posed selfies in front of the monuments, it would be a perfect
way to remember the fallen...
Once I'd had my fill of avoiding selfie-sticks and trying not to photobomb too many young Turks, I left and continued my bimble around the peninsula. I was looking for one last site I wanted to visit, a viewing platform that had been built on the hills around Alcitepe, or Krithia as it was known in 1915. This was the high ground the British thought they could attain at the end of the first day, but they never got there. The platform, like so many of the sites I've visited, was completely deserted, so I had the whole place to myself. After taking a couple of photos overlooking Helles (you can see the whole area the Allies occupied from here) and one looking out to the islands off the west coast, with Limnos barely visible in the far distance, I sat down and enjoyed the wonderful peace and quiet that now exists here.
It was now late afternoon, so I made my way back towards Eceabat, getting stuck in a long line of coaches heading back to catch the ferry to the mainland. Once on the outskirts of town I turned off and went to the petrol station where I'd noticed a car wash (jet wash). I bought myself a cold drink and an ice-cream to help bide the time until the machine was free, then for 2TL (25p) I could use the jet-wash to blast the dirt off my bike - and blast is the operative word, the jet-wash was like trying to use a fire-hose, such was the pressure. I had to stand well back from the bike for fear of blasting it over! It still looked a bit dirty when I'd finished, but I'll give it a proper clean after it's been serviced in Istanbul in a couple of days. Then it was back to the hotel to sit in air-conditioned splendour and cool off for a while, writing this up, before heading out to try and find something to eat. It's still Ramadam until 5th June, and with Turkey being a predominently muslim country, that means most of the restaurants are either closed of have little choice. The past two nights I've eaten at different cafés on the sea-front, so I'll probably try a third one tonight. But first, I've got to check the route for tomorrow as I head into Istanbul and sort through my packing - 3 nights in the same place means I've spread my stuff out!
After 3 nights in the same hotel, I was starting to get a sense of Groundhog Day. Last night I went out, as usual, in search of dinner. I'd deliberately left it a little later, around 7:30pm, in the off-chance that some of the restaurants along the front by the strait were busier or at least looked like they would be interested in serving me some food. But no, they weren't. There were lots of people about, families with kids playing in the playground, small groups of teenagers (boys or girls, not mixed groups) messing about on the exercise machines on the front or teasing and chasing each other, old men and old ladies (again, not together) sat contemplating life on the park benches; but very few in the restaurants and those that were just seemed to be sat chatting and smoking. I walked along the line of restaurants to the end, turned round and ambled back slowly. It was now 7:50pm and with sunset not for another hour, and my stomach already rumbling very loudly, I went back to where I'd eaten last night as the little food I'd had was good. The staff recognised me and welcomed me in, sat me in a window seat and brought me a glass of warm tea. There were a couple of tables of men eating bowls of soup, so I reasoned that if they were, so would I, and asked for the menu. This time one of the younger members of staff brought it over and he at least seemed to understand my questions about what they actually had - yesterday I'd tried ordering something from the menu only to be told they only had one of the 7-or-so kebab meals available. This time they had more choices, possibly because it was almost sunset, so I ordered a bowl of lentil soup and a plate of mixed kebab, and another glass of tea.
When the food came it was very good, and I read something on my phone whilst eating and surreptitiously people watching. At around 8:45pm there was an enormous bang, as there had been every night I've been here, like a cannon going off, then I could hear the wailing tones coming from the mosque - marking sunset. The restaurant started to fill up, and I watched an old lady, head covered in a traditional headscarf, mumbling prayers before her food arrived. Perhaps I should have waited.
