Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Long Road Home

It would have been easy to hang around a while as I was really enjoying this place but, alas I really had to move on and catch the ferry back to mainland Italy for the long ride to Holland. It was hard to believe that the next ferry I would be on would take me and HB from Hook of Holland to Harwich and to the end of my journey.

The next few days were really a bit of a blur, stopping briefely at Levanto, Italy then over the beautiful Alps to Chur in Switzerland (where bizzarely, sightings of the baseball capped 'Ned' or 'Chav' made a sudden and unwelcome reappearance for the first time). I then sped on up through Germany, originally planning to stay with a friend in Mannheim but due to prior arrangements and bad timing, I just kept on going till I hit the Rheine.

More dodgy parking

The Alps- good roads!

I found quite possibly the bussiest caravan campsite I'd ever seen, not realising that there was a wine festival going on. At night, the Rheine was taken over by about 30 pleasure boats going up the river as part of the festival. While getting packed up the following morning, I got talking to the Brits next to me who were Scots living in Kent and ended up being given a huge cooked breakfast!

The Rheine

A healthy Scots fry up!

From there, I stopped briefely in Koln to see the Dom and then cracked on to Holland. I rode into in Nimwegan but still having a few hours of daylight left and nothing really catching my eye as far as campsites go, I plodded on until the bizzarely named s-Hertogenbosch. There I tried a few hotels but they were all too expensive and a bit noisy. I was told there might be a campsite at Vught,, to the south but there wasn't. I did eventually get directions to a campsite a few miles away, and on arrival, I found there was no one at the reception desk so I made my way between the vehicle barriers and started looking for a pitch. This was no ordinary campsite though as it was populated entirely by static caravans and it took me a heck of a time finding a spot to pitch. I found a group of drunken Russians outside one caravan, who pointed me to a small patch of grass nearby. One of them asked me, in all seriousness if I was indeed Hunting Terrorists thanks to an Alaska sticker on my pannier. It didn't look great but it would do.


It was funny, tonight was the last night of my journey as tomorrow, I would be back in the UK and I dunno, but I was expecting something maybe a bit nicer to mark the end of what has been to me anyways, quite a big thing. But it was not to be, I sat alone on a bench in the dark outside the site's snack bar eating sausage and chips out a bag and had a couple of cans of Heinikan to mark my last night in Europe and of the last 10 1/2 months through the Americas. I thought of Michelle, the beautiful places I had seen and the truly wonderful people we'd met on the road.

I awoke later at night in my tent to noises that wouldn't have been out of place in the Blair Witch movie. Every few seconds, I kept hearing loud bangs and snaps coming from all around and it took a while to realise that it was actually acorns falling from the trees on to the roofs of the caravans below. I wasn't too happy with this place as I'd been back to the reception, tried the door of their house and all to no avail. There were toilet and shower blocks nearby but they were locked and I could only get a key from reception. I thankfully found an unlocked toilet door near the site entrance otherwise the Russians might have had something to say.

When I had packed up the bike the next morning, I was determined not to pay and having noticed that the outward automatic vehicle barrier opened spontaniously the previous night as I was manoevering my way in, I quickly rode past the guy who was actually now in the reception window and straight to the barrier which thankfully opened immediately.

The town called Hook of Holland has to be one of the most depressing looking places I'd see, not lest beacuse of the incessant rain and the fact that it really looked just like Britain. Once I had my ferry ticket, I had a few hours to kill in this hell hole which I did by drinking lots of coffee and looking for an internet cafe in the rain but failed on the latter. The old dears in the tourist office eventually cracked and I was allowed to use their pc though I wondered who actually wanted tourist information other than the route out of town. I was then able to make contact with my friend Mark, who would meet me off the ferry in Harwich that night.

The ferry, though much like any other, pretty much signified the end of the journey for me. Once on board, I quickly found the bar to start drowning my sorrows. Thanfully there was a movie theatre (not free I might add) so the latest Bourne saga filled a couple of hours out of the 8 hour sailing.

