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Ladies on the Loose! For the first time ever, a motorcycle travel DVD made for women, by women! These intrepid women share their tips to help you plan your own motorcycle adventure. They also answer the women-only questions, and entertain you with amazing tales from the road! Presented by Lois Pryce, veteran solo traveller through South America and Africa and author of 'Lois on the Loose', and 'Red Tape and White Knuckles.'
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Monday 27th Feb - 4th March - FLORENCE - SAN GIMIGNANO - SIENA - PERUGIA - MATERA
Monday 27th Feb - 4th March - FLORENCE - SAN GIMIGNANO - SIENA - PERUGIA - MATERA
It was all hugs and smiles as we said good bye to Alice in the morning before she headed off for work. We headed on for Florence where we have a pension booked. When we finally find it we are greeted by this elderley Italian man, big guy with a big smile but not much english. He shows us the room, it is in the side of their house. Pictures of his sons achievements line the walls of the dining room and there are plenty of old knick knacks in display cases around the room. The sort that only have value to the person who understands the significance.
Scooters are like ants, lining the streets, weaving in and out of any open space on the road.
We are smack in the centre of the city and head towards the Duomo, Italiano for Cathedral, at the centre of the city.
Green marble, burnt orange tile rooftops are typical of the region but this is by far the biggest Duomo we have seen.
Inside the Duomo the cieling rises up, belittleling, almost intimidating in grandeur. Nicole and I discuss religion. It's not a fiery discussion, we're both Athiests, myself slightly harder line but not the type to push my views on others. I try to imagine what this building would have felt like 300 years prior, before the high rise buildings and feats of engineering we know today. A feeling of awe, work that only devine intervention could inspire, conveying the a similar authority of our modern skyscrapers.
There are a few things you have to take advantage of in Italy. Pizza and Gelati!
We take a walk in the afternoon to see the Ponte Veggio (old bridge) that, if you have ever seen images of Italy, is likely familiar.
The stores along the bridge mostly sell expensive jewellery with the kind of margins I expect would help pay the lease on what is probably one of the busiest foot bridges in the world.
The sun is reaching the horizon and Nicole takes some great photos.
We sit on an open cement area and soak up the last of the sun rays with the locals.
The next morning it is off to the Uffizi gallery. There are two lines to get in, one for express entry, where you pay 3 times as much to get in straight away without waiting, another about 100 people long, where every 5 minutes they let another 10 people through the door. It is a complete rort. After an hour we enter the gallery to find it practically empty. It reminds me of the pretentious night clubs back home in fortitude valley Brisbane, who force you to wait in line on the street, despite the club being barely half full, in order to give the faux appearance of popularity to passers by. This sort of thing really boils my blood and I loathe myself for participating in it but tell myself it will be worth it.
Unless you are overly interested in religion, the catholic religion moreover, and have a knowledge of Boticelli and others I don't remember the names of, it is probably worth skipping. The sculptures and works of art all come from a time when the church funded the majority of artwork. To me it is like reading a Rupert Murdoch newspaper and expecting that it accurately reflects the reality of what actually happened. The best thing about the gallery is the view of the Ponte Veggio from the top floor and only a couple of hidden gems in the east wing, tiny examples of Realism, painted by a woman who was into insects. It's extreme detail you have to see up close. However it didn't make up for waiting an hour in line next to a group of chain smokers.
The view from the top.
That afternoon we take the bike an hour away to a small village, built on a mountain, San Gimignano. It's a walled medievil hill town famous for it's white wine and was once a stopping point for catholic pilgrims on their way to rome, or so says Wikipedia. For me it was a quaint town and we walked around the walls for a bit, taking photos and absorbing the landscape. Steeped in cliche romance it was also a chance to try and kiss Nicole for the first time.
The male pidgeon puffs up to court the lady pidgeon.
I can't say there were not opportune moments but two years of friendship puts a lot of pressure into a situation like this. Logic gets the better of me, what is a few more days on 2 years, I leave it for now.
We ride back into Florence and get some rest. The next day we are headed to Siena and Perugia.
The city centre of Siena is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most touristy places in Italy.
A pidgeon paces up and down a wall in the famous Piazza del Campo.
We relax, grab some food, people watch and soak up the sun rays. I head one way on our way out, self-assured in where I am going. It takes longer than it should and we find the city walls. We find an exit and I have no idea where we are, so we start the long walk around the wall to where we parked the bike. We're lost. Well, not lost as such, we know that all we have to do is follow the wall and we will get back to the bike but we have no idea how long that is going to take. About 3k's later we find the bike with a much better understanding of how large and complex Siena actually is.
A couple of hours and one close call with a reckless driver later we are in Perugia. There is a farmhouse that we found on the hostelbookers and we turn up without a booking. In low season, this is the way to go, you know their online price and so chances are you will get a better price on arrival given there is no middleman.
The farm is about 10 minutes out of Perugia and has a great view of the old city. We are starting to wear out after a week on the bike and it is time to recharge the batteries. For 2 days we plan, have a look at the old city, edit video blogs, wash the motorbike and pretty much relax. One place that I am very keen to see is the Saturnia natural springs. Someone on ADV sent me the link and as soon as I saw it I didn't think twice about heading there.
Nicole and I finally kiss. There was no hollywood moment and I will spare any details. We crossed a point where there was no going back, neither of us could deny to either ourselves or eachother what half our friends probably suspected anyway. We didn't talk about it, who likes that conversation anyway, we agreed to leave the hard discussion for later.
It's my Birthday, 28 years old, I spend the morning chatting to the family and friends and then we head off for Saturnia. It is sunny and warm. Birthdays are often a time for reflection and Nicole and I chat about the past and plans for the future, skirting around anything too in depth, speaking in generalities.
We stop at a few camping places along the route to find a place but they are all yet to open for the summer. Even if they were open, they all still want more than 20 euro a night for the two of us. If you are headed to the more isolated places in Italy it becomes harder to find budget accommodation. After coming around a bend we can see the Saturnia springs at the bottom of a hill. It is a relief, I forgot to mention, but there is very little information on the net as to their precise location so we were just heading in the general direction with plans to ask the locals if we got stuck. We stop by them briefly but decide to find accommodation and food before coming back for a proper swim.
There is a campsite nearby but it only caters to RV's with a spot to pump out your toilet, 3 phase power sockets and cement parking spaced. Not suitable for us, a bit of nous around the local town finds us cheap pub style accommodation for the night above a bar.
Finally we get down to the spa for a swim. You can smell the sulfur from half a mile away. We had read about the smell but you gloss over any thoughts of this when you see photos of the place. It is probably the smell as to why this place isn't totally overrun with tourists. That in itself is refreshing. As a tourist, the last place you want to be is where other tourists are. As much as I would like to see myself as more of a traveller, the few days before we had been doing a lot of touristing.
About twenty locals, including a soccer team are soaking up the water. With a constant temperature of 37.5 degrees and an air temperature of about 16 it doesn't take much convincing to get in once you are out of your warm clothes. After ten minutes or so you get used to the smell. The texture below the water ranges from sand to pebbles, to slimy rock. Water pummels out of a gap in some reads at the top of the cascade of springs.
We stay for over an hour, just absorbing the warmth and at one point I get up and try and stand under the gushing water, without much luck.
Afterwards we stink of sulphur, it stays in our clothes and hair, and will last for a good 3 more days.
We get a good nights sleep, our plan for the next day is to hit the auto-route and hammer out a solid 600k's to get down to Matera in the south.
It proves to be a long day on the bike, traffic slows us at various places and it's 130kph the whole way. The highway doesn't provide much eye candy and by the time we get into Matera and navigate our way to the local hostel it is after 7pm. Ditching all our gear and having a shower makes us feel that bit better and we walk out to get some dinner and explore for a bit. We are both impressed with Matera. It was in the film the passion of the christ, I mean I haven't watched that film but I can understand why Gibson filmed it in Matera.
The next morning we get up with enthusiasm to explore. We are on a roll with the good weather. Church bells chime and we start walking around the town. Everything is white stone a lot of it polished from the continual wear of feet over time. It is kind of semi circular with houses built on levels cascading down into a natural ampitheatre overlooking another massive valley. We meander down to the bottom of the ampitheatre and find a tourist information point. They point out across the valley and tell us the cliffs are filled with old churches, tucked away and hidden. We can see a semblance of a path that heads down and we ask about hiking it. One of the women at the centre tell us it is a six hour day and we would need to get a guide. Another tells us that we could probably do it by ourselves. Seasoned hikers, we opt for the latter, it looks quite easy to navigate and she points out roughly where the churches are for us.
