Here is the story of my latest motorcycle adventure, as I travel solo around Europe.
I hope you enjoy reading it, if you have any comments, please drop me an email Paul
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!
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
womand 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 impressiv 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 heading 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 and built down completely 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...
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!
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 doouble 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!
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 swore 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 mmaritime 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 archeological 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 sraped 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 not 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 as 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 completel 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
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!
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 soo 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 hypotermia 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 road round 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!
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 **** 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 Clément Métezeau, 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. 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 pitche 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 cthe 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...
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...
It's almost time for me to depart on what will be a 3-month coddiwomple. For those not familiar with this great word, it
is slang meaning
To travel purposefully toward an as-yet unknown destination. Now it has to be said that I have
a number of destinations in mind for my latest adventure, but as with all such undertakings, the reality of where I end
up is likely to be somewhat different, so to all intents and purposes, that counts as a good old coddiwomple in my book!
Today is my last day at home and the usual pre-adventure procrastinations are in full flow. I've packed and
re-packed my bags, loaded and unloaded the bike, updated my packing list and done lots of other irrelevant tasks that
give the impression I'm getting ready to go. I've told everyone who will listen, and even those who won't, that I'm
excited to be getting going. Only that's not the only emotion I'm feeling. As is often the case when I commit myself
to doing something that will take me out of my comfort zone, as the time to begin gets closer, I question my
wisdom in being so quick to challenge myself. It would be so much easier to just call the whole thing off and stay at
home with my lovely wife and to enjoy a simple existence of watching series 3-5 of
Line of Duty (the ones we've
not yet seen). However, I know that deep down I have to keep setting myself little challenges and doing things that make
life a bit more interesting. So tomorrow morning I'll load the bike up and set off, and let the journey take
me wherever I end up going, and return with some more stories to bore anyone who will listen (and those who won't).
You can follow my journey here. I'll be posting updates as often as I can.
Let the coddiwompling begin...
One of the questions I frequently get asked by people planning their first foreign motorcycle trip is
How do you pack everything you need?. My answer is usually
Get everything out, then take half of it away,
then take another half away and you're good to go!. But it's not actually as easy as that as the photos below
demonstrate! The main problem with packing for a long motorcycle trip is deciding on what you actually NEED to take,
which is often a lot less than you might think, especially where clothes are concerned. If you look at the first
picture below, you will see that all my clothes, for 3-months away, are packed in the black bag on the left. Almost
everything else is camping gear!
So let's look at what I'm packing in a bit more detail.
First up, clothing. I like to wear clean clothes, particularly underwear and socks, every day, so that's a total of
4 pairs of each. I could easily reduce this to 3 pairs (one
clean, one to wear, one to wash) but they pack small and the extra pair means I don't have to wash and dry them every
day. This allows for days when it rains a lot and I can't get them dry! I take a similar number of non-cotton
T-shirts (cotton will get smelly quickly and takes too long to dry), plus a couple of long-sleeved non-cotton T-shirts
that allow for layering if it's chilly. A single Craghoppers long-sleeved trekking shirt is for
best, and for
when I need to wear a collar to get in somewhere and also means I can have a change from T-shirts if I want. Trousers
are trekking-style cargo pants and I take a couple of pairs. A fleece and down-jacket give me options for when it's
cold and can be worn under my bike gear too. Finally, a pair of swimming shorts and that's it, apart from footwear.
Footwear is always a problem as they're bulky. As I intend to do a fair bit of walking whilst taking in the sights, I need a pair of trekking shoes. I also take a pair of sandals to give my feet a breather as otherwise they'd be a mess having been in bike boots or trekking shoes all the time! These won't fit in the black bag so go in the roll-bag on the bike's seat.
So that's clothing. In addition I need my wash-bag containing the usual toiletries - but small bottles only as they can be replaced en-route easily. Sadly as a consequence of my recent heart problem I also need to take a lot of medication - I take 5 tablets in the morning and 2 at night - and need to carry a full 3-months worth with me. These came in boxes from the pharmacy and would easily have filled half the black bag had I left them like that! So I've taken the blister-packs out of the boxes and fastened them with elastic bands, together with the prescription label from the box. These are in a plastic bag and are still bulky - see above the yellow wash bag in the image below. At least these will reduce in size the further into my trip I go, making room for fridge magnets!
Then there's my personal stuff - my camera and lens, small tripod, laptop and charger, Kindle e-reader (loaded with books including travel guides), spare glasses, sunglasses, cap and warm hat, suncream and wet-wipes. And a set of maps, of course, to allow me to plan and adapt my route as I go. Finally, my rucksack for carrying gear when I'm out exploring away from the bike.
