Europe and the Americas - Video reports as I throttle round the world...
At least 2 years, 4 continents, 1 bike, and a few broken hearts... I make about 1 video blog a week and have been since I embarked on this adventure 3 months ago.
So far I have held out through a typhoon in the Philippines, trained in Martial Arts in China and taken the Trans Mongolian railroad across Russia. Now I am in London where I have bought an F650GS Twin to ride Europe. Since I am on 2 wheels now it is time to start a ride report.
You can see the video blogs so far at www.thegreatgallivant.com - they are on average around 10 minutes in length.
On top of posting the video blogs I am going to put together the ride report here with a bit of written detail on the technical side of things so anyone wanting to do something similar can learn the gritty.
Getting a bike and getting it insured was a pain in the ass. Here is the run down on my experience.
I realized early on, as other have that if you are from outside Europe then it can be very difficult to buy a motorbike in the UK. Buying is the easy part, all you have to do is hand over your cash - insuring the bike is the hard part.
I found as many have and will, that pretty much no insurance companies in the UK will insure a non-UK resident or someone without a UK license. I am lucky and have a British passport through my mother who is British. That only made thing slightly easier. Other people who I spoke to had to get 2 year work visas just to exchange their Australian licenses for British licenses. You don't have a choice and have to exchange the Aussie license for a British one. The DVLA (Department of transport) in Britain is a bureaucratic nightmare. To do this you have to be resident, or at least be able to fake it.
Once I got the license I could get insurance but I needed to also have a copy of my Australian license or my travel insurance wouldn't be valid without one. This meant 'losing' my Aussie license and getting a new one and then miraculously finding the old one.
Once I got here, as expected, getting the bike was easy. Insurance quotes were out of whack. Normally in Australia 3rd party insurance is cheap, but here it isn't 3rd party was 550 GBP that is roughly 900 USD/AUD. Comprehensive was 700 GBP so I went with that given it was only slightly more. Other companies quotes from 1500 GBP to 3000 GBP... I went with eBike as a lot of others have.
Farkling the bike...
Just arrived into France on the bike. These Video blogs are about 3 weeks behind at the moment. I have a better camera now and have worked out a better way to edit so everything from now on will be available in 720p HD. This weeks log is all about kitting out the bike, I put on a Stahlkoffer pannier and rack and went to the factory in Birmingham to check it out. They also make bikes and had this awesome pre 60's style trials bike that is almost ENTIRELY made out of titanium!
Check out the exhaust! If you have a cool 15 thousand pounds to drop on a new toy this one could be it.
Other gear on there is the battery hookup for GPS and a AltRider Bash plate.
Anyway, check out the 4 minutes video blog I put together...
In the next log I am heading over to Ireland, here is another 'teaser'
Me in the fat man suit fighting sub zero temperatures around Ireland in the latest European cold spell.
Latest video blog from the first of two weeks in Ireland. It is available in 720p.
It was pretty dreary weather while I was making this. The bike performed well but the BMW raingear that I have proved to not keep out all the rain. I can only put it down to the zip. Another thing that I think I need is one of those neck covers that clips into the helmet... that would really help.
Here is the latest log from Ireland.
I was really battling with the cold as this was around the same time the cold snap came through Europe.
Monday 30th January 2012 - DUBLIN-GALWAY-SLIEVE LEAGUE-LETTERKENNY
Dublin has a certain smell and feel, like a mixture of burnt coal, beer and decomposing rubbish. It is nearly always cloudy and melancolic. Everyone talks big about Galway being the place to go and once the mercury hit 4 degrees I pack up and take the motorway across the country for 3 hours. The hostel I stayed at was 8 euro a night, evidence of Irelands economic woes. 5 yeas prior I paid 30 euro a night in a Dublin hostel and you would have to get stuck into the Guinness to spend that in a day here now. I was shattered from a big weekend and elected to stay in and edit video logs rather than check out the Monday night Galway scene.
No matter how hard I try I can't get up, pack the bike and eat breakfast in the morning in less than an hour. An electric generator had been running on and off all night keeping me awake. The kind of noise that if it were constant your brain could shut out. This was the off and on noise that would wait and then come back just as I was drifting off and pull me from my almost sleep.
I hit the road and head north with a few tips of roads to take to end up near Sligo. The hostel receptionist told me the story of the Doolough tragedy. During the great Irish famine hundred of people from a town called Louisberg took the walk to Delphi lodge on the rumour of rations only to find there were none. Starving and destitute they returned to Louisberg and many died on the pass on the return. I ride through the valley with this thought in mind stopping at the memorial. The hills rise up from a black lake that winds through the valley. I am almost at Louisberg and th sun pokes through the clouds.
I punch the address for the house I am staying at in Ireland into the GPS. It struggles to find it. Ireland needs to introduce post codes. For 2 hours I wind through small towns to get to Martin and Livas house. A Latvian couple who I found on couchsurfing the night prior. I arrive late at their house to a burning fire and food on the stove. We talk about Latvia, name days - where everyone in Latvia celebrates both their name day and their birthday each year. They give me a fish scale to put in my wallet - a Latvian tradition that is supposed to ensure you good fortune with finances.