We jump a fence that was never built with any serious attempt to stop people crossing over. Carefully we decend into the valley below. We can see groups of young teenagers across the valley.
The views are amazing, every way we look. There is a river to cross and we take our shoes off and jump across.
We head through a few bushes and find the church. It's over 1000 years old according to the locals and there is a fresco almost worn away on the walls inside. The rest is tainted by locals scratching their names into the walls. It's amazing to us that such a historic place would be left so open. History to Australians, I guess, is more of a novel thing as opposed to Italians some of whom literally have Roman ruins in their backyards.
A scout leader comes out of nowhere, it was scout troops that we had seen earlier. He has little english but tells us that wecan see more up on top of the mountain.
We have trouble finding anything until we reach the top and bump into a group of scouts. Most of the speak english and their Scout leader has a keen interest in Archaeology. They invite us to follow them around the cliffs.
Their leader shows us various hidden churches, one with tiles leading up to an alter and he tells us that pilgrims would kneel on the ground and lick the tiles all the way up to the alter, a good 4 metres of tile-licking away. We answer a hundred questions from the scouts who are very interested in our travels and an hour later we say our goodbyes and trek back up to Matera. The scouts have built a makeshift bridge to cross the river and they set it up for us to cross.
Once we get back into the town we spend a bit more time exploring the abandoned houses. Some of them are being rebuilt and you can see how they have been turned into pensions to make the most of the tourism to the area.
A solid storm breaks out and we head back to our hostel. It's our last night in Matera and we go to the pizza place in town recommended to us by the scouts. It's damn good pizza!
Monday 5th Mar -11th Mar - Matera - Cilentro - Amalfi - Naples - Rome
Monday 5th Mar -11th Mar - Matera - Cilentro - Amalfi - Naples - Rome
We wake up in Matera and hit the road. We want to get to the Cilentro coast road, suggested by an inmate on ADV to us a few months earlier in planning.
It's a few hours on the road and the GPS loses us for a bit, we ride along some rougher roads past farmers harvesting, well we can't tell what it is, but something.
We have reached a straight road following the coast and we know it heads to some mountains before it gets more interesting. I have heard that this area has quite the mafia presence. There are a lot of hotels and restaurants abandoned and the ones still running look like they have seen better days. I imagine if you are running a business with the mafia around then you are only hampered by your own success. The more money you make the more they take and this might not be, but could be the reason the local businesses look like they have had the life blood sucked out of them. We get alot of stares on the bike, suggesting this is the route less travelled by tourists.
A little further and I am cleaning the visor every minute as we are riding through a cloud of salty sea spray. We hit the Cilentro coastal road and the spray is gone, we are 100 metres above the water on a road cut out of the side of the cliff, weaving in and out of small towns.
So far we have had very little luck with camping on the Italian leg. Camping either costs us 30 euro for a night at which we balk and decline, given that we can stay in a hostel for that price.
Camping grounds start to appear on the side of the beach but most of them appear closed. We finally see one with an open gate and we go in to investigate. There are no guests there, plenty of caravans that appear to stay there through the winter. They are locked up, covered in tarps, everything is packed away. We manage to find a guy who is working on something and with a bit of mime we explain we want to camp for a night. He calls his boss. 10 euro for the night, good for us. So that is how we ended up with a whole camp site to ourselves for a night.
I decided I wanted to go for a bit of a swim but I only got about knee deep before giving up and we sat and watched the sunset.
Making the most of the only lighting in the place at the toilet block to cook up ravioli on the jet boil.
Rain came through in the night, making it great fun for breaking camp in the morning.
The road gets a little rough, not much money is getting spent on this part of Italy.
Rough translation "Shit road, drive slowly"
As we make our way up the coast to Amalfi we start passing women on the side of the road, quite dressed up. It is the strait road to Salerno and I imagine they are catering to the tourists in Amalfi. A husband says to his wife "Honey, just headed out for some milk, might take a couple of hours..."
Before we know it we are riding Amalfi... the roads are busy and it is the quintessential example of risk taking in Italian driving. Cars skirt round us on blind corners for the sake of saving a minute or two on their journey. I had seen the busses take corners here on the tv back home and so knew what to expect. When you hear the horn blasting you stop on the side of the road and wait. Sometimes I have no idea how they get these busses around the corners but somehow they manage. The traffic is bad but not chaotic, the benefit of coming here on the cusp of spring while it is still fairly cold.
Check out the bus taking the corner.
When the traffic clears out and you get the road to yourself the riding is something else. As far as coastal roads go, this is mecca. I have some great footage that I will put in an upcoming video blog, photos just don't do corners justice.
Agerola is our stop for the night, it is high up on the mountain and we plan to stay there a couple of days at least. We find a good hostel and settle in for the night. I may not have mentioned it yet but I have secured a volunteer job at a horse ranch in Spain. I need a bit of a break from travel for a bit and am keen to put my 2 years of Spanish study to use. The plan is to go back and stay with Nicole for a week and then head down to the Catalonian mountains where I will stay for 4 or 5 months. The plan, at this stage at least, is still a little vague. Things have changed with Nicole but we haven't worked out what we are going to do yet and we have agreed to not have that conversation, at least for now.
We are now two and a half weeks into our 3 week trip. It is almost over but neither of us wants to think about that yet and we take a hike into Amalfi. We are at around 600m above sea level, and we need to walk down to sea level. The hike we have to take is known for its steps, 900 odd steps. Going down steps sounds easy and for the part it seems easy but after about 300 steps you notice that your stabalising muscles in your legs are working overtime to stop your knees from buckling with each step.
Stopping for a rest on the walk down the stairs.
Amalfi is as to be expected, an overpriced tourist trap. Take away everything and you are left with a really beautiful part of the world so you just have to ignore the 20 euro price tag for a pizza and garlic bread and try and enjoy where you are. There is no way we are hiking back up the hill and so we hop on the bus and experience the road from the other side. On the bus you are quite high off the road and you an easily see over the edge of the road barriers. It's a nice change to be able to enjoy the view without worrying about focussing on the road.
The sun is setting when we get back to the top at Agerola.
Our plan from here is to head further north to Rome where Nicole will fly back to Avignon to get back to her job teaching english. I will head north after that to San Marino, the Ducati museum in Bologna and then slowly make my way back up to Nicole's place in Avignon.
The destination today is Naples, home of Pizza and the supposed mafia capital of Italy. However disaster has struck. I went to plug in my digital camera to charge and the thing stopped working. I take it apart to check for loose wires but everything is miniaturised and I can't tell what is wrong with it. Realistically I know that I have little chance of fixing it but with only the fisheye of the gopro to take photos and footage the attempts to fix the camera are more an attempt at getting past the Kubler-Ross stage of denial. A new camera is out of my budget so most of the photos will stop here, at least until I can find a solution.
The riding today is equally as thrilling as the days before and the further we get away from Amalfi the lighter the traffic gets, meaning I can really lean the bike into the corners.
That afternoon we arrive into Naples. It's rough. Rustic. My street-smart senses can tell it is the sort of place where you need to watch yourself. Traffic is insane, there are no rules, cars are literally weaving into the tram lanes (tram lanes that are isolated by 6 inch high cement gutters mind you) to get ahead in the traffic. "**** off to your own country" or something to that effect is yelled out as I am stopped at a light. It is the first bit of hostility I have come across in Italy but easily ignored. At our hostel we find a safe spot in a hallway to park the bike.
There really isn't that much time for us to explore Naples. At this stage the journeysin teh day are enough for me. Nicole has seen Naples before and we need to get to Rome so Rome it is.
It is our second last day together before Nicole flys back to Avignon. We will only be apart for a few days but have become quite used to eachothers company.
The ride to Rome is all filler. We crank out the ks to get there. As we get into Rome I capture a guy on a GSA giving us the wave.
We have been getting a lot of waves from the local riders, especially when they see the British number plates. I wish I had have brought an Aussie flag or something for the bike. Although sometimes you want to attract less attention.
Another rider flies past us in some of the most reckless riding I have ever seen on the road. He is doing at least 90 in a 50 zone weaving through the traffic. As he passes us he turns around to have a second look at us, whilst turning to overtake another car.
That night we check out the main sites in rome. It's nice but the one thing I see that fully takes my attention is a fully black F800GS with the reverse forks and virtually all the parts exchanged for carbon fibre. Yet I don't have a camera to take a photo.
Trevi fountain by night.
The next morning I say good bye to Nicole. She heads for the bus and I punch in the coordinates for San Marino and Bologna. Heading off solo again for the first time in a month.