After settling my bill, which was all of 50TL or £6.40, I went back to the same corner shop I'd used last night to buy a large bottle of water, and
the old lady running it welcomed me back with a smile, clearly recognising me. I'm definitely becoming part of the
furniture, different to most tourists who pass here in a single day, never to return. But for me that means I've
been here too long, and rather than get stuck in time-loop, it's time to move on. There are some things I'll miss
about this grubby little town, though, not least the lovely old lady who appears to live in the yard out the back
of the hotel. She was there when I first rode my bike in to park it there on the first day, and has been there
every time I've gone to take it out or fetch it back. The yard is only small, with a gated door in one corner through
which I have to ride my bike, and on the opposite two walls are two open-plan rooms the fronts of which are sliding
glass doors. It's in one of these that she always seems to be sitting. A small, squat old dear with a severely
sun-wrinkled face and one tooth in her smiling mouth. Dressed in an old flowered dress and headscarf she engages
me in conversation every time I enter the yard. These conversations are animated, with her waving her hands about
as she tries to get this stupid Westerner to understand what she's trying to say. I haven't got a clue, but smile
back and reply in English, explaining initially about where I'd come from and where I was going, then when I got
back yesterday explaining that I was leaving tomorrow. I'm sure she'll be there when I go downstairs to load my
bike after breakfast. I hope so. I want to say
Good-bye and wish her well.
Well I had my breakfast and went and loaded the bike but to my disappointment the old lady was no-where to be seen. I loaded the bike and then went and found someone in the hotel to say good-bye to, and by the time I'd returned to my bike there she was, all smiles and waves as I rode out of the yard and away from the hotel.
Leaving Esceabat and heading North, back the way I'd come I was happy to be on the move again, although my mind kept wandering to thoughts of Tracy back home. She was due to fly to Istanbul this evening to join me for a couple of weeks travelling around in a hire car. Only we had to change that plan when she got her appointments through to have the operations she needs on her knees (one to fix some damage she's done to her right knee which was partially replaced last year, the other to partially replace her left knee). Having changed our plans so that she would now only come out to Istanbul for the 4-nights we'd booked there, her consultant had to cancel her operations due to a family bereavement. Then, just as we were trying to re-arrange a hire car and new return flight she came down with a serious infection of her sinuses, which has caused her face to swell up badly and is likely to mean she can't fly. She's seen another doctor and got some anti-biotics and pain-killers, but it's still looking unlikely she'll be able to come - she's seeing another doctor this morning to get the final word. All this was playing on my mind as I rode along, taking in the scenery. Rather than continue on the main motorway all the way to Istanbul, I turned off onto the 120 to Sarkoy, heading to the coast on the Sea of Marmaris. This rode rose and fell, twisted and turned, through farmland and past both a large army barracks and a number of concrete bunkers reminiscent of those I'd seen in southern France. Eventually this brought me in sight of the coast, where a large number of tankers were heading along the coast.
From here I turned inland again on the 555, heading north once more, the road continuing to provide some entertainment
with sweeping bends. But the fun ended as I joined the motorway again and made my way towards Tekirdag, where I stopped
for fuel and an iced coffee. By now the suspense of not knowing how Tracy was had got too much, so I sent her a message
and when I got her reply my heart sank. She was still in a lot of pain with her swollen face and even though she was
still waiting to see the doctor (there was a 4-hour wait) it was obvious she would be unable to join me. I tried to
console her, but I don't think I succeeded. I rode on, trying not to let it affect my riding, especially as I got
closer to Istanbul and the traffic started to get heavier. Fortunately my route into Istanbul and to the hotel was
on a vast 3-lane dual carriageway, which comes in to the city from the West, hogging the coast, past a castle and
the old city walls all the way to Sultanhmet where my hotel is. It was simple to find (thank goodness for a quality
GPS and the ability to zoom in and out without taking my hands off the handlebars). Pulling up outside the hotel on
the steep cobbled street, I looked around in vain for somewhere to park. The hotel is supposed to have parking and
I'd requested it on my booking, but there were cars parked in all the spaces. I squeezed the bike to one side to
allow the following coaches to get past and went into the hotel to check-in. They were extremely helpful and 3 of
the staff came outside to argue with the builders a couple of buildings further up the street to get them to move
their car, which was parked horizontally across two spaces. They did and so I was able to park up directly outside
the hotel and unload all my bags. With my room being on the 4th floor and there being no lift (this would have
played havoc with Tracy's knees), I was grateful to the bell-boy who carried the heaviest of my bags (I gave him a
good tip -
Don't volunteer next time! - o.k. not that, some cash!). With the bike unloaded and my panniers
tucked away under the luggage rack in reception (there was no way I was carrying them upstairs too!), I put the
cover over my bike and went to my room to shower. Before showering, I contacted Tracy again to find out what the
doctor had said and as we suspected, she was unfit to fly. So I'll be travelling around Turkey on my own and on
my bike instead, and trying to work out if we can arrange to meet somewhere else on my travels.