Dinner with Liva and Martin
Martin has time in the morning to show me around the local area before headin off to his job at the local milk factory. I am keen to head to Slieve league today and set off. Another cold day but it doesn't seem to affect me, the sun is shining brightly and I think that is what keeps my spirits high.
Martin and I out in the morning exploring
I ride through various small Irish towns, all low set, though a Gaeltacht - an Irish speaking community, and a fishing village with a wicked stench that has hundreds of gulls flying overhead. Irish businesses have a consistency in signage that would have you thinking the entire country only has one signmaker.
The roads get smaller and rougher and I climb up the mountain to Slieve league. It doesn't present it's full glory until you reach the very end of the road. An old Irish couple walk past me while I admire the view.
Slieve League Cliffs
They are speaking Gaelic (or Irish as a lot of them prefer to call it) and break into english to tell me I am lucky to see the cliffs with the sun shining against them. After a few snacks I head for Letterkenny. A stroke of luck and I have more couchsurfers to stay with in Letterkenny. Two French girls...
Wed 1st Feb - Letterkenny - Malin Head - Derry
I roll into Letterkenny and the GPS is sending me in the wrong direction. I pull over and a guy comes up to me straight away. Thick northern accent. "How are ye?", "That's a nice bike, where er ye from?" We chat for ten minutes. He spent a few months riding around the states when he was younger. He doesn't know the street I am looking for so he calls his mate and asks for directions and then tells me how to get where I am going. This is my first impression of Letterkenny.
Claire, meets me in the street and we head back to her house. This is my thid time couchsurfing. Claire and her flatmate Marie are both teaching French in Ireland as a part of a program that will enable them to become teachers down the track. We talk about travel and their impressions of Letterkenny. They are not surprised at the help I got from the locals with directions as they have both had similar experiences.
We down a pub meal. Bangers and mash, which I have to say the Irish are not quite as good at making sausages as the British. One thing they can do is stout and I grab my first of half a dozen Guinness for that night. There is a band playing trad music in the bar and a few more French turn up and pull out Uno and we play cards, listen to trad and sink more beers.
In the morning I wake to see frost on everything in letterkenny. My bike is covered in frost and I put it in the sun to defrost. While making breakfast I drop out to the bike to check the air temp. It is hanging at 1 degrees. I only have 2-3 hours on the road today but I can't ride that long in 1c.
Taking a walk through letterkenny I check the roads for black ice. It's mostly clear. My aim is to get to Malin head, the northern most point of Ireland about 80 k's north of Letterkenny. I have to go over a mountain range to get there, that concerns me, the higher in elevation I go the lower the temperature is going to get. I wait until 11am and the temperature gets up to 3 degrees before I hit the road.
The riding is nice, the sun is out, the air is clear. It's a double edged sword - when the clouds are thick they hold the heat in - you get no sun but the temperature is 2-3 degrees warmer. The sun brings out the colour in the landscape but the temperature drops. Despite glazing my visor with anti-fog the helmet fogs up. I have to let the cold air in to clear it out. Each time my lips go even more numb. I alternate between sucking on my top and bottom lips to warm them up. Riding through flat farmland there are birds forraging through crop rows where ice has formed they are trying to find water that hasn't frozen. I am averaging 50mph and can cope with the temperature.
Hitting the mountains the temperature drops below zero. The guage on the bike constantly flashes to make me aware of black ice. I have to slow down at some points as ice crosses the road. I make it over the mountains but I am getting cold. A farmer is out on his tractor and I think that if I get too cold at least I can come back and ask him for help. The social implications run through my head.
18km to Malin head. Roughly 15 minutes to go. My palms are burning on the BMW hand warmers, the back of my hands are numb. My toes are numb.
Black ice has formed across the road.
10km to Malin head. I remeber thinking - I run that distance often - it's not far. Once I am off the bike I will be fine.
Cutting on to smaller roads I am looking for open pubs, anything with a chimney that indicates a fire is burning - looking for options.
The goal is still to get to Malin head. In my head it is still not that bad yet.
Time is taking forever. I need to have a slash. My stomach starts to turn.
Finally i round a bend and can see the parking lot, the ruins of a tower and the ocean breaking against the most northern point of Ireland.
Hopping off the bike there is nobody around. I dump the bladder and consider walking down the hill. It's going to be a 15 minute walk. My bladders nerves stop tugging at my brain and consuming my thoughts. With more capacity to think I become aware of the wind which is blowing a gale around me. The reprieve from the cold I was looking for isn't going to come. I realise I am shivering. Hopping back on the bike my adrenalin kicks in. I start riding back towards the town.
A sign says Malin - 10 k's. I still think I am riding to Derry today - only 50 k's away. Thanks to Claire I have a couch to surf in Derry. Looking for any pub or shop that looks warm I push through. My thoughts are not fluid and I can feel the heart beat in my chest. After what seems like more than 10 k's I reach Malin. It's a small town with a corner store and there are workmen fixing something in the street. I pull up at what looks like a shop pub and fuel stop. Walking inside there is nobody. A woman walks into the store and it is obvious she runs the place. "Do you have rooms?" I am beyond money now. All I can think is I need to get warm, I need a hot shower. She has none but directs me up the road to a B and B.