March 11-20 Rome - San Marino - Bologna - Avignon - Sant Jaume de Llierca
March 11-20 Rome - San Marino - Bologna - Avignon - Sant Jaume de Llierca
A kiss good bye, a full tank and I am on the road to San Marino. My plan is to spend a few days making it slowly back up to Avignon where I will stay for a week or so before heading down to Spain to start volunteering at the horse ranch. The place is called 'Can Jou' and they are going to feed me and house me for a few months in exhange for about 5 or so hours work per day.
Getting ahead of myself though. It's time to enjoy the moment. Leaving Rome I take a familiar road back through perugia and cross over a path I have been on before. Sunshine, and the warmth of the Italian coloured countryside brings a slow smile to my face. I feel alone, dwelling in the lonliness of an open highway, it is not a bad feeling, not a good feeling, it just is. Accellerating I pass cars and trucks, a fleet of Harleys only to realise that I have to sustain a high speed to keep ahead. My competitive streak finds it hard to go on holiday. Stopping to put on the banana suit I let the Harleys pass me.
I relax into the road and just past Perugia I start to gain elevation. In what is now a familiar process the temperature starts to drop. Stopping the bike I add another layer. Sunday riders flicker past, seemingly warm enough in their one layer of leathers.
Snow still lines the roads and it briefly gets down to 3 degrees. Annoyingly, I still can't shake the paranoia of the cold. Before I can overthink the situation I am decending again, through a beautiful part of Italy.
San Marino really is a case of just going to see what is there. I am intrigued by these small sovereign states and San Marino is the oldest surviving sovereign state in the world, dating back to the 4th centuy AD. It's independence has probably only survived because it has the backing of the pope and the Italians tend to listen to the Vatican.
San Marino sits atop a mountain, overlooking its subjects, surrounded by snow capped peaks. The city itself seems very touristy - my litmus test for this has become the 'torture museum', if you see one of these in the city you are visiting, leave quickly, they are up there with the living statues, Madame Tussauds and portrait artists for useless tourist traps that only take away from the culture of a place.
The entry to San Marino translated means - Welcome to the ancient land of the free.
Next stop Bologna. I roll in with a couple of hours sunshine up my sleeve. The only hostel is booked out so I have to camp, fully aware that it will get down below 0 during the night. I check the opening times of the Ducati museum, my reason for being in Bologna. Gutted. It is closed on Mondays. Churning the possibilities in my mind I know that I don't want to wait it out until Tuesday. This is an area I will definitely come back to and so I reluctantly put the museum back on the shelf for now.
It is at that point that I start flirting with the idea of getting back to Avignon in one day. 720k's away and 11 hours without using toll roads. If I only use toll roads for about 200 k's I can do it in 9 hours, theoretically. I text Nicole, "Going to have a crack at getting back to Avignon tomorrow, Ducati closed Mondays, xo", "Don't push yourself, take it easy, stop in Genoa for the night if you need to, text me as you go, xo". Resolved to reach Avignon the next day I stock up on food at the supermarket. Once I set my mind on getting somewhere, it takes a lot to stop me.
Two girls who are hiking are camped next to me in a Vango Helium, the same tent I have back home, a common link, a conversation starter. Scottish girls, used to the cold, they only have a couple of layers each and are planning to hike over the same mountains I came through to reach San Marino.
The reason the hostel was booked out becomes apparent at about 9pm when heavy metal music starts to pound away. Switching on the bike I check the temperature, 5 degrees and dropping. All my layers go on after a hot shower and I head to bed inside 2 sleeping bags. Earplugs are no match for the heavy metal bass and I struggle to sleep sometime after 12 only to wake up a few hours later, sweating in all my layers. 7am I am up, it's just over 2 degrees. Hard-boiled eggs and porridge will keep me going through the cold. Tent packed, on the road at 8am, temperature hovering at 4.5 degrees, just above my comfort threshold.
A few k's down the road it gets down to 1.5 degrees. It is my constant battle. I know it will be over 10 degrees by lunchtime but if I stop to wait I wont make it to Avignon today. Another hour and the temperature should be up to a bearable point. I bite my lip and push on, it's grim, my thoughts run in circles, slowed by the cold and constantly thinking about it. My purple elephant.
3 degrees flirts with 3.5, flickering back and forth, becoming 3.5 flirting with 4 every new number on the dial triggers a release of seratonin. Somehow my endorphin system has become tied to the thermometer. How did I let it get like this. In the words of Ewan McGregor - I thought I was made of tougher stuff than this.
I know, you get it, it's cold, I don't like, lets move on. I just feel the need to talk about how it affects me and affects the ride. For all the winter months and even some of spring it dominated my planning.
Cold fades into warmth and reaching the start of the apennines I opt to take the scenic route. Snow starts to thicken on the sides of the road but I am twisting the throttle through the curves following snow melt rivers.
I stop for a bit of a dance for an upcoming video blog and to eat a banana in the banana suit. The road is flowing with ease and I descend into Genoa kept up for a solid half an hour to wait for a cycling race to pass on the road I am riding.
Waiting for the cyclists to pass... Already looking a bit tired.
At least it is now warming up and that gives me enough time to get the banana suit off.
At Genoa I turn off the avoid tolls function on the GPS and start attacking the auto-route. I get a solid 200 k's out of the way bringing me into France. Now I just have to cross the haute-alps to get back to Avignon.
I am running low on fuel and headed into the mountains out of Nice. The fuel light is on and the computer tells me I have about 18 miles left. I punch in the next fuel stop on the GPS. Down to 10 miles to go I reach an abandoned fuel stop with only the rusted remnants of fuel pumps reaching to the sky from a pile of concrete. I punch in the next fuel stop in the GPS, a little less confident of what I will find. Without a fuel stop behind me for 30 odd k's there is only going forward. I reach the next fuel stop with 2 miles to go only to find a 24 hour pump that only accepts credit cards.
So I should mention at this point that I loathe credit cards and as such, don't have one, opting to use a visa debit card for online transactions and only taking cash out on a debit card. The next fuel stop in the GPS is 20 k's away and I doubt I will make it. A smart move would be to wait for a while until someone turns up, hand them the cash and get them to put it on their credit card. Instead I cross my fingers, roll the dice, and hope that there is a fuel stop in the next town about 8 k's away. As I ride I am being ever so gentle on the revs to get as much distance out of the tank as possible. The computer hits zero and now I have no indication of how much further I can get. It feels like I am riding on borrowed time. Little do I know how miniscule this problem will be in comparison to the problems that await in the months to come.
Rolling into the town I see a fuel station, it's open, you ripper! Fuel for the bike, gatorade for me.
The attendant gives me a funny look.
Ah, France, "Bonjour!"
She gets an over enthusiastic "Merci!" I am just glad to have fuel.
I promise myself that I won't let the fuel get that low again, a promise I have made before. Lesson learnt that the fuel stops on the GPS map are by far out of date.
It's the homeward stretch to Avignon now, about 250k's of twisties and country roads. It's about 4 in the afternoon and I have been on the road for 8 hour with little more than a couple of 5 minute breaks.
When we came through this area weeks before everything was covered in snow. Now it has melted and the landscape is entirely unrecognisable to me. I hate to say, without the snow, it has lost a bit of the magic. I focus on pushing into the turns. Without Nicole on the bike I can really carve my way through the mountains. Pushing the bike, twisting the throttle, punching the brakes. Of course I am not the only thing on the road and often get stuck behind cars, slowing me down. I have a resolve to reach a destination and an adrenalin gland that might as well be hard wired to the throttle.
We slow into a town, 50kph and I see my opportunity to overtake. Dialling up a good 80k's I cross double lines to overtake the car. In only 3 weeks I have already started to ignore the rules, as the saying goes 'When in Rome...' but I wasn't in Rome anymore and the Gendarmerie are standing at the end of the road. They motion to me to pull over.
Shit. The adrenalin injectors in my stomach fire and my heart rate kicks into a higher gear. This is the first time that I have been pulled over by an official on my entire trip. I have only heard bad things about the "Gendarmerie". My insurance paperwork, my license - everything is going to be put to the test. The French cop asks for my papers. I get them out. He looks them over. Looks over at me and smiles.
"Slow down on the turns."
Hands me back my paperwork.
Poker face. You can't look happy in this situation. I pack the bike up while he pulls over the Kawasaki I passed minutes earlier.