After changing into normal clothes I went out for a wander, mostly to check out the route to the laundry for tomorrow so I can get my clothes properly washed, but also to acclimatise myself to the area around the hotel. I deliberately chose this hotel because it was close to the Blue Mosque, which is just at the end of the street, less than 100m from the front door of the hotel. This is an impresive structure and the only mosque with six minarets. I'll save the full history for another day when I've had chance for a proper look around it, but it's quite impressive and set close to a large park with a fountain and a Hammam (Turkish bath) that's also quite an impressive building (more history to follow!) and another old mosque.
After a bit of a wander around to get my bearings, and having located the laundry, I went back to the area where
I'd seen a lot of restaurants. Walking past one that advertised
The best view of the Bosphorus from our roof
, I climbed the 4-5 flights of stairs, only to be very disappointed by both the view and the look of the
very empty restaurant. I made my excuses and headed back down the stairs and into the street, hastily turning the
corner. A little while later I was accosted, in the nicest possible way, by a young Turkish man who was touting for
people to come into his restaurant. It looked great but what sealed the deal was the conversation we had which went
Come , just for drink, try best beer in Turkey!
Let me guess, Efes, right?
Yes, but of course!
Yes, the ONLY beer in Turkey!
I went and sat at a table and ordered a large glass of... tea...
After sitting sipping my tea for a while I ordered a plate of appetisers, small cheese-filled pastries, which were
delicious. And another glass of tea. Then I ordered a chicken shish kebab and salad, and another tea, all of which
was delicious and very filling. When I asked for the bill, the waiter offered me a complimentary glass of tea,
which I graciously accepted. While all this was going on, I sat and read some news articles on my phone as cover for
more people-watching. I particularly enjoyed the tactics used by my accoster to try to entice other customers into
the restaurant (calling the ladies
Princess had a lot more success than I expected!). He was doing a great
job too, as by the time I left the restaurant was almost full. And it wasn't even sunset yet.
When I finally dragged myself away from the tea-drinking (I do like a good cuppa!), I made my way back to the Blue
Mosque and park area, where I was susprised to find a lot of people camped out all over the grassy areas and on
the park benches with unopened picnics. Obviously this is the place to come before sunset to break the day's
fasting (it still being Ramadam). I got chatting to a nice guy who, unsurprisingly, turned out to have a carpet
shop nearby. We chatted for a while about Manchester and my trip, and he didn't seem too disappointed when I told
him I already have a beautiful Turkish rug from a previous visit to Turkey (I do, it's still in the box at home)
and that I don't really have a need for another one. We shook hands and I wished him luck selling his carpets to
other tourists. One thing he did tell me was that there was a festival on, which I assume is preparation for Eid al-Fitr,
which marks the end of Ramadam a week tomorrow (Tuesday, 4th June). I wandered over to the other side of the park
where there were a couple of stages and watched as a pipe band appeared all dressed in bright clothing (they were
mehteran, or Ottoman Military Band). Then I walked back to the park and found a bench to sit on and take
it all in. Despite the park being full of young families, there was a surprising sense of calm, hardly any noise,
no loud music or obnoxious shouting. Just peace and calm and hundreds of people. Very moving. As the sun set, the
minarets on the Blue Mosque and another mosque to my right began the wailing call to prayer. Some of the people
quietly muttered their own prayers, whilst others took the opportunity to dive into their picnics and break the
day's fast, fast.