After 37,000 amazing miles, the end of the road!!!!!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Italia- Parte Due

D'Elba sunset

I figured there really had to be much more to Italy than tailing grindingly slow industrial freight in the rain so I got the hell out of Riccione. My plan, such that it was, was to cut across the mainland, go and see Assisi, mainly out of half-remembered art history lessons from school, then head towards this little island called Isola D'Elba that so far, a couple of people had mentioned. Frankly, I knew nothing about it other than it was a wee island that was supposed to be quite pretty and, God forbid, there might even be some sunshine. So once clear of the area around Riccione which was irritatingly inhabited by thousands of wanna-be racers on sports bikes, the road crept up into the hills to finally reveal some pretty darn nice views, something I had previously yet to experience in Italy, so I knew I was onto something. The sun finally made a late appearance and I ended up really enjoying the ride to Assisi. I had vague memories of old art history lessons about Renaissance paintings and some chap called Francis, but to be honest, it was just a bit to busy with tourists for my liking. Whilest there, I also had the misfortune of buying the dryest and blandest pannini ever created.

I had decided to see how far I got before sundown as I was in the mood for the sea side now that it was all nice and sunny. I made it as far as the port town of Piombino by 5.30pm and headed straight for the ferry office, and as it turned out, there was a boat leaving in half an hour so I just got myself a ticket and got in line with the other Saga-louts queuing up. The company that runs the ferrys to the Islands, Moby, have these very colourful boats almost like huge floating cartoons.

After an hour, we pull up alongside Portoferraio, the main town on D'Elba and I head over to Laconella on the south side of the island where I've been told there are campsites aplenty. I'm shocked when the first one I find is asking 25Euro for a pitch so move on to the next one which is 16Euro, still expensive but its nearly sunset and I don't really have the time to feck about. It seems nice though, quite rustic, very near the beaches and I even get to see a proper shooting star leaving a cool silvery trail while sitting on the beach later that night so its all good.

My beach for a few days

The next night, after going to the beach and then spending most of the day buggering about trying to find some email on the island, I'd just finished my dinner when Esther, a German woman starts talking to me about the bike. It turns out she's done a few bike trips herself to Scotland and Ireland. The next couple of days are really nice, just going to the beach in the mornings and swimming and trying to get a tan back so it looks like I've actually been somewhere, then in the afternoons, Esther drove us around the island checking out wee villages. Napoleon lived here for a bit, ooh quite some time ago, so we went to see his house but opted out of paying to see the inside. There was a really gorgeous village called Poggio that was almost impossible to take a bad picture though I did try.

Napoleon woz ere!

Esther at the wee mans house

A village called Poggio

While at the campsite, I also met a really friendly couple, also from Germany, Stephan and Karen, who kind enough to offer their hospitality if I was passing their way while going home. I couldn't help thing that it was slightly ironic that in Germany, I was hanging out with Enrico, an Italian, while in Italy, I met loads of Germans. I can only figure that Italy and Germany must do some kind of mass country swap during the summer months or something.

& Transalp

Stephans wife, Karen and me leaving D'Elba

Monday, September 03, 2007

Italia- Parte Una

Just makes you think of Italy, eh?

I walk around the town for a couple of hours but there's nothing to keep me interested so leave town. At the last minute, I decide to ride to Italy instead of Croatia. I'm now thinking I'll just see some bits of Italy I haven't seen before and miss out Croatia unfortunately as I'm rapidly running out of time and money, let alone patience. I also feel I'm getting quite jaded with it all again. I need to get some sort of plan together as to where I'm going. After Longarone, the scenery is really nice. The mountains just rise up all around me though the traffic is heavy and at times very going. I want to make it to somewhere on Lake Garda but as I don't have a guidebook for Italy, I have nowhere in mind yet and don't know about any campsites. I nearly loose it a few times on some of the sharp, hairpin bends that catch me out suddenly. I find my quite worn TKC80 tires really aren't the best on tarmac when its been raining. It's getting near dark and I'm still quite a few miles from Lake Garda and get a bit concerned as to where I'm going to be sleeping as I really can't afford a hotel room here. I'm also running out of petrol and try a few garages which all have some type of pre-pay system I haven't seen before that my tired brain can't cope with so give up and hope I make it somewhere. Right on sundown, I get to the top of the hill looking down on to Lake Garda and even though I still don't know where I'm going to stay, I stop to take a picture. I can't quite believe it when I notice a sign for a campsite on the way into town. When I find it, its pretty dark but ok to get the tent up. The site is very busy and costs 18euro a night. Expensive but I think I'll stay a couple of nights as I just feel so tired now. I get talking to a German couple on XT600s and have a beer with them by the lake. They're here for a couple of weeks and are spending it checking out the dirt roads around the lake on their bikes.