Steadily I make my way back to avignon, passing the same scenery from three weeks prior like watching a video cassette rewind. Fighting through the weariness I join a cavelcade of local French riders headed home from their Sunday ride. None of them seem to take much notice of the GB plates as I join their ranks and let them set the pace. Riders peel off the main road, leaving the group to their respective destinations as the sun dips behind the horizon in front of us. Slowly the group thins out until it is just me again.
I pull the bike into a it's secure spot below Nicoles apartment. Exhausted and red-eyed I kill the engine but my body still hums with the vibration of 11 hours on the road. Nicole smells of shampoo. Her eyes are fresh from sleep. I hold her and squeeze her tight. She has dinner cooked and Chevre waiting for me in the fridge, the French goats cheese I didn't realise was my favourite until now. Eating quickly I collapse into bed where I stay until the next morning.
Rue Paul Sain - Nicoles street.
You have to have your name on the door here in France or they won't deliver your mail.
One week is all I had to soak up a bit more of Avignon and spend some time with Nicole. It was her Birthday on the Friday and so I of course had to stay until then. Her sister and her boyfriend were also travelling through France and so they stopped by for Nicoles birthday. Cashflow was a bit of an issue for me at the time and to be honest I am not a very good present giver. I didn't want to buy some half-assed present for the sake of 'buying a present' so I painted her a card and just doted on her all day by making breakfast and dinner, cleaning the house and trying to make her day flow as best as possible.
The week went quickly. I spent the days editing blogs and trying to come up with a solution to not having a camera. My mother in England had an insurance policy on the camera I was filming on. I don't know if I mentioned it yet but I had swapped her for her camera with the one I had been using earlier. Theirs filmed HD in much better colour and mine was better suited to what she wanted to do, take photos. So I sent it back to them in the post to try and get a new one on warranty. Fingers crossed.
Unfortunately this means there is a huge gap in footage, I only have the gopro, and so I will share a few photos here that Nicole took around Avignon to give you a bit of an idea of the feel of the place.
In the Centre of Avignon
The Pont Du Gard, a bridge that goes to nowhere.
Relaxing at a picnic in the park with the locals.
So it's only a few days until I leave and it's about time to have the 'conversation'. Up until now my plan has been to spend about 6 months in Spain working and volunteering followed by a whirlwind tour of Europe before shipping the bike to South America. Nicole was due to finish her English teaching placement at the end of April and was free to travel after that. After long discussion we agreed that Nicole would come and meet me in Spain at the end of April and volunteer or work wherever I am at the end of April. We will then hang around in Spain until after June at some point and then ride around Spain/France/Belgium and up to the Netherlands. Three of our friends are coming over from Australia and are going to meet us in the Netherlands, hire a car and come with us around Germany/Czech/Austria. At that point we will then head to Eastern Europe for a couple of months before shipping the bike to South America. That will give us a few outs in case we get sick of each other.
The day to leave came up very quickly and being a work day, Nicole had to leave early in the morning.
So Nicole went to teach at the school while I packed the bike and got ready to ride to Can Jou. It is a 5 or so hour journey if you don't take the Autoroute and I get on the road some time after 10, stopping in at Nicoles school to say good bye one last time. At this stage we don't expect to see eachother until the end of April, 6 weeks away.
The sun is shining. It's the sun of early spring the casts a slightly yellow tinge on the landscape.
Back home in my office cubicle I had one particular fantasy. I am in the desert, alone, somewhere in the US, Arizona maybe, on a deserted highway, on a bike, the type of which is unimportant. The sun is shining through my visor. It's not too hot, just warm like a friendly hug. I feel excited and I feel free. I have the means to go wherever I want but I am in that one place, not because I have to be, but because I choose to be. I don't know where I am going in the fantasy but I am in transit. Between destinations. The important part in the fantasy is not where I am going but that I am going.
It is a rare and fleeting state, but in that ride to Can Jou in the North of Spain, with the sun shining on me I feel like I am living the fantasy. My transit takes me through the rustic parts of France to the border with Spain. Two years of Spanish classes under my belt and I am keen to put it to use. That being said I have made the decision to volunteer in Catalunya so I can be closer to Nicole and well, I like the idea of riding and working with horses in the mountains.
I head up the Pyrennees and cross the border into Spain. I start recognising a lot of the words on the signs. They may be in Catalan but with my basic Spanish I can still catch the jist of what they say. I will later find out that due to the laws in France this place just past the border is a hot spot for prostitution. Women in short, short shorts line the roads, texting on their phones, waiting for someone to pull over.
Mountains loom in the distance where I will spend the next three months.
Rolling into Sant Jaume de Llierca, the small town at the foot of the mountain on which Can Jou sits. I follow the winding road for about 10 k's up and up. Finally I reach a sign 'Can Jou' A massive rural inn sits on top of the hill with small cottages peppered around it. The Inn looks out to the South and behind it the view takes in the snow capped Pyrennees. Horses are standing around in fields cut out on the mountain side. Crisp, fresh air. The place seems deserted. I can hear a radio in the distance. Following the sound down to a set of stables I find a girl working on the horses. One lone dread lock hanging down the side of her face and a dew piercings... typical Catalan looking. She introduces her in a thick French accent, "You must be Jackson, the new volunteer, I am Cammie.. welcome to Can Jou." I get the traditional 'Besos', kisses on each cheek. Cammie shows me my room in a small wooden prefab house and explains the daily routine to me.
I take the afternoon to settle in before I start my first day working in the stables.
March 21 onwards - Volunteering at Can Jou - Part 1
March 21 onwards - Volunteering at Can Jou - Part 1
So, I had arrived at Can Jou and I ended up spending a fair bit of time there. This post I want to give you an idea of what a typical day of volunteering there involved and some background into the people and the place.
A storm rolls in from the Pyrenees. Can Jou sits perched on a hill in the North East of Spain in Catalunya.
Can Jou - a Can is a rural house in Catalonian, a Jou is that thing that holds the plough to the neck of the pulling animal. The house sits proudly in what we would describe as the saddle of two peaks on top of a mountain. A saddle the same shape as a Jou, where the house took its name. It consists of one main hotel building with over two dozen rooms. This hotel was built onto the side of a farm house that dates back over a thousand years. Surrounded are a couple of smaller cabin style houses for workers, a set of stables with yards for training and preparing horses. Horse paddocks, outlined by modern electric tape fence, cascade down either side of the hill. A horses appetite keeps the grass at bay, ensuring a each paddock is a mixture of mud and hay, clearly defined against the thick forrest surrounding.
Breakfast time for the horses. There were a total of 35 horses on the farm.
A typical day at Can Jou starts at 8am. Wake up and head down to the stables. Feed the horses, work them in the arena, send them out and then start work on any other tasks that might need doing. Greasing saddles and bridles, mending fences, trimming lawns and just general tasks around the farm. Horse blankes would also need washing, everyones least favourite job as the smell was less than favourable.
Cleaning horse blankets.
"Desayunar", breakfast, is at about 10 am we stop for a good long breakfast. Spanish meals are all a few hours back from the standard western meal schedule.
Breakfast is normally Jamon and Eggs on bread, or Muesli. Being a volunteer I have been given unfettered access to the larder in the Inn. Possibly a mistake on their part. There was always a giant leg of 'Jamon' to cut a slice off and I developed what will likely be an expensive taste for me in the future. When away from home, Catalonians will often cite 'proper Jamon' as the thing they miss most.
Raiding the larder.
Cooked jamon and eggs on toast... mmm.
We could look out to the mountains and watch over the horses from the window where the staff ate their meals.
The day from here always depended on whether or not there were clients. In late March and early April we had very few clients. This meant my day of work practically ended at breakfast. If there were clients we would have to prep the horses and help the clients saddle them before they went on their ride for the day. Then hang around until the afternoon when we would feed them on their return and help clean up the stables.
Prepping the horses for the clients. You can see the hotel up on the hill behind.
Brushing down a horse. As they were losing their winter coats through most of my stay I was nearly always covered in horse hair.
As a client you could either do one day treks on the horses, or, each week, a trail would run where clients came in on the Monday morning and each took a horse they would stay with for the week as they tour around the local area. They would stop at various rural inns around Catalunya and someone would go along to do trail support, make lunches for the clients, feed the horses and check the clients into that particular inn.
Clients mostly came from Germany, then the Netherlands, Scandanavia, Britain and the US. They were predominantly women. The array of nationalities meant there were always different languages being spoken.
Can Jou was started by a guy called Mick Peters, he was British, married to a local Catalonian woman. He found this old worn down farm house back in the 80s and rebuilt it with the vision of running horse trails around the local area. He ran it up until two years ago when tragedy struck. Mick was driving a tractor up a hill when it rolled, crushing him to death. He left 3 sons and a daughter behind.