An older woman answers "Come inside, get out of the cold now..." I must have been blue in the face because she instructed me in front of the fire. Questioning my sanity she throws a couple of logs on the fire, makes me a cup of tea and a sandwhich. Her name is Mary - she is my mother of another brother. Her husband works for the IMF , she is well travelled and we exchange stories as the fire breaths life back into me. Mary runs Malin Village B&B and if you go through you should stay there. She is salt of the earth and I was happy to break my daily budget for just one night stay.
On the road after a square breakfast and headed for Derry or Londonderry, depending on which side of the political fence you sit on. You can usually pick Catholics from Prodistants by how they name this city. I lived in Ireland 2 years prior but never made it to Derry. It is the site of Bloody sunday and a large proportion of the violence during the 'troubles'.
Taping up my helmet to stop the cold air circulating.
Another dead hostel with only 3 other people staying, low season, 10 euro for the night with breakfast. I get instructions on where to go - first place on the list is Rossville street - the site of Bloody Sunday. Rupublican murals and political signage line the street. It would seem like any other street if it were not for this. A hill runs up one side to the city walls, painted with statements requesting the freedom of alleged political prisoners. There is a memorial in the middle of the street. In 1972, 26 republican protestors were shot by the British Army in what has become the most well known event from the troubles.
Political messages on Rossville street.
Mural of a famous image where a wounded republican is carried to safety.
I walk around the city walls to the prodistant side of the city. Foopaths are painted red,white and blue so you don't forget where you are. Fences and security measures remain everywhere as a reminder of what was and to a degree still is. I cross the newly built peace bridge that symbolically connects the prodistant and catholic sides of the river.
More editing and I wake to rain which has brought the temperature up to a level that is easier to bear. Head off to see the
Giants causeway and make my way to Belfast.
Feb 4th-6th - DERRY - GIANTS CAUSEWAY - BELFAST - DUBLIN - BIRMINGHAM
Sorry the pics are not the best in the world, I have to pull them from video footage. On the upside I will upload the video footage in a week or so once I have it edited together. Here is the 'book'...
Derry, Northern Ireland - Saturday 4th February 2012
It's raining and I wait it out to see if it gets better. It's about 10am when I give up on that idea. This is Ireland and I know better - when the weather sets in, it stays. At least the rain clouds have brought the temperature up. So I head off from Derry to Northern Irelands most well known tourist attraction, the Giants Causeway.
Following the coast I pass a few beaches with fisherman, horses and travellers parking their caravans nearby. Eventually I reach the car park for the causeway soaked through 3 layers, luckily I am wearing 6.
Part of me expected to be able to just see it from the car park. There are at least another 40 cars and plenty of people around reminding me that it is a Saturday. Weekdays in winter you get most tourist spots to yourself. I wait for a break in the masses and head down the half k track to see the causeway.
Giants causeway was created by a volcanic eruption that has created interlocking polygonal basalt stones that have worn away over time to resemble honeycomb steps. Some of the stones are up to 12 metres long.
Rain has made them even more slippery and I have to be careful to avoid twisting an ankle. Finding a quiet spot I sit back and take it all in. Staring out to sea I realise I have no idea what is north.
Back on the bike and crunching the miles into Belfast. I plan to spend a bit of time on the net planning out the next few days. YHA advertises free wifi. I get to the hostel, pay, the guy confirms they have free wifi when I pay. Put my stuff in the room and come down. What is the password for wifi? Oh so just click through and so the first 15 minutes is free. Only 15 minutes free - argh, you have to be shitting me! I am forced into reflection on how reliant I am on technology. Annoyed but also realising that maybe I need to learn to live with less.
Having been to Belfast a half dozen times it is more a trip down memory lane than anything and I ride around to get some good footage for my blog. The city itself has always intrigued me. With 2 opposing groups living in such proximity it can be a lesson in human nature. It manifests itself in both obvious ways, murals, walls, colours which you can see in these pictures.
Green businesses on the Catholic side.
Red and Blue on the Prodestant side.
Ulster Bank - locked down!
However when I got to spend a fair bit of time in Belfast years ago I remember one specific incident at a party.
Prodistants and Catholics don't mix freely to my knowledge. Like anywhere some are more extreme in their viewpoints than others. Either the story I am about to tell is a standalone experience and must be viewed as such. Perhaps there is a younger generation in Northern Ireland that do not seek to make first definitions based on political or religious background. If there is I did not see it.
At an expat party I was at there were Americans, Australians, Canadians and the usual suspects in Belfast to study or work. Expats are non-discriminatory and so invite any friends they have from Belfast as they would anyone. As a result you get a mix of both Catholic and Prodistant friends.