I'm in Italy so that can mean only one thing-

Bloody pasta for dinner again!

The following morning, it seems like it's going to rain all day. I opt for lying in my tent listening to the thunder and lightening while reading as there's not much else I can do and realise that I hardly ever do this so enjoy it while I can. Around 2 or 3pm the rain finally gives out and I get out from my sleeping bag and take as stroll around town. Windsurfing, it would appear is the main watersport round here as there are dozens of schools by the waterfront. The campsite manager tells me some places I should see while in Italy so my plan the following day was to head down the east side of the lake. Thats my first mistake. The traffic on that road is solid and barely gets above 30mph all the way. I have to go via Verona, a normally lovely city but not the parts I see today which are basically the ring roads. The ride through the country is not made any more pleasant by the fact that it was chucking it down with rain.

I pull over at one of the many roadside cafe/restaurants and although I'm frankly horrified at the prices, I end up sharing a table with an Italian trucker who's level of english perfectly matches my italian so its a fairly quiet lunch. I really had no idea of the amount of freight traffic that uses this road otherwise I would have opted for somewhere else to ride to. After getting well and truly fecked off with it, I decide that the 'nice bit' I was told about must be right by the coast and come off the main road. 'Nope, it certainly isn't here', I think to myself as I start skirting the edge of a trul ugly and equally massive industrial plant. At one point, the road has become totally flooded thanks to the ceasless rain and it looks like its around a foot deep in the middle. I decide I'll wait till the car in front of me has more or less cleared the huge puddle before I start to ride through it but as I'm waiting, the impatient knob-end in the car behind me overtakes me.

I've spent a very long and tedious day riding though heavy rain and even heavier traffic but eventually make it to Rimini. I had no particular plans to stay here so I thought I'd check it out first and decide if I would. After roughly two minutes, I decided I wasn't staying here but had seen a sign for the BMW place somewhere so figured I'd best grab a couple of spares like an oil filter and some crush washers while I had the chance. Again, this was easier said than done and after litteraly going round the houses and getting stuck on yet another ring road utterly solid with traffic, I found it. The man behind the counter was wearing quite fancy designer glasses with very clean overalls and wasn't particularly excited to see a dirty and soggy overlander or how little I spent in his establishment.

For reasons still unknown to me, I ventured on to Riccione, a little further down the coast thinking it might be a nice place to camp despite the truly shitty weather. The rain had miraculously cleared up by the time I got there and found a truly dull looking campsite. There were some loud swiss beer-boys across the grass and a few german bikers who as it turned out, were here for the Moto GP happening up the road. I'd fancied a fw days on a beach but this place was a total turn off. What little sand there was between the 50-odd million or so deckchairs that covered the beach as far as the eye could see really wasn't what I had in mind for myself. Unfortunately I had to stick it out for a couple of nights as I really needed to do some clothes washing before I encountered a fairly severe underpant crisis which really wouldn't be good for anybody.


Once the tallest building in Europe

The ride to Ljubljana is horrible. The map shows motorway where there isn't any and is chock full of lorries and heavy traffic. It also starts raining really heavily pretty much all the way, lightening too. At one point, the stationary traffic line goes on for miles but I ride up the outside, very dangerous in this rain as all it will take is some dozy bugger to decide to do a U-turn in front of me. I'm also worried about aquaplaning too. After a few hours of this hell, the motorway eventually starts and I can get some speed up, riding at 90mph a lot of the way but get clobbered for about 5 Euros over 3 different 'Peaje' toll booths. They really piss me off, why do bikes need to pay? I am as slow as possible but that's easy as my gloves are soaking wet and my fingers are totally hydrated so cars start honking behind me impatiently.