Cutting fire wood to keep us warm was another of the many random tasks I had around the farm.
Exercising the horses in the ring.
Julian drives the guy in the back, another Aussie volunteer to court as we attempt to get him out of some trouble he managed to get into with the police... a story for the next post.
When I arrived at Can Jou it was in a state of transition. Julian and Marcus, both my age, had inherited the responsibility of running Can Jou. However their heart was not in it. Over the months I would get to know them better and I think they are very similar to their father. They wanted to start their own tourism style business in Costa Rica and make something of themselves in that respect, just like their father had. Julian and Marcus were great guys, always smiling, even when they were complaining, sometimes fiery, always with an abundance of energy. They lived the party life, prefering to live in their mothers apartment in one of the local nearby towns. Very rarely would we see them at Can Jou unless they needed to do managerial tasks or sweet talk the female clients. The latter being an art form they had perfected. I watched Marcus chat a woman into the bedroom in under half an hour. Having said that, they did treat me well, taking me out for long lunches, tapas, s, squid breakfasts and making sure I always felt looked after.
Marcos sits across from me as we enjoy a 'Clara' - basically a with lemon soda. At first the only way to tell him apart from Julian is the ear stretcher.
A squid breakfast very typical of that area of Catalunya.
So there were just a few regular people who I would see every day. The stable manager, Cammie, who cared for the horses and took out clients on day rides. Cammie was French born in a town close to the border with Spain. She had been coming to Can Jou every summer to volunteer for the past 14 years. Since she was 10 years old. Her degree in science had her running tests in a lab the year prior but that was not where she wanted to be. Julian put a call in to her a few months prior when the previous stable manager had to quit due to injury. She jumped at the chance to work outdoors with horses and took a significant pay cut so she could work with horses every day.
Cammie adoring a horse.
Cammie was a hard worker and expected the same from everyone. It was not unusual that you would see her still in the stables late into the afternoon, training horses and practicing her show jumping. She would prefer dirt over make-up and sometimes I wouldn't see her change her clothes for a few days.
Liam is the younger half-brother of Julian and Marcus. At a fresh seventeen he spends most of his time smoking joints when he should be helping out at Can Jou. Always smiling or laughing but he would always have his older brothers on him to do things. So he was always in fear of his brothers catching him skiving off. Liam loved the horses and taught me to ride, it was always a good excuse for him to take off into the scrub and smoke a joint while we watered the horses.
Senda on the left and Liam on the right, probably stoned, looking out over the Pyrenees.
Senda, pronounced send-ah, only spoke Catalan, a bit of Castilliano and a touch of english. Our conversations consisted of one word sentances at first, which slowly progressed to being able to talk about his boxing. The same age as Liam, but a bit more mature, he trained in boxing all the time and despite smoking nearly the same amount of weed as Liam, still had the motivation to go to training in the mornings and then run 7k uphill to help out a couple of days a week.
Senda rode his dirt bike around the local area, a little 150m. Now here is the clincher. He did this with road tyres that were down past the wear indicators. Never shying away from corners either.
Adina and Juan. A very warm Romanian couple who had come to Can Jou for work many years ago when Romania joined the European Union. Adina was the chef and cooked all the client meals. She had mastered the Catalonian cooking and I was often the beneficiary of the leftovers of these country home cooked meals. She spoke a small amount of English and so I was able to talk with her from the start and only learnt more about her as my Spanish improved.
Juan could only speak Castillian and so it wasn't unil my Spanish improved that I was able to understand his sense of humour. He helped Adina in the kitchen and looked after the other tasks in the small hotel. They have two daughters, Roberta and Sara, seven and five years old. They all lived together in a tiny little cottage on top of the hill at Can Jou. Roberta and Sara went to school in the local town and so they spoke Catalan. In the house, the whole family spoke Romanian but Adina and Juan only spoke Castillian so their daughters had their own secret language.
Adina and Juan in the kitchen.
Roberta and Sara were typical of children brought up in the country. With few friends nearby and only nature to entertain them they had broad imaginations, often riding sticks around and pretending they were horses.
Getting back to a typical day. Lunch was served up by Adina around 2 o'clock. Some days I would eat by myself, sitting on a rock, watching out to the Pyrennees. Earlier on in my stay it would be quite cold and so we would get a nice log fire going in the communal area of the house and sit around eating, chatting and maxing out the wifi connection. As it got warmer we would eat together outside and then nap in the sun on the grass for siesta.
The afternoons were either spent editing or writing emails and watching old reruns of america sitcoms. Some days we would ride the horses around the nearby mountains and slowly my riding skills progressed. Cammy would take me for long canters around the hills, happy to push my abilities. In my entire time at Can Jou I never fell off a horse and so I always had that naive optimism of someone that has never been burnt. When clients came back from rides in the afternoons we would have an hour or so of work removing the gear and feeding the horses before sending them to the paddocks for the night.
Enjoying the dirt roads in the hills around Can Jou after all the work is done.
We watch the sun set over the mountains as Sara and Roberta in the Pink and Red run a muck around us.
In line with the late schedule we wouldn't eat dinner until about 9pm. Dinner was often not made for us and so I would usually cook for myself. This meant getting creative with whatever happened to be in the larder. Garbanzos, zucchini and carrots with tomatos and some pasta. Lucikly we had an endless supply of onions and garlic to give the meal some base flavour and plenty of herbs and spices to top it off with some punch. There were a few things in the larder labelled 'No tocar' - No touching, and so we couldn't quite pull together the same meals as Adina.
We were more often than not treated with some pretty spectacular sunsets. Photos cannot do justice.
Initially nights were cold, anywhere from 2 to 7 degrees. The small Kabana that Cammie and I shared had no insulation or heating. Just half an inch of wood between us and the elements. To cope we would sit in front of the fireplace in the main house until the very last minute where we would run back to the Kabana and into bed. Cammie was born of the mountains and so coped with a couple of big blankets. Used to a more tropical Australian climate I would bury myself five blankets deep only to emerge the next morning for a new day.
The 'Cabana' where Cammie and I slept.
Next post I will go into the events that happened over the course of my time at Can Jou that will ultimately define the path of the rest of my travels.
I apreciate the work you put into your blogs,the video's are first rate ,Note to self learn more about editing video's ,yours are very professional ,will follow the rest of your travels with interest.Noel
I apreciate the work you put into your blogs,the video's are first rate ,Note to self learn more about editing video's ,yours are very professional ,will follow the rest of your travels with interest.Noel
Thanks heaps Noel!! really appreciate the feedback, it takes a while to do each blog, hence them coming out very slowly. So much is happened and I have so much great footage in the pipeline. When I get back to Australia in a month I will have much more time to edit. Plus I have a better pc back home to edit on, so I will be able to edit much faster. This little laptop that I am using at the moment, chokes every time I try and render footage, meaning each video blog is about 25-30 hours work.
I just got an email from Grant who has accepted my application to present at a HUBB meeting in Australia in 2013, where I am going to present what I have learnt from filming and editing and how I think that other riders can help push the format beyond just gopro footage and music as a backing track.
Unfortunately all my cameras were broken except for the Gopro, so this is the only picture I have in this post unfortunately, lots more pictures coming on the next post, which I am already working on...
Can Jou is an interesting story, and something I will refer back to over the rest of this report. I learnt a lot about horses, Catalonian life, running a tourism business and the importance of succession planning.
When I arrived at Can Jou the twins, Julian and Marcus weren't there, Cammie told me that they were off at some music festival and would arrive later in the week. So it was myself, Cammie, the younger Liam, Adina and Juan. The earlier days were easy, we got stuck into the work in the mornings but were usually finished by 11 or so. It was still cold and so I would spend my afternoons editing, either in front of the fire on overcast days or out in the sun on better days.
Weather came in patterns, nights would get very cold and snow would fall on the Pyrennees. It was quite the view in the mornings, looking out to the Pyrennees covered in snow. I would be freezing while I worked in the stables until the day started to warm up.
Liam lived in Sant Jaume, the closest town to Can Jou, about 10 k's down the bottom of the mountain. After most of the work was done we would either go horse riding or he would head straight down to Sant Jaume to hang out with his mates.
Cammie also had friends down in Sant Jaume but she is horse obsessed and would spend all of her free time riding. Even on her days off she would be practicing show jumping. She had also made a group of close friends in Sant Jaume, care of her ability to speak Catalan, and so would spend most nights in the town only to return in the morning for work.