For a hotel-based trip, that would be it. Sounds a lot but it would all comfortably fit in the bikes 2 panniers and tank-bag with some room to spare.
But as I'm camping and also wild-camping, I need to take a lot more stuff. I've got my camping gear - tent, sleeping bag and liner, Thermarest, towels; my cooking stuff - 2 stoves, pan set, cooking knife and chopping board, plate, collapsible bowl, cup, utensils, etc; my food supplies - herbs and spices, cooking oil, soy sauce, pasta, rice, teabags and sugar; plus a small camping table and my luxury item - a small Trekology camping chair (the black bag behind my shoes). This lot fills the smaller of the 2 panniers plus most of the roll bag!
In terms of bike gear, as well as my Klim Badlands riding suit, Shoei neotec helmet, Sidi Adventure boots and my
riding gloves (I'm taking 3 pairs, one hot-weather pair, one summer pair and one thick winter pair), there's my
Keis electric vest and a spare visor (I take one clear and one dark tint). I also ride with earplugs to protect
my hearing. I'm also packing a bike cover, cable lock and disc lock for security. And there's
mascot, who'll be attached to the bike before departure!
Finally, in case of breakdowns I take a toolkit that contains only those tools I need in order to remove body panels to get access to the battery, remove wheels and perform basic servicing/repairs. These are in an Enduristan tool roll which is a clever bit of kit with a magnetised panel to (hopefully) prevent me losing screws at the roadside. I've been using it for every job on my bike for the past month or so to ensure the tools I need are in it. In addition to the tool roll, I also have my puncture repair kit (Stop-N-Go tyre plug it and compressor) and a jump-start pack on the bike. All of which I hope I don't need, but are just in case, although for most of this trip I also have BMW Emergency Assist and European Breakdown Insurance!
It's a lot of stuff to carry, and I will probably still discover that I could have done without some of it, but
after years of travelling, I think I've got it down to the minimum I'm comfortable with! The challenge now is not
to spend the remaining 3 days before I leave thinking of things I should add
just in case!
Yesterday the trip I was supposed to be guiding before my heart problem departed from the Ace Café in London. I
wanted to be there to say
Goodbye to my friends who are on the trip and to wish everyone well, but also to put
it behind me as pulling out of a trip I really wanted to do had been quite difficult. I know that due to the weakened
state of my heart muscle following the issue in October last year (see blog below for full gory details!), I could
not contemplate travelling at altitude on the Tibetan plateau which is a key feature of the ride from London to
Beijing. That gave me no real choice but to withdraw, but that felt like betrayal to both Andrew and Darryl who had
booked on the trip partly because they knew I was guiding it. So it was that I rode down to London on Good Friday to
meet up with another friend, Simon, and stay over at his house so I could be at the Ace for breakfast and the send-off.
The group had assembled at the Crowne Plaza hotel nearby the previous evening but the start of the trip proper involves a big send off from the iconic Ace Café. This fantastic venue is, as every petrol-head knows, was a major biker hangout in the 50's and 60's but closed in 1969, and was brought back to life in 1997 and now is a mecca for bikers. Located just off the North Circular road, it's an ideal location to launch an epic motorcycle expedition. With the London-Beijing expedition also heading to the Ace's sister café in Beijing, the trip is also known as the Ace to Ace. Finally, the Ace serves up a great British breakfast, which is a prefect way to start any adventure!
By the time Simon and I had completed a little scenic ride through London and over Tower Bridge and arrived at the Ace,
the group had assembled and were busy tucking in to their brekkie. There were other people on the trip I knew too, with
Kevin and Kalok - who rode with me in Colombia in 2015 and came on our first Scottish Advanced Riding Training Tour there
also. I had chance to catch up with Andrew and Darryl too, a well as chatting to several other people I knew from other
trips. The nervous energy in those about to depart was tangible and very familiar, and I couldn't help but wish that
I was getting ready for the off too. But not one to dwell on such things (too long!), I concentrated on making sure
I had spoken to everyone I knew before the time for departure came. The send-off is a big affair, with the 20 bikes
lined up in front of the café and the local mayor and
Queen's Representative in attendance for some photos.
The sense that the guys (and gals) are about to do something extraordinary is intensified as the departure time arrives
and they ride out of the car park en-masse to cheers and waves from family, friends and strangers who've attended to
see them off.
And with that, they were gone, leaving me feeling a little lost, knowing that had it not been for my heart, I'd be leaving with them at the start of an epic 12-week, 14,000-mile journey...