While I'm riding, my dreams of getting my own room with fresh linen and a hot bath are reduced to just getting a hostel not on the 4th floor. I make it to Dom Tabor hostel after dark but don't feel like going out so its noodles again. The hostel is 16 Euros for a shared dorm room but at least with breakfast included. Chatting with the Japanese guy in room, it turns out he's doing a 6 month RTW trip with what looks like a little day sack! He's quite cool though but I find he's difficult to chat to in the morning as he says his English speaking skills don't kick in till noon. We hear some commotion from outside the dorm window and watch some stupid students from England jump out their window on the floor below me on to the roof of the next building. One of them lands hard on the metal deck and it looks bloody painful in those flat-soled Converse shoes of his. I next see them again downstairs getting interviewed by the police and try not to piss myself laughing.


Once I cross in to Hungary. The scenery is a lot better and they even have castles on hills and the buildings generally don't make you want to look away. I make it to a huge campsite by Lake Balatan. Lots of families with kids here it appears. Dinner is noodles and a banana. Mmm. Feel really tired so after a bit of a walk around, its a fairly early night. First thing the next morning, I go to the reception to pay for the site as it was shut when I arrived. It turns out it is 14 Euros! I nearly choke. After breakfast and despite the expense, I think I fancy sticking around here today as I still feel tired from constantly moving every day. I try to find some internet to email Michelle and the place looks open so I go in and sit down at a machine that is on. They tell me they're not open until 10am and I have to leave even though it's 09.50! Slightly pissed off, I go for another walk only to find when I get back, their machines are all now occupied by little kids! Ok, I can deal with it. I figure I'll just go for a swim in the nice open air camp ground pool instead. However, almost as soon as I get to the pool, it starts pissing it down. This is unbelievable! I can see that its just a shower though so decide to get changed and get in anyway. I'm the only one in the pool but by the time I've done ½ a length, the pool attendant suddenly appears.

PA- something in Hungarian

Me- Sorry?

PA- You need a cap to swim, please leave the pool.

Me- Er ok, where do I get one?

PA- I don't know, the reception maybe.

Me- But that's miles away. Don't you keep them here if you need them for the pool?

PA- Just get out of the pool! (shouting)

I start to laugh as the day just can't get any worse. I decide to leave this shit-hole right now. While packing up my tent, I listen to a very severe sounding German mother shouting at her crying kids and I can't help thinking I'd probably be crying too if someone shouted at me in German.


Feeling quite like shit after another good night out in Krakow, I eventually get myself ready to leave by about 1pm with Nick giving me a hand to get all my gubbins down the stairs. Krakow really is a great place and I hope I can get back there sometime. I think it even outstrips Edinburgh as having more pubs per head. Thanks again Nick! I take a detour via the skiing town, Zacapane for the smallest KFC meal I've ever had. The scenery at the mountains is pretty stunning though. I only make it to Zilina by night fall, a town that my guide book describes as not having anything much going for it and it's right. It takes me about an hour to find accommodation in the darkness and I get myself a room in a Commie style student block, complete with dodgy, shaky lift with flickering lights. Later on, after pointing out what I want from the pictures of the food on offer on the wall above the canteen downstairs, its not exactly what I get. Damn, this is a hard language! At least I get a room to myself for basically peanuts though.

I find Slovakia actually quite ugly, not the countryside which is very pleasant but the architecture is just horrendous. Can you imaging getting planning permission to build tower blocks in the countryside? A lot of the towns I pass through seem to be setting me up for a visit to a typical Scottish council estate. I find I have a few Slovakian pennies left and it totals around 700?s so before I enter Hungary, I stop at a McDonalds and go in to see what I can afford. I look at the confusing menu and see something which naturally looks shit but is affordable. The lady tells me that its actually a Happy Meal! Feigning indifference, I head to Spar and their deli counter instead.