This meant that as the only volunteer at Can Jou I would normally be alone on the mountain on the dark nights. I don't have a thought for the supernatural but that doesn't mean that being alone in the darkness on the mountain was easy. At first the isolation was a novelty and I appreciated the time alone to work on writing and video blogs. After a few weeks though it started to wear on me.
Five or so days after I arrived Julian and Marcus turned up for lunch. Full of life and enthusiasm they went through what their expectations of me were. When they found out I had a trailer license they were stoked and organised for me to learn how to run the trail support. For me this meant that I was going to have more variations in work and I would get to know the local area very well. Both of them being around my age, I had thought at the time that they would be spending most of their time at Can Jou and I would have people to keep me company.
The twins explained to me about how they were trying to sell Can Jou. They went through the sad story of how their father had suddenly passed away in a tractor roll over about 18 months prior and they had to take the reins and keep the business going. Their father had remarried and had Liam, their younger brother in a second marriage. He had also adopted a girl and so there were various interests all vying for their piece of the estate. Unforunately this had all come to a head during these bad economic times and they were only looking at selling the business for a third of what it had been valued at 5 years earlier.
It was obvious that the boys had been accustomed to an easy life, travelling around the world and Europe, partying and only ever returning to Can Jou when they needed to work to pay down loans from their Father. This had changed very quickly after the accident and both the twins were dreaming of moving on to bigger things. They were entrepreneurial though and wanted to start their own tourism related business in Costa Rica, where they had made contacts through their travels. Their plan was to try and settle the estate, take their inheritance and head to Costa Rica to start the business. They were expecting to do this in the next 6 weeks or so, which kind of didn't fit in with my plans to stay in Can Jou until the end of July. However in the same breath they were telling me this they were also confirming that I was going to stay until August. I confirmed with others on the ranch that the twins were just being overly optimistic, as was their nature.
Over the next few weeks I didn't really see them that much. They would come and chat to me to make sure everything was okay and would talk up a big party they had planned for us for the weekend.
All the while nights were cold and tough. The thermometer in my room would get down to 6 degrees some mornings. I would be stuck under 4 layers of blankets but still cold. The flimsy walls might as well have not been there as the temperature was the same inside as out. There were no shortage on blankets at Can Jou though and I nailed blankets to every wall in the room which helped to hold in some heat.
About a week and a half in it was late at night and I was the only person at Can Jou. Anxiety started to creep in. Now I have had anxiety attacks in the past, they are not fun, generally I can control them fairly easily in most circumstances. Being alone however, away from anything and everything that could be used as a metaphorical anchor to reality, it got out of hand fairly fast.
Perhaps it was the situation I was in. I forgot to mention already, but I rode into Can Jou with only a couple of hundred miles of tread left on my tyres, with the bike needing a service. At the time I was also low on funds, awaiting money to come in a few months later from Australia, and couldn't afford to get new wheels put on the bike, as well as spend the 90 Euros for the return trip to see Nicole. I had let myself become stuck in the situation with what I saw at the time as no exit strategy. The thought of another 3 months like this weighed heavily on me. Up until this point the novelty of the natural beauty and new lifestyle at Can Jou had masked this.
An anxiety attack is somewhat just fight or flight. Rationality goes out the window as emotion takes over your every thought and holds you in an infinite loop that it seems there is no escape from. At home I would just call a friend, drive the fifteen minutes over to my parents or friends houses for a chat if I was feeling out of sorts. The very ability to do this usually means you avoid anxiety attacks all together. Anxiety doesn't even appear on the radar because you have a support network, a safety net that coccoons you from such things.
Now I was in the middle of nowhere, with few options. A positive side effect of an anxiety attack is that you quickly establish who the people you care about are in your life. They are the people you can talk to in a situation like this without reluctance. Unfortunately the time difference was not on my side and family and friends back home were still in bed. Nicole, the closest to me in France, was out for the night with friends. I sent them emails, asking to call me once recieved. Mostly though I knew that I would have to find a way to deal with this by myself.
Eventually the emotion would subside, a friend of mine who studies psychology told me these things usually only last about 15 minutes. The body has trouble sustaining your adrenalin levels at such a high level for long. So it's essentially like being strapped in a rollercoaster you didn't want to be on and having to wait it out until the end. These are rational statements though and are have very little positive effect during said rollercoaster ride. After an hour or so, I started to calm down, I stopped pacing and changing what I was trying to do every minute, I was able to focus on a single thing.
I was through it by the timeI got to speak to Nicole and family, who insisted that I call them in such a situation in future.
The next morning I was fragile. The worst thing about having an anxiety attack in a situation is that you start to relate the attack to that situation. This can then feed more attacks as starting to feel anxious feeds itself until it becomes a full blown attack. I didn't discuss it with anyone at Can Jou, it tends not to be something you tell people you don't know well. Instead I talked to Nicole and we started progressing our discussions on how we were going to see eachother and travel together.
Our plan became that Nicole would come to Can Jou at the end of April once her placement at the school in Avignon had finished. Her work Visa was due to expire a week after her placement finished. The laws relating to her staying longer in he Shengen zone after this though, were very vague. As an Australian she had 90 days free in every 180 in the Shengen zone without needing a visa. (Shengen is basically every European country, except Romania/Bulgaria/UK and the Balkans). What was very unclear was whether the time she had spent on her French work visa counted towards those 90 days, or if she could spend 90 days in Shengen after the expiry of her French work visa. The easier way seemed to be that she would go to Germany, where apparently German work visas are very easy for Australians to get, and get a work visa to cover her for 12 months. She could then come back to Can Jou and work on the ranch until we would leave together to travel the rest of Europe after August.
That meant that she wouldn't be in Can Jou for another 8 weeks or so. The thing was, if I rode to Avignon from Can Jou not using the toll roads it would take 6 hours and not the sort of thing I could just do in a weekend. Taking tolls meant it was a 3 hour drive, definitely doable for a weekend, but that cost about 30 euro in tolls. We decided to split the cost so I could head up to see her in 2 weeks time. I thought at the time that I had at least enough tread to get me there and back once.
Having a plan in place and something to look forward to eased my mind. All I had to do was occupy myself for the two weeks in the mean time.
I forgot to mention, but my mother had managed to get a new video camera for me on warranty back in London about a week prior to me leaving Avignon. She had also decided that she didn't like the camera I had swapped her for hers, so she was going to send me both my old camera and the new one on warranty. Thanks mum! She had mailed them to the address in Avignon though, before I could ask her to send them to Can Jou. Another good reason for me to head up to Avignon to visit Nicole. To pick up the cameras. What this means though, is that I don't have any photos from this time at
Can Jou. Hence the heavy wordedness of this report to try and convery the picture of what was happening.
The next week things started to change. I was still getting bouts of anxiety but managed to put them at bay. Avoiding strong coffee in the morning and ensuring I got a bit of cardio in the day really helped.
On a sunday night we went down to pick up clients who were coming to ride on the trail through the week. It was the first clients of the year and finally Can Jou was coming to life. The twins came down with me to pick them up in the fourbies in what would become a weekly routine. We would stop in Sant Jaume, the town at the bottom of the hill I was talking about before, and the clients for the week would all hop of the bus. We would greet them as they came off, smiles on our faces. What Julian and Marcus were really doing though, was sussing out to see if there was any talent for the week. Two german sisters had come by themselves along with a couple of other families and the twins eyes sparkled.
I was no longer a single man though, I'm just not that kind of guy and I was skyping with Nicole every night anyway. The twins however gave me the whole run down on how to court the ladies and I was quite amused in watching them at work. The clients were there from Sunday until the following Sunday. They told me that they wouldn't really talk to the girls until Thursday or Friday as they didn't want to peak too early. Then on Saturday night the Cava, that is the local champagne would start flowing and the twins would crack open as many bottles as necessary.
So that was how it was, later in the week Marcus and Julian spent a little time around the stables flashing a smile at the German girls. Then on the Saturday afternoon Julian and Marcus turned up and started burning wood for the BBQ. Three of their mates from Munich had been driving since the very early morning and turned up a little later. They brought cases of German and we started to get stuck into it. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day.
Late afternoon came and the Germans had put away more than their fair share of . I went looking for Marcus and Julian and only found the Germans by the pool, stark naked, drinking more . As was customary the clients came back from the final day of riding late in the afternoon. Cava was cracked to celebrate the end of the week and everyone would stand on the balcony watching me wash down the horses and send them out to the fields.