But as I say, I'm not one to dwell on what could have been, and ever since I knew I couldn't go with them I've been busy planning an alternative adventure. So it's now time to reveal what that is and to focus on getting ready for my own departure a week on Tuesday. Whilst I won't have the mayor waving a union flag as I leave, I will be setting off on a 12-week journey of over 12,000 miles!
When I realised I wouldn't be able to go on the Ace-to-Ace trip the first thing I did was get out an old map and take
a good look to try and decide where I should go as an alternative. I had geared myself up to a big motorcycle trip, on
the 10th anniversary of the TransAM expedition that changed my life, and I was determined to do one. With the map out
I looked at Europe and drew an imaginary line from home, down to Turkey, around the Black Sea and then up to the very
top, Nordkapp, and back down and home. That looked like a big adventure, so the next thing to do was plot a route and
start investigating it. As I'm fairly computer literate, I prefer to do my planning using my laptop, so using a
mapping program, I plotted a basic route as above and then started checking the Foreign Office website for information
on where I'd be going. That's when I hit the first problem. The route around the Black Sea would take me through
Georgia, into Russia then into the Ukraine. The FCO travel advice has
Advise against all travel markers for
all of the border between Georgia and Russia, as well as most of the border between Russia and Ukraine and the eastern
part of Ukraine. This would not mean I couldn't go there, but if I did I would be uninsured and unable to get help
should I find myself in trouble. All of which meant these areas were a no-go for my trip. Armed with that information
I modified the route to loop-back in Turkey, cutting out Georgia and Russia but adding in some other interesting
countries including Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova.
To cut a long story short, I've spent quite a while researching and planning my new adventure and it looks like this:
Now that my new bike is run in and ready for adventure, I thought it would be a good idea to have a short
shakedown trip to make sure I’d got everything sorted prior to departure on my big European adventure at
the end of the month.
So I packed up the bike and headed off to Wales for a night Wild Camping in the middle of nowhere. The ride
down was just what I needed to help get my head back in
traveller mode, with plenty of saddle time as
I meandered along lots of small country lanes towards North Wales. I stopped for a brew and pasty at the
Ponderosa Café, along with hundreds of other bikers (it was Sunday, after all). Several more narrow lanes
later and I stopped a second time for a coffee in Betws-y-Coed, which my sister informs me my mother called
By the time I left there it was already late afternoon and after a ride around Bala Lake, I decided to head to the
spot I'd selected to camp, having studied Google Earth some night's before. I'd chosen a road that headed into the
hills and then a second, single-track, road that was a dead-end with nothing apparently around it. Once on the first
road, things got interesting as I arrived at a farm house and a gate across the road. Undeterred, and because there
were no signs proclaiming this to be a private road (it did mention it was farm-land), I opened the gate, pushed my bike
through and then closed the gate behind me. Half expecting an irate Welsh farmer to appear carrying a shotgun and
Ewch oddi ar fy nhir! (Welsh for
Get off my land!), I continued on un-shot. To another gate,
at which I repeated the open-push-close process and continued. To another gate. And Another. I have to admit, at
some point, I lost count so I don't know how many gates I had to pass through, but the weather was good and the
views spectacular, so I wasn't complaining.
Not long before I reached my dead-end turn-off, I noticed a big red sign to my left that I could have sworn said
Danger Explosives!. Reasoning that I must have been mistaken, and that if not, there would be other signs,
I continued further along the one-track road. Then I spotted another, smaller, sign to my right, so stopped to have a
proper look. It read (thankfully in English as well as Welsh)
Access Prohibited - Due to unexploded munitions.
Which made me wonder if I'd already strayed into the Balkans as I was in a country that didn't speak English and there
were unexploded god-knows-what just off the road! I also thought it might be prudent to reconsider wild camping.
But not one to shirk an adventure, I continued along the road, reasoning that anything unexploded wouldn't be underneath
the tarmac, and if it was, then the road-roller would have set it off before my bike arrived. A short distance later
I arrived at the turn-off onto the dead-end road my Google searching had found, but there, right before me, was a
perfect camping spot by a stream. And there was evidence of previous campers as there were the remains of a fire pit.
Reasoning that if there were unexploded bombs here, the previous campers would have left more trace than a few burnt
embers, I decided to make camp here instead. Having not seen a single person or vehicle for the past hour, I also
felt it was suitably secluded for my
in the middle of nowhere fantasies.