We are sitting in the front room - there are three guys from Belfast on one side and one guy on the other side from belfast in a big circle made up of expats and locals. I have no idea what side of the fence they sit on. Drinks are flowing and the party rages on throughout the house. Conversation flows in the front room and I take no notice of the nuances of body language occurring. As the night wears on people move from the room and I am left sitting with just the three Belfast guys that came together and the other local sitting opposite. I did notice earlier that these 3 guys that came together look like the edgy types, guys that are looking for an argument.
So the room has cleared and its just us and it is a bit quiet and this is when I notice the tension between these two groups, or group and one guy. Finally one of three guys asks the guy across the room. I am paraphrasing here but you will get the idea;
"You from Belfast?" - or something to that effect.
"Wherabouts?" - it is a pointed question with obvious intentions.
"Area x" - gets a slight "ah" from the group of three.
Cautiously "Street xyz"...
All the tension in the room suddenly dissipates as if it were never there as one of the others says that his relative grew up on that street. All of a sudden the four of them are talking about how they are connected. They share a background that I will never truly understand.
In front of the main wall near Shankill street.
This was taken 4 years ago when I was in Belfast but I wanted to show the police station - I couldn't find this one while I was in Belfast this time - it may have been cleaned up.
More of the wall from the last time I was in Belfast.
The next day I head for Dublin and want to stop by at Newgrange a monolith older than the Pyramids but hardly as famous. On the way I am cut off on one of the roads and have to take a back route. After a few detours I see the side of this 'mound' poking out of a hill and the white stones - the identifying factor. I find what I think is the entrance and I see a bus load of people hop off on what appears to be a tour.
After getting all my gear off I walk up to a small hut where they were checking tickets. It turns out that this is not the official entrance and they want me to ride another 15 minutes around more detours to buy a ticket and then hop on a bus only to come back to this point. Normally the signs direct you straight to the tourist entrance where you buy the ticket and hop on the bus. It is going to take 2-3 hours for me to do the tour.
Running the calculations I realise that I will end up in Dublin after dark. It is 4 degrees and that will only drop. Happy enough to just see it from the outside I head for Dublin.
Leaving a toll booth in the fluoro fatman suit, staying warm back to Dublin.
My friend Claire has offered me a place to stay in Dublin for the night before I head out on the ferry back to Holyhead and then Birmingham the following day. I have known for days about the deteriorating weather in Europe courtesy of wind coming all the way from Siberia. This had happened for the preceding two years so I knew it was a possibility. My mother uploads pictures to facebook of the snow in London and I realise I am not going to make it that far.
Mums picture - out the front of her place in London.
I need to get to Birmingham. Bernie, the guy that runs Stahlkoffer panniers, has a new set of panniers waiting for me there and I have to give him back the ones he leant me. We had been discussing a sort of sponsorship arrangement where I do a bit of filming/editing for him in exchange for panniers. I needed to do some more filming and get the new panniers.
Looking at 3 possible routes to Birmingham from Holyhead I check the temperatures at every city along the various routes. Forecast for Birmingham is a high of 2 with -6ish the low. If I head north up through Conwy, Wrexham and onwards the temperature is going to be a high of 4 with a low of -5ish. The temperatures down south are slightly warmer and if I go through Snowdonia national park the temp along the route is about 6 degrees until I hit Shrewsbury (about 40k's out of Birmingham) - I am worried the mountains might mean lower temperature because of higher elevation but it's only a short distance and there are a lot of tourist villages along the route. I can handle that but I write down the names of a couple of hostels along the way. The added bonus is the route is going to be better to look at. Might sound like overpreparation but things can change quickly in the cold and I want to be able to make decisions quickly if it heads for the worse.
Map to give you an idea of the route.
Claire takes me to the pub where her brother has drowned Irelands 6 nation loss, the Irish way. We 'get on the lock' before heading back to Claires to get some prep sleep before a big day.
Irish jerseys on - drowning the loss to Wales. Which doesn't seem so bad at the time of writing now that the Welsh have gone grand slam.
Up at 5 and on the ferry to Holyhead. It is busier than when I went over and it would seem that some flights had been cancelled due to the snow. The only way for a lot of people to get back home is by the ferry. I count it lucky that I wasn't gouged for every penny I had to get on the ferry. It would seem they keep the price the same.
The temperature in Holyhead is 9 degrees, solid. It starts pouring down as I make my way to Snowdonia. The temperature drops but hovers around 5 and 6 as I push up into the mountains. Gaining elevation the temp stays the same and I am really enjoying it. The mountains are amazing and the views take me by surprise.
Before I know it I am on the other side of the mountains. The drop in elevation results in lower temps, counter-intuitive, must be that the cold winds are coming from the West, that I am headed into. The further I go the more the temp drops but I am on a mission.
Snow starts to appear on the sides of the road but at the time I am only thinking about how it makes good footage on the gopro. Stopping for a steak pie with mushy peas I have only got 40 k's to go. After warming up at the truck stop I push through to Birmingham and argue with the GPS about the best direction to go in.