Later that night I was looking for Julian for some reason and knocked on the bathroom door. Now we had a huge bathroom in the house with a bath the size of a spa. The three German boys had decided to have a bubble bath together, again, stark naked, with glasses of champagne and strawberries. This was not the first time I had experienced this strange level of comfort that Germans have with being naked together. Earlier in my trip when I was in the Phillipines I met two German sisters who insisted on showering together. Personally champagne in the bath is something that I reserve for the special woman in my life and I would much rather sit around a camp fire with my mates after a hard day of riding... call me traditional.
Cava flowed into the night and I found myself at a table answering all the clients questions about my trip. They had heard through one of the twins what I was up to and they were curious. Fast forward a couple of hours and I was with the twins, Cammie, the German boys and the two German sisters in the staff kitchen drinking Estrella (the local ). It seemed that one of the German sisters had taken a liking to me. We had a good chat, but as I said before, I am a one woman guy. As is the way with these things though, if I was single I would have been sporting the eye of the tiger and she wouldn't have given me a second glance. About fifteen minutes after we had started drinking in the kitchen I turned to see that Marcus and the other German sister were missing. I bid everyone goodnight and went back to my room to sleep. Along the way I saw the tails of Marcus and the German girl sneaking off into a room.
The next day we dropped the clients back off at the bus. Dusted off our hangovers and got ready to welcome the next busload of clients that evening. I was happier in the thought that more people would be around to keep things interesting at Can Jou. Also happy though, because I was two days away from heading to Avignon to see Nicole.
It was Thursday afternoon or something when I finally left for Avignon to see Nicole. It had been raining earlier in the day and so I was kitted out in the banana suit. With an undesirable amount of tread left on the rear tyre I was riding carefully. Not like your grandmother, but certainly not pushing it around the corners. It was about 15 degrees, cold enough to make it uncomfortable in combination with the rain.
A storm rolls in over Can Jou.
Earlier that morning I had been washing horse blankets with detergent. I was going at them hell for leather with the scrubbing brush and it wasn't until I had washed about a dozen blankets when I looked down and my knuckles were bleeding. The skin on my hands had become very soft and when I started washing them in water it took forever to get the feel of detergent off my hands. I went back to look on the container only to see this symbol on the back.
Now I know that I should have looked at the container earlier, but this is dishwashing detergent, with a photo of dishes on the front of it. Why the hell is it corrosive!?
It turns out that it is actually detergent that you put in industrial dishwashers.
My skin had become so soft that it rubbed off the back of my knuckles on the rough fabric of the horse blankets. As my hands dried out they itched like crazy and became extremely dry and cracked. You can imagine this put me in the best mood for my ride to Avignon.
I rode past Figueres and reached the autoroute which would then take me about 3 hours at a constant 120kph to get up to Avignon. As I rode down the on ramp and started to turn onto the highway I lost traction. The rear end fish tailed and then stood up. I don't know if I did something right, or what I did, but the bike stood back up and all I could do was go straight ahead, like I was riding a giant ice skate. Luckily there was no traffic behind me and the direct line in front of me was the hard shoulder so I just kept sliding until the bike came to a stop on the shoulder. I looked back and saw the spot where I lost traction and it looked like diesel or something had spilled on the road. The lack of tread on my tyres though couldn't have helped and so I drove like a grandmother for the next fifty odd k's until I felt comfortable on the rougher tarmac and settled into the 120kph speed limit.
Until 100k's out the weather held good, wet roads but none of that rain that turns your visibility to shit. About that time though, it did, indeed, turn to shit, and I learnt that unless the valcro seam on the banana suit is kneaded shut it will let in enough water to ensure I got soaked through three layers. Water saps the heat out of everything it touches through conduction and convection. So as soon as it started lashing down the temperature dropped to below 8 degrees. I thought I would be able to hold it out another hour to reach Avignon.
It only took 20 minutes for the cold water against my skin, combined with the wind, and my hands itching again due to the earlier incident to become too much and I pulled over to a fuel stop. One great thing about most of the fuel stops in France on the autoroutes is that they have hot showers. It usually requires that you buy fuel or pay about a euro for it, but it is well worth it. I jumped in the shower, warmed right back up again. Put on some spare clothes and used the spare set of rain gear that I had kept for Nicole. It didn't take long for me to start to get soaked through again but I was able to hold it out until I made it into Avignon.
I was so glad to see Nicole again, I felt like a broken man, the anxiety attacks, the corrosive incident and the cold ride had me right down. She read my demeanour as soon as I arrived, I remember looking at her and tried to make a joke of my predicament,
That she did, we ordered pizza and watched movies while my clothes tumbled in the dryer.
She had some bizarre, foul smelling, coconut lotion that she insisted on rubbing on my hands. It seemed to work and the next day my hands had stopped itching and cracking.
My new cameras had taken their time but both had arrived just a couple of days before I got in. All thanks to my mother in London I was able to shoot video and take photos again.
The next few days were spent in, while it rained outside constantly, at some point it cleared and we left the house to go on a hike to Sant Remy, near where Van Gogh cut his ear off, and a bunch of Roman ruins.
The reservoir we hiked around at Sant Remy.
Some strange old structure... I have no idea what it is, maybe someone can tell me?
On the top is says "King of kings" in French, I am told by Nicole.
It was finally time to leave Avignon and head back down to Can Jou. It would only be another month before I would see Nicole again.
Sun sets over the Pyrennees.
Things were busy at Can Jou. Julian had started hanging out at Can Jou a bit more, apparently sick of spending so much time with his brother. One of his mates turned up and told me plenty of stories from when the Twins used to go wild at Ibiza in the summers. I can't remember his name, but he had one hell of a beard.
I started trying to get away from the mountain more often to keep me sane. Cammie took me to one of her show jumping meets. It helped that I was the only person that had the license to drive the horses in the float to the meet.
Cammie gets prepared in the warm up paddock before her run.
Cammie on the jumps.
We arrived back from the show jumping and the twins were having another BBQ, everyone was Catalonian though and I couldn't speak with them very much. Food was good though, plentiful and there was more than I could have ever wanted. Things got rowdy and the Ferrier, whose name is Marius and Julian joined one of the local, and loco, Catalonian guys in a bit of a song and dance. Julian was telling me that this Catalonian guy had bought the keyboard convinced that all he needed to do what write one catchy tune, like the Macarena, and so long as it got picked up, it was going to be his ticket to fortune.
The boys dancing to a tune that had a chorus dedicated to the Barcelona star footballer, it went "Messi, messi, messi, messi" about a dozen times.
It was the next afternoon, with hangovers from the preceding days festivities, that we had to deal with a horse on colics. I had never heard of this before I came to Can Jou but they stressed a few things with me, one of these was how to identify the signs of when a horse is on colics. Things like the horse laying on its side and not wanting to get up, not eating food, scratching it's belly, sweating profusely and showing general signs of pain. Colics is usually when too much grass or hay becomes compacted together and clogs the intestines in the horse, basically put. If not treated quickly it can kill the horse and the twins had lost a horse the year prior to colic.
Pilgrim was showing signs of being on colics. Cammie, who has a sixth sense for these things, sensed something was not quite right.
The vet was called in and she quickly inserted what must have been a 3 metre long tube into the horses nose. I watched curiously as she pushed inch after inch into Pilgrims nostril. In my mind I was thinking, "Where the f-ck is all this tube going!?" that surely she would stop soon but she kept pushing until at least a couple of metres had gone in.
Cammie held the tube in place and comforted Pilgrim while the vet poured warm water down a funnel into the tube. She then held the end of the tube down to another bucket. I realised she was using a gravity pump to essentially pump the stomach contents out of the horse. Half digested green hay started to flow into the bucket.
I thought that was it but as soon as it stopped she poured more warm water through the tube into the horses stomach. She had to fill the stomach enough to create a flow for the gravity pump. This process went on and I was sent to get another warm bucket of water. An hour passed. It became more difficult for the vet to get the flow started each time and so she started sucking on the end of the pipe, just like syphoning fuel from a car, and as soon as the green hay would appear in the pipe she would thrust it down into the bucket.
The vet sucks on the pump to get it flowing.
I fetched more water, Cammie and I exchanged positions and I held the tube in place and comforted the horse, trying to stop it from moving about too much. Blood was running down my hand from where the tube was rubbing against the horses nostril. I was covered in horse sweat and the heat that was coming off the horse was incredible.