With the tent pitched I set about rustling up a brew and some food and hit my first snag. Despite my meticulous planning, I'd neglected to pack a cup, plate or bowl. So a brew was out of the question, but dinner wasn't, as I'd learnt to eat direct from the pan on previous ill-prepared camping trips. My dinner of choice for a first-night camping is an old favourite - Hot Tuna - a recipe I devised many years ago when single and short on foodstuffs, and it's basically a spicy Bolognese sauce with tinned tuna instead of beef and some dried chillies to liven it up. As usualy it was very good, and eating it out of my new pans seemed a fine way to cristen them. Sadly, I'd also forgotten to pack any alcohol, but that was deliberate, as I hardly drink at all these days. (stop sniggering at the back!).
With dinner done and the pots washed and put away I wandered around my new kingdom taking lots of photographs and basically enjoying the peace and quiet as well as the solitude. When it started to go dark I crawled inside the tent and fell asleep to the sound of the stream, only to be woken an hour or so later by a strange rustling sound. A moment's investigation revealed the wind had picked up and it was the tent rustling and not some strange wild Welsh animal (or event the sheep and their newborn lambs I'd seen earlier). After a fitful nigth I woke just after 6am to a misty morning, and still full from the previous evening's meal, decided to break camp and head towards home in search of a big breakfast and a pot of tea. Hoping to find a café on the way home, I was bitterly disappointed, even the café at J & S Accessories being closed. So I arrived home hungry but content after a very enjoyable mini-adventure, and with a list of things I need to change before departing on a much longer trip in just over 3 week's time - not least of which is to remember to pack a cup!
The entry below describes the last major event in my eventful life, when I had a slight hiccup with my health. Since then I've been quite busy resting and recuperating, with a weekly Cardiac Rehabilitation session at Oldham Royal Infirmary. These are rather enjoyable sessions of exercise in the company of physiotherapists and a cardiac nurse and I'm delighted to report that I'm doing very well. I exercise to a level appropriate to a gentleman of a certain age with a heart condition, getting my heart rate up to around 120bpm for around half and hour then after a warm-down am allowed back home again. In between sessions I've been trying to get out walking with a friend and am thoroughly enjoying the exercise, although in the last couple of weeks we've missed the walks as he's injured his knee!
There have also been some developments on the
new adventure front. Most important of which has been that
I've taken delivery of my new bike - a BMW R1250GS Rallye TE with the adventure
sports suspension. I collected
it on 1st March (along with my friend, Anne, who also picked up her identical but lowered model) and then
did 600 miles over the weekend running it in. Once it had been serviced, I fitted all the extras I deemed necessary
to create my ideal adventure-touring bike. These are:
Fitting this little lot took a full (long) day, but once fitted the bike is ready to head off on an adventure. The following weekend gave me chance to fit the panniers and go for a ride, as it was time for some Tour-Guide and First Aid training with my friends at Globebusters.
This was held at their new HQ in Chesterfield, so I rode down on the Thursday and met up with the rest of the team that were staying at the Ibis in town. The 2-day Tour Guide training was as interesting as ever, the first day spent recapping on running a tour, roles and responsibilities of the crew and the processes and procedures we follow. The second day was spent reviewing the processes for dealing with more serious incidents, something that I hope I don't have to deal with for real but at least I'm well-prepared just in case. The Sunday and Monday were reserved for 2 days of Outdoor First Aid, which is tailored for us by the trainer and covers everything from minor cuts and bruises right through to... well, let's just say that I hope I never have to use my training for real!
Now that I'm back home again I'm preparing for a few Enhanced Rider Scheme training sessions later this week and early next as well as reviewing plans for my trip to Europe. More details to follow in subsequent posts!
The second time they woke me it felt like I’d been hit in the ribs with a sledgehammer.
Why do they not
just let me sleep? I thought as I stared at the square fluorescent light above my head. Then I saw them,
several of them gathered round my bed looking concerned. That’s when I realized what had just happened.
I was in Oldham Royal Hospital’s Accident and Emergency department and they’d just administered the second shock
from the defibrillator. No wonder they looked concerned. I felt fine, apart from the pain in my ribs, and was
now wide awake. A few mundane questions from the consultant and they started to relax as it was obvious I was
back-in-the-room. Not long afterwards I was wheeled outside and into the back of an ambulance accompanied by
the consultant and off we went, blue lights flashing and sirens blaring. I stared out at the blue sky through
the sky-light and the thought hit me hard. This was likely to mess up my plans to guide the Globebusters motorcycle
expedition from London to Tokyo next April. Bugger.