I get to hatters hostel, if you are ever looking for a hostel in Brum, this is the place. They have a videocamera looking right at a pole, which I chained the bike to with my f@ck off Almax 8kg chain. With snow and ice everywhere and a shit weather forecast it looks like I am stuck here for a few days.
Iced over canals in Birmingham
Salt is good for bikes right?
The route I cover in this post...
FEBRUARY 7 - 17 - BIRMINGHAM-LONDON-NEW MILTON-FOKESTONE
I was stuck in Birmingham for a few days. The weather didn't look like it was getting any better and I had a cheap hostel to stay in. Hatters hostel - if you are moving around the UK and you need places to stay they have hostels in 3 places and they are bang on.
The next day I went out to see Bernie at Stahlkoffer. He has lended me his panniers to ride around Ireland while he got a new set organised for me. I did a bit of filming for him to put together a few clips for them. I am doing my best to be entrepreneurial on the road and try to reduce my costs by offering my skills in exchange. So we put on the new panniers and a rear rack on a warmer day before I went back into hibernation in Brum.
I used to come to Brum when my ex-girlfriend moved there. We had just broken up in Oz and she moved there to work from Australia. At first I wasnt going to go but my heart dragged me there, chasing after her. It didn't work out but I got closure. Point is, the place has memories for me and I know my way around a bit. It is an old industrial city but the canal network is pretty cool so I went for a bit of an explore...
Thursday, 9th of February after 3 days in the Brum and a whole chunk load of editing I hit the road to get back to London. Anyone British or that has visited the motherland will know this is not a far distance, a couple of hundred k's - a two hour ride, but if you watch my blogs and read my past experiences you will understand my paranoia for tackling this. I did the same as what I hd done for the leg from Holyhead to Brum. Set out various points and stopping options along the way and hit the road.
Waiting for the temperature to warm up the mercury had barely hit 2 degrees by 11am. I wanted the 4 degrees that was forecast - bollocks to that - I wanted to be in London more so I got on the road. Half an hour later I had barely gotten out of the traffic in Birmingham. I was moving slowly which meant I was keeping warm. I thought it would keep getting warmer the closer I got to London but the temp dropped down to zero. It is at this point where the negative thoughts kick in and one part of me wants to pull over. The training I did for the Sydney Marathon starts to kick in. Whenever part of me wanted to stop running I would tell that part of me that in 10 minutes we can stop. "Just shut the **** up and we can stop in 10 minutes", usually 10 minutes later I would be thinking about other things and would just keep going. Instigating this routine got me through to a small town about a third of the way to London where I stopped for a pub meal, bangers and mash - the Brits do a damn good bangers and mash.
-1.5 degrees on the bike, and two hours to London according to the GPS. I call my step-dad who tells me it is 5 degrees where he is just north of London where he is. "You're f-cking sh-tting me, that's practically beach weather!" This is the primer I need for positivity and I get back on the bike and push through. All I can think about is 5 degrees, I think, at this point it can only get warmer the closer I get to London. However it stays the -1.5 degrees.
I pull over and take a couple of photos and get some footage and jump around to warm up a bit. Keeping on an hour later I am only an hour from London. Not being able to find a decent place to pull over I keep going, then I see the motorway. If I jump on now I only have to stand the cold for 30 minutes until I get into London. The temperature has jumped up a couple of notches which has buoyed my enthusiasm. With toes numb I zip along the motorway and before I know it I am back in Cricklewood, parked outside of my mothers house, unloading the bike before having a hot shower.
Washing the salt off the bike.
I make it to London before the snow starts to fall heavy.
The SMH10 headsets that SENA have given me to use with Nicole when we ride around Ireland have arrived at my mums house when I get back. Happy days!
With just over a week to get to France to meet up with Nicole I want to make the most of my final days in London. I head out with Izzi, who I met a few months prior in the Phillipines, and a bunch of her mates to FABRIC - a nightclub that so many aussies have told me about.
Waiting for an hour outside FABRIC in the cold!
We dance like idiots to dubstep until the early hours of the morning.
- - - - -
Rowing along the Thames.
The next day I head to visit another friend, Nora. She is this crazy Andalucian singer/dentist/everything who I met in Beijing. She has offered me her apartment to stay at when I am in Madrid and I am keen to catch up with her. Nora has an affinity with Morrocco, being from Andalucia and she taught me how to cook in a Tajine.
Then she pulls out the maps and gives me all the info on what to see when I head down to the south of Spain whilst I struggle to try and speak Spanish with her. If I am going to learn to speak Spanish when I get to Spain I am going to have to get my finger out.
You meet so many great people on your travels and I have been lucky to catch up with a lot of them along the way. Rob is from a little place near Southampton has invited me down to go bike riding and hang out with him for a couple of days before I hop on the train to Calais. We met on the Trans-Mongolian on my way to Moscow from Beijing. He got on the train in Ulanbator after going on a horse trek through Mongolia. We got along well and ended up hanging out in Moscow together.
I pack my bike up to leave London for the last time. I won't see my mother or stepfather for over a year so big hugs before I leave.