The following morning, wayhey! Its proper raining again! After another walk around town, this time in daylight, I get myself a cheap lunch consisting of some sort of fried cheese thing in a stale baguette but I'm not hanging around. I'm off to Poland today, Krakow in fact. I'm staying with Nick, a friend of a friend and thankfully he's sent me some directions on how to get to his place. I think I like Poland as soon as I cross the border as when I'm riding alongside a railroad track, the driver gives his horn a big honk and as I turn round to look, he gives me a 'go on my son' kind of nod so it's already more sociable than the Czech Republic. Riding into Krakow, I find it's a really attractive place. Not only does it have beautiful looking old buildings and cobbled streets but its got cool old trams running down the middle of the roads. The high stone built tenement buildings also remind me of Edinburgh a bit. Nick turns out to be a really nice guy and he has a fantastic flat where I get my own room. Over the next few days, Nick shows me around town and we go out for quite a few beers, God I'm out of practice!

I enjoyed having a few days just kicking around not really doing much in Krakow which was just what I needed.
I did however take a ride out to Auschwitz which should have been quite straight forward but I ended up on back country lanes, dirt roads and dead ends, all within sight of the actual road I was trying to take. Unfortunatelly no rice paddy fields this time but I think as a detour, Michelle would have loved it! No matter, I got there eventually and this time joined one of the tours. I didn't know too much about this place apart from the obvious but there are really separate two sites. Auschwitz 1 is the start of the tour and was actually a former Polish army barracks that the Nazis helped themselves to and isn't really that big a site. 3Kms away is Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau), the place we all recognise from the pictures of the railroad heading under the brick archway. This place really is huge but there are actually less buildings to see here. Our guide thankfully doesn't suffer fools gladly and will just pause and give one hell of an icy stare to anyone caught making a noise during her talks. The exhibits are quite incredible, most notably the huge piles of human hair (about 2 tonnes worth), thousands of suitcases and even massive piles of children's shoes. It was during that exhibit that the irritatingly loud English couple (who's mobile phones kept going off during the guides speeches) and their free spirited sprog stopped and looked at the pile of children's shoes.

Mum to daughter- 'Ooh look darling, those shoe's are just your size'

(Fucking hell- this was just after the guide had explained that any children on the trains coming into Auschwitz were pretty much taken straight to the gas chambers as they were of no use to the Nazis)

Czech Republic

As I'm riding towards the Czech Republic, I'm pleased to see petrol prices have dropped overnight from 1.35E/L to 1.12E/L, only to realise that I'm now in Austria. Once actually inside CR, I'm pleased to note that the road is again lined with prostitutes and stalls selling garden gnomes, just like it was when me and James came here on the bike all those years ago. I arrive in Czesky Krumlov and immediately get into trouble from the law for riding through the main square of the town, the centre of which is all pedestrianised. Using my tricks learnt in South America, I immediately ask him where the campsite is thus changing the subject and he points me in the right direction. The campsite is cheap at 120K and very busy. I notice one or two other bikers there but once my camp is set up and I've eaten my dinner, no one has spoken to me yet which I find difficult to get used to after all the places I've been where total strangers come up to you and say hello all the time. More annoyingly, I've pitched my tent next to a bunch of 12year olds who are hell bent on getting drunk, which isn't hard. None of them can sing in tune either. Earplugs time again.

After packing up my tent the next morning, I take a walk round town, which is pleasant but very touristy and there's really not much that makes me want to hang around. I get an email from Michelle and she's back in Oz now. That feels very weird indeed, to think that we've travelled so far and done so much together and are now temporarily on opposite side of the world. Not feeling totally overjoyed, I ride off to Ollamoets, finding the driving standards here totally appalling. I'm sticking to backroads but I get overtaken by only inches by some arsehole while I'm also overtaking a truck. Relived I've made it on once piece, I find I've picked probably the only hostel on a 4th floor. After getting up there to look at the place, I'm knackered. I then find I have to bring the bike in through the front door and stick it round the back for security, which is fine but its no easy number getting HB through that door frame but somehow we do it. I end up going for some food and a couple of beers with a few students. One is English and the other two guys are German who don't say much. I think students are brilliant, the conversation goes a little like this:

Me- So what are you studying?

Student- Business studies and French. Its the best course for what I want to do

Me- Ah, so what to you want to do when you finish?

Student- Erm, I don't really know yet