On arriving at Manchester Royal Infirmary I was wheeled into the critical coronary care unit and the consultant from Oldham handed me over to another doctor who was overseeing the drips I was being fitted with. I asked what they were for and was told one was just fluids to stop me dehydrating and the other an anti-coagulant to help keep my blood from clotting and blocking me up again. Within a few minutes I was struggling to swallow, and realized my tongue was very swollen – I’d probably bitten it during the second shock – so they removed the anti-coagulant to stop the bleeding inside my tongue. Then I was taken into theatre where I had an angioplasty – a small tube inserted in my radial artery in my wrist and up into my heart – by a consultant cardiologist. He located the problem, a clot had blocked the stent I’d had fitted after my heart attack in 2012, and removed it, then inserted another stent. He showed me the before and after images and it was no wonder I’d had a problem, the artery supplying blood to the muscle of my heart had been completely cut off.
My symptoms that started in the gym, where I was having a gentle workout something I’d done many times before without issue, were initially a slight dizziness as though I was about to pass out. The dizziness was accompanied by the sensation of my vision closing in, and a heaviness in my left arm, both symptoms I recognized from my 1st heart attack and so I’d requested the ambulance. When the paramedics first arrived they did an ECG, which was normal, and took my blood pressure, which was very low. By the time they transferred me to the ambulance, the aspirin I’d taken, and resting on the floor with my legs raised, had done the job and my blood pressure was normal. What happened in A&E was therefore unexpected, as I was totally fine until I was given a GTN spray (glyceryl trinitrate) which I suspect opened my blood vessels sufficiently to allow the clot, which was reducing blood supply, to move and completely cut off the supply, leading to my heart going arrhythmic and so not pumping blood round my body. Known as a Cardiac Arrest, this is different to a heart attack as it causes the patient to become unconscious (with a heart attack the patient is conscious) and is very serious – CPR is required and a shock from a defibrillator necessary to shock the heart back into rhythm before the patient dies from lack of oxygen.
Once out of theatre I was transferred to the Acute Cardiac Care ward and into a bed. I felt just fine, but then I’d felt fine before the GTN spray. The only problem I had was a very swollen tongue and a pain in the ribs from the horse that kicked me. Or that’s how it felt. Now my mind had time to contemplate what had happened. I had three concerns.
work, which meant I would be paid to do the trip and also provided with a motorcycle to ride, further reducing the cost to me to zero. Having a second heart attack and the subsequent recovery period would put the whole job at risk. However, I reasoned that last time I was fully recovered within 6 months and so with an April departure, I saw no reason this time would be any different. That’s the optimist in me, right there…
As it transpired, Tracy cut her holiday short when I told her I was in hospital and would be for 3-4 days. I kept the full details of what happened from her for now, telling only that I’d had another heart attack and so had had another stent fitted. I didn’t want her worrying and when I could tell her face to face I did, that way she could see I was fine. I was discharged from hospital and home before she got back, and resting as I’d been told to do, determined to follow all the medical advice to maximise chances of a speedy recovery.
Nothing much happened for a few weeks, except I read lots of books, and on 12th December I had another echocardiogram. I had been told when I was discharged from hospital that there were signs that my heart had been compromised during the incident, and that my left ventricular ejection fraction (a measure of the percentage of the blood drawn in from the lungs that’s then pumped round the body) was low – 30% - 40% - when a normal range is 50% - 70%. I had been quite short of breath as a consequence, but this had improved significantly in the weeks since my discharge, so I was expecting the latest echo to show a good improvement. Unfortunately, it didn’t, with my LVEF being measured at just 35% - 45%. That meant that the damage to my heart muscle hadn’t repaired itself as well this time, probably due to the severity of the blockage and subsequent arrest. With reduced heart function, travel to altitude was going to be a no-no.
So it was necessary to withdraw from guiding the Globebusters trip, a decision that was mutual as they had concluded that I probably wouldn’t be fit and had already planned for that eventuality. Which left me with a big hole in my plans. I was still recovering, but in no doubt that I’d be fit enough to travel as long as I didn’t try anything too extreme (like spending 4 weeks at high altitude on the Tibetan plateau!). I also had to let Andrew and Darryl know that I wouldn’t be able to guide them, and to encourage them to do the trip anyway, and to share their experiences with me.
With my plans derailed, I now had to come up with an alternative. So I did, and tomorrow I will take the first tangible step towards my new plan. I’m collecting a new bike, on which which I will be riding on a 3-month solo road trip round both Eastern and Northern Europe, details of which I’ll post as we get closer to my intended departure date at the end of April.
Tune is again soon to find out all about my new bike and my plans. And wish me good luck in not having them derailed this time!