Rob invites me into his place with cold beer open and food on the stove. We catch up and plan the following day to go to this place called Perbecks on the mountain bikes. Up early in the morning we jump on the bikes and catch the train out.
Arriving in Boscome we start our leisurely ride along the beach. There are those coloured huts everywhere, the sun is shining and it is a beautiful day. It must be the best ay in weeks as everyone is out to enjoy it. We stop after half an hour as Rob has an important phone call to recieve. His brother has had a baby boy, he is an Uncle for the second time.
We ride through an area that Rob tells me is the most expensive real estate in the UK and high up the list in the world. The sort of place where football players on rediculous salaries live. I have no idea how far we have come but we have been on the bike for an hour or so and then we catch a ferry across to 'Perbecks'.
We head towards some hills, everything had been easy and flat up until now and on the very first hill I am reminded of how unfit I am to ride a bike. I have trained in MA in the mountains in China and had been going to the gym every other day in London but I wasn't ready for this.
We come across a village called Studland and I am rocking the sock on the outside stud look!
Along the way we stop to take pictures often, the day is great and the views are the sort you don't expect from England.
The wind was blowing and it was a precarious walk to get this photo.
You can see better where I walked out to in this shot, that is me in the top left... can you believe this is Britain!
Rob is a lot fitter than me on the bike and I struggle to keep up. We stop for fish and chips before pressing on.
As the day wears on I am getting really tired. I have to drop down to the lowest gear on the bike to go up even the smallest incline. We take the ferry to get back to the station and while we are headed up a hill I get severe cramps in my legs to the point that I have to get off and walk.
Come on mate, it's not that far...
Once we get back to the house I calculate how far we have been that day - 63 k's - no wonder I can't feel my ass. With a 6 hour day in the saddle on the cards I know my legs won't take it and Rob is happy for me to stay another day.
gmap-pedometer.com - check out the route that we did here. Also this is a really simple tool to use for calculating your runs/rides or anything distance related - I use it all the time.
On the way to Robs I saw a sign advertising a motorycle museum nearby so the next day I stopped in to check it out. It is called the Sammy Miller motorcycle museum. Sammy still works there daily and has quite the collection of vintage motorbikes. He has a long history of racing and designing bikes. Here are a few photos but I have uploaded more to my picasa album here - SAMMY MILLER MOTO MUSEUM PHOTO ALBUM
QUEENSLANDER!!! Check out the RACQ badge - that is from my home state in Australia. Royal Automobile Club of Queensland.
We head out in the afternoon for a ride on the beamer and a walk to check out a fort near to Robs house. It was built by King Henry the 8th to protect the bay between the Isle of Whyte and the mainland.
We spend a couple of hours throwing rocks at a brick thirty metres away.. small things.
The following day I was up early, said goodbye to Rob and got on the road to take the Eurostar to Calais from Folkestone.
Chatting to the attendants on board and they tell me that there are hundreds of different sensors in the one carriage. That I can't take flash photos because the sensors may think that a spark has gone off. If the sensors detect both petrol fumes and spark at the same time they will instantly fill the carriage up to neck height with flame retardent foam and suck the oxygen out of the cavity between the roof to starve any would be fire. I don't want that to happen.
In 30 minutes I will be on French roads and riding on the right hand side of the road for the first time. I got a few tips from fellow ADV riders and I am trying to mentally prep for it as much as possible... still slight apprehensive. In little over 48 hours I will be at Nicoles place in Avignon. We have been skyping every other day for the past 2 months, good friends for over a year I am looking forward to seeing her. In another week we will be on the road headed to Italy for 3 weeks together.
More soon... corresponding video ride report on its way too.
CALAIS-PARIS-AVIGNON - February 17-22nd.
Route for this post...
I wait 10 minutes on the Eurostar - a car has broken down in front of me and they need to tow it out before we can get going but it isn't long before we are on the road.
The attendant gives me the thumbs up on the way out.
You can't end up on the wrong side of the road when you get to Calais. The great thing is that the road off the train leads you straight on to the highway. I leave the GPS off and follow the A16 as per instructions I got off the net earlier - all I had to do was follow the A16. Clouds cover the sky, I can't see the sun and I continue on for just over half an hour.
A sign says Bruxelles - thats confusing I thought I was headed to Paris. I put on the GPS and enter Paris and the GPS tells me to do a U-Turn. Just as I look up I pass the blue sign with the Euro stars 'Belgique'. Shit. Definitely going the wrong way. I decide to go back to the GPS and pull over to tell the camera about my stupid mistake. When turning around I come across my first right hand drive round-about. It confuses the shit out of me but I stumble through.
An hour and a bit out of the wrong way the GPS gets me back on the motorway. Speed limit is 130kph when it is fine and 110kph when it is raining. I wonder what constitutes rain for the Gendarmarie - if there is water on the ground but none falling from the sky, does that constitute rain? Maybe someone on here knows?
Running low on fuel I pull into a 'Carrefour'. This is my first experience getting fuel in France. I take the pump out of it's place and wait for the dial to ring zero and the pump engine to fire up. This is how it has been all over Ireland, UK and Australia where I have ridden before now. After 10 seconds of nothing a screen flashes at me and says something in French "Vous something, something, something"...What the ****?