It was onlya matter of time until the vet sucked a bit too hard and the green hay came through the tube a bit faster than expected. She pulled the tube away too late and copped some in the mouth. Normally I have a pretty strong stomach, but I was nursing a hangover and this made my stomach turn. The vet however, spat it out, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, smiled, and kept going. I knew then why veterinarians get paid the big money. Someone once said to me that in life, in order to make good money, you have to either do the jobs that nobody else can do, or the jobs that nobody else wants to do. To me, this was certainly the latter, she earned every cent she billed that afternoon as she took stomach contents in the mouth at least half a dozen times.
Cammie works Pilgrim in the paddock after the 3 hour stomach pumping session.
It went on for 3 hours like this until eventually the liquid coming from the horses stomach was virtually clear. Cammie took Pilgrim to the paddock to trot circles. It was apparently important that the horse keep moving to try and break up any remaining clumps in the stomach. It was a busy afternoon, after which we had to go and pick up more clients and put on happy faces. We had saved a horse though, and it was a good feeling to be part of that. A few days later Pilgrim was back to normal.
Spring had sprung by this point, flowers were starting to emerge and the days were slowly getting warmer.
Eating lunch on the thinking rock, the twins father used to say that no matter how bad things got, if he came out, sat on the rock and looked out to the mountains any problem could be solved. Whenever we needed to chat about something, the boys would bring me to the rock.
Julian and Marcus would always turn up at Can Jou randomly. They were never really there to do work, just make decisions and try to work on the leads they had to sell the place. Most weeks it would seem like they had a keen buyer on the hook. Most of the time though it would go cold. At one point 30 people turned up and started looking around the place. It turned out they were a local hippie group that had somehow become very cashed up. They were looking for a place to turn into their commune. I mentioned to the boys they were unlikely to get the fast decision they wanted from a group with 30 decision makers. In the end, that one fizzled too.
The boys would commisserate with me, we headed to the beach one afternoon to get stuck into Clara and Paella. We met with a guy who was one of the first volunteersat Can Jou two decades prior. He was British like their father, and had helped build Can Jou, eventually moving to Catalonia and buying a house of his own. His discussion with the twins centred around their plans and how they were looking after their younger brother. He obviously felt protective over the twins and a sense of responsibility for them after their father had passed away.
Marcus and I drinking Claras, with lemon.
Marcus finishes off his Paella.
After lunch we left the restaurant to see this waiting on the Horizon, Can Jou is 30 k's behind those dark clouds. It went from 17 degrees to 6 degrees as I rode into the rain, again freezing my ass off and having to jump straight in for a hot shower when I finally made it back to Can Jou.
Miguel, the local guy who did the tour support at Can Jou was given the task of training me up to do his job so that when the summer got busier we could run 2 tours in the one week. Myself doing tour support on one and him on the other. He spoke no English other than, "Yes", "No" and "Hello Ladies!". This was good, I had to speak to him in Spanish and so my Spanish started to improve.
Miguel and I set up a picnic for the riders on the trail as he teaches me how to do the 'trail support'.
Bells clang as a herd of sheep scuttle past.
Adinas salsa reheating on the gas burner for the picnic.
It wasn't long until I could start to hold down a better conversation with Adina and Juan in the kitchen. Actually, in the end I found it much easier to speak with Adina and Juan, who also spoke broken Spanish, than I did with the others, who spoke it very fast.
Working the horses in the paddock.
My skills with the horses were improving as well. Julien taught me to work the horses in the paddock. Cammie taught me how to treat a lame horse. I was becoming a better rider, although only getting to ride a couple of times a week.
Watching over the horses in the paddocks from the staff dining room.
One day the twins came to me and told me a new volunteer was on his way and they were picking him up. I was stoked that I would have someone else around Can Jou in a similar position to myself. His name was Wokman, yeah, Wokman Benitez. He was Morroccan, which was quite common in Spain, given their proximity to the place. He had lived all over Europe, getting by in various places, more recently Barcelona, where he had trained to become a chef.
Wokman was laid back, intelligent and we had good discussions about all things travel and philosophy. He could cook, and taught me how to get the most out of the ingredients that we had in the larder. Dinner was normally made for us on days where clients would stay in the hotel at Can Jou, but some nights they would be in other hotels out on the trail and so we had to fend for ourselves.
Wokman cooks up a storm in the staff dining room.
Unfotunately Wokman only stayed a few days. He needed to make a little bit of money, and was going to stay at Can Jou to work in the Hotel and help Juan and Adina out with the cooking. The twins couldn't afford to pay him that much though and when one of Wokmans old employers called offering him a decent job in Barcelona he was on the next bus.
So some things changed, and some things didn't. Liam and Senda still used Can Jou as their own personal weed den. Causing trouble and always leaving the place in a mess.
Senda with the shaving cream playing a prank on his passed out mate. Liam in the background cooking pasta to stave off the 'munchies'.
Senda draws on the face of his mate who has passed out on the couch in front of the fire from smoking too much weed. Some things transcend all cultures.
Marcus and Julian kept promising to get the pool cleaned out, but it stayed green. It was symptomatic of their eternal optimistic personalities. They loved to think big and promise big things, but didn't always have the follow through to get things done. They were always talking up how each year they would have a huge pool party, full of scantily clad Spanish girls, a DJ and unlimited . I know the personality type because I have been prone to the overly optimistic view of the future in the past, and at least in my earlier twenties, not always having the follow through. The trip that I am on now though, is one thing that I had always said I was going to do, and now I am doing it. That, is something that I am proud of.
The pool, left green after being neglected over the winter.
Storms would dump snow on the Pyrennees and the twins noted how unusual it was to have snow up there this late into Spring.
Marcus came to me about a week before Nicole was due to arrive at Can Jou. He had been called by two Australian guys in Barcelona who had run out of money and had got the number for Can Jou through a friend. Marcus asked me to suss them out when they arrived and give him my opinion of them. I said "So long as they don't turn up in skinny jeans and come from Melbourne, they should be fine!". He laughed and I explained that this most likely meant they were hipsters and if so I doubt they would have much work ethic. They would be more concerned with how their iPod playlist represented their personality.
Aaron on the right.
Patrick on the left.
You can imagine then how much the twins and I laughed when Patrick and Aaron pictured above turned up wearing skinny jeans. To top it off, they are both from Melbourne. The twins however were about to hit peak season and we needed as many hands on deck as possible. Without more volunteers coming forward we had to take what we could get. What we could get would turn out to be a giant cluster**** almost a month later.
At first Patrick and Aaron were keen and they behaved themselves. Patrick was sent to work with Adina and Juan in the hotel, helping to clean and work in the kitchen. Aaron was put with me in the stables. Both of them were in their early 20's, both acted like teenagers. Just like teenagers they started pushing the boundaries to see what they could get away with.
The twins were quite liberal with food and wine. There was constantly a full 20 litre wine bag in the larder and a pallet of in the cellar. After all it is Spanish custom to drink a glass of wine with lunch. Patrick and Aaron didn't read the subtext when the twins said they could drink as much as they want. The twins didn't understand that young Australian boys from Melbourne will happily binge drink until you turn off the tap. After going through a 20 litre bag of wine in under 4 days it was becoming obvious that the boys had addictive personalities.
At first it didn't bother the twins too much, heavy partiers themselves, they were somewhat impressed in the new volunteers ability to put away the vino. I have heard alcohol called truth serum before and this was especially true with Patrick and Aaron. They started to tell their story. How they had travelled around Asia for 2 months before reaching Europe and spent about $15k each in the process. They had been arrested in Laos and had to convince the local police to give them their passports back so they could leave the country. How they got arrested was an even worse story, one they wouldn't tell me until a few weeks later. A story that is so messed up that not even 20 litres of wine was loosening their lips.
Arriving in Berlin in Europe they had spent most of their money partying, but also lost about 2 grand in an ATM card skimming scam, which they were trying to get back. Exhausted from the partying in Berlin they had made it to Barcelona with next to no money. They slept in a building site where they met a homeless guy from Transylvania who took them to a hostel where he occasionally took refuge from the streets. At that hostel they were able to work in exchange for a roof over their head for a week or so, which is where they met a person who gave them the phone number for Can Jou.
I wasn't particularly fond of them from the start. What irks me is that we have these Australians parading around Europe, causing nuisance, and acting like they are above the law in Asia. Their hipster bullshit also frustrated me. Acting like they were cultured, Aaron had studied literature at university for a semester before dropping out and thought he was next Hunter S Thompson. He would use long words incorrectly in order to condescend and belittle you. Patrick was just a space cadet, he was the more barable out of the two. They were okay at times though, when you have to work with people you can't hold the fists up at all times.
It all came to a head after about a week though. Just in time for Nicoles arrival.
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