I put the pump back in it's hostel and draw it again. Another wait, the same thing in French "Vous blah, blah, blah...". I try and find something written in english. Nothing. I look around and am thinking that maybe they don't like the look of me from the shop and they haven't eapproved the pump to turn on. A man pulls up and I watch him to try and work out how it works. To my envy, he draws the pump, puts it in the car, the dial resets and the pump engine kicks on. He proceeds to fill the car, walks in and pays.
Now I have heard the French don't like the British, so I am thinking, can they see my British plates on the camera? Do I really look that British? Maybe I need to stick a giant Australian flag sticker on my panniers or better yet a picture of a kangaroo.
As the man walks back to his car I use the only French I know... "Vous parles Anglais?"
He looks at me, "A little."
"Can you help me with the pump?" I say, along with a full mime.
He comes over, takes the pump from the holster, says "card". I pull out my bank card and stick it in the machine, it takes my pin and waits a minute, says something in French. The man hands me the pump and instructs me to fill the bike.
It dawns on me, ah, it's ****ing prepaid only!
"Merci, Au Revoir" - The only other French I know. With enough fuel to almost reach Paris and an ego buoyed by my elite problem solving skills I get back on the motorway.
After a few hours I reach a toll booth. The woman rings up the charge which comes up on an LED number display. 9 Euros. Shit! That's expensive. Hang on, is that a 1 in front of the 9, shit, 19 Euros! Are you ****ing kidding me? Something must be wrong. I have only driven 200 k's on this motorway. This is daylight, highway bloody robbery!
Now other Europeans reading this might think I am going a bit over the top here. In retrospect my reaction probably is. However you have to understand my perspective coming into this. In Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom where I have ridden and driven most of my life there are very few tolls. In cases where there are tolls they are usually around the 3 or so Euros for every 200-300 km's of travel. Hence my frustration.
When I reach my accommodation in Paris for the night I use the Michelin online calculator to work out how much it is going to cost me to get to Avignon from Paris. It comes out with around 30 euros. I set the GPS to avoid tolls and it says that my 7 hour journey to Avignon without tolls will take 13 hours. In my mind I am only 1 day away from Avignon and catching with Nicole. We have not seen eachother in more than 5 months and if I am honest with myself I have been questioning our friendship for months and wondering if it could be something more. When you take away familiar surroundings sometimes that gives you more clarity to think about these things. Back to the point, you can understand why I shrug off the extra 30 euros and decide to push on, despite trying to maintain a budget.
In the morning I wake to get breakfast in the hotel. I had booked the place online for a shared room at 15 euro but the guy offered me a private room and breakfast for just an extra 5 euro. Breakfast is a couple of croissants and chocolate filled buns. As I scoff them down I try and decipher the French news playing on the television in the sitting room. I can understandone thing 'Nikolas Sarkozy'...
7 degrees and overcast as I circumvent Paris on the outskirts and head South-east towards Dijon. A rider passes me and sticks the leg out. This is the French bikers wave I had heard about. (You can just see the foot coming down in the shot from gopro footage above).
A hundred odd k's from Paris and the temperature isn't going any higher. It intrigues me again, I half expect it to at least rise given I am headed both South towards the equator and we are getting closer to midday. As I rise in elevation towards Avallon the temperature drops down to 5 degrees. At 130kph I start to feel the cold grip me. This is a deamon that has been plaguing me for the past weeks. Even though I know it is mostly in my head I pull over in a service station, anxious. Reaching Avignon today is no longer a certainty in my head and I start to think of options of where I could stop. There is no way I can ride another 500 k's like this. I look for a shower at the servo to heat up, no dice. Pulling out the laptop I check the temperatures along the route. It is 16 degrees in Avignon and so I try and work out where it is going to get better.
A French guy that looks like George Costanza sits down next to me and says something in French. "Ah.. parle pas Francais"
"Is that your BMW outside?"
"Yeah, you ride?"
"Yes...", he struggles with English but I appreciate the effort.
He offers me a biscuit and tells me about his BMW tourer. All I gather is it is a R1200RT, like my father used to ride. I explain my situation and slowly I establish from him that the mountains peak in elevation about 100 k's further in Beaune and it will be a lot warmer by the time I get to Lyon another 100 odd k's after that. This is all the confidence I need as I get back on the bike and head on.
It is still hovering around 6 degrees. I still don't understand why some days I can ride for hours in 6 degrees and others it really gets to me. Traffic jams up on the highway and I pull up behind a bus as it stops. Without the constant wind against me I start to warm up in my 5 layers of clothing. I start to filter through a bit of the traffic slowly. To my surprise a lot of the cars start moving out of the way to let me split the lanes. This wouldn't happen in Australia. They are giving me more than a whole car space to get through and so I am happy to continue splitting.
You can see the traffic moving out of the way ahead for me. Luckily, without splitting this would have added hours to my trip as it went of for approx 30 odd k's.
This traffic slows me down but I don't mind. So long as I stay under 80kph I eep warm enough. Once I make it past Beaune the thick cloud cover starts to break up. The sun shines throuh ahead of me and as I descend the mountains the temperature rises to 10 degrees. I can ride quite comfortably now. Further on and the temperature goes up to 12 degrees. Stopping to drop layers for the first time in weeks I get out the ipod and put on some tunes. I ride through Lyon and the sun is shining down hard. The sky is clear. A broad smile breaks out as the mercury rises to 16 degrees. It is the warmest it has been on my trip since I left Fujan Province in China over 3 months earlier.
Sun is out through Lyon and you can just make out the ice (the rough patches) that is floating down the river in this shot.
Late in the afternoon I arrive into Avignon having already heard so much about it and seen many photos courtesy of Nicole. It is an old walled city on what was the frontier of France in Roman times. After getting lost in it's one way streets I reach Nicoles house and call her to come down.
It's just good to see a close friend for the first time in ages and I hide the camera to try and get a candid shot.
It is now Saturday and Nicole has plenty of good things waiting for me, Lamingtons from Australia, french cheese and wine. After a decent shower I take to the couch with a glass of wine as the residual vibrations from 9 hours of riding continue to flow through me. We depart together for Italy on Wednesday giving me 3 days to rest and get everything prepared.
Frozen fountains in Avignon.
Frozen water mills.
The coolest dog in Avignon!
Practicing using the SENAs
We explore Avignon the following day and see where the water fountains are still frozen solid almost a fortnight after the big freeze. I set about charging and working out how the SMH10 headsets that I have work. SENA Bluetooth were kind enough to provide me with a set in exchange for featuring them in the video blog I make of Italy.
After a few stupid mistakes on my part (not reading the instructions properly) we get the headsets to work. We will know be able to talk to eachother all day on the bikes while riding through Italy. I realise this has the potential to go both ways.
Nicole has been teaching english to French primary schoolers since September last year. She heads off to work for the Monday and I play with the cat, Chagwi, who likes to hide in my stuff and then jump out at any moment and attack me. I get distracted trying to teach martial arts to the cat.
It is Tuesday night the day before and we are both excited but also struggling to work out how to fit all our camping gear plus enough clothes for both of us for the three weeks, plus spares and other necessary equipment on the bike.
Nic cooks dinner as I send out couch requests on Couchsurfers for the places we know we will definitely be going over the following weeks. Our basic route is to head to Nice and then follow the coastline to Pisa, head inland and spend a while in Tuscany and Umbria before heading south for Matera and then making our way back up along the Cilentro coastal road, Amalfi coast and then Rome. Nicole plans to catch the plane back to France for work while I head inland to Bologna for the Ducati factory as well as exploring more of that side of Italy.
Putting on the hippo hands.
We are up early the next day and pack the bike up. I play with the suspension for an hor to try and reduce the pressure on the suspension and the sag on the bike. It is riding awfully low.
The sun is shining, the weather is great and after a few false starts we are on the road.
More next week once I get photos off Nicoles camera of Italy. Her DSLR takes much better pictures.
Great photos - though it looks like you picked a crappy time of the year for a long ride! :mchappy:
Cheers! Yeah I didn't pick the best time of the year, although it means I will be in Europe for the summer which, fingers crossed, will be good.
Here is the latest clip which corresponds to a couple of written updates below. I am behind in the video blogs and ahead in the written.
AVIGNON-NICE-GENOA-CINQUE TERRE-PISA February 22-24
AVIGNON-NICE-GENOA-CINQUE TERRE-PISA FEBRUARY 22-24
With Nicole comfortable on the back we head off for Nice. It is the first time that I have had a pillion plus gear on the back of the bike. We are really pushing the bike at about 75% of it's recommended max weight capacity and the handling suffers noticibly. We settle into the road and chat on the intercom. Not wanting to pay for toll roads or pass by the scenery at a pace I set the GPS to avoid tolls. Using google the night before I had checked where a 'no tolls' route would take us. It was up through the mountains going over 1100 metres elevation. After checking the temperature forecast along the way I decided the mountains would be ok so long as we got through in the peak of the day.
We head towards Apt through vineyards and rustic farm houses. The sun shines golden on everything that is dry and brown from winter. A sense of warmth and optimism is created by the colours, overpowering the 8 degree air that blows through us. Rows of trees line the roads as is typical in this area and the sun flashes through them as we ride by. A beautiful but dangerous custom for motorcyclists.
We stop in Apt to pick up some fruit, olives, fromage and baguette. Nicole is fluent in French which makes everything in France a lot easier.
There are countless opportunities to pull over and take photos but we have to stay disciplined to make it through the mountains. Sometimes you pull the camera out to early and waste your battery then later on in the day when it really gets put on for you, no battery. I don't want that to happen.
A small side road is perfect for us to stop and eat some food. The temperature has risen and it is about 15 degrees so the layers come off and we soak up the sun. It is a perfect day, we are both full of enthusiasm for the weeks ahead. The local produce is rewarding, cheese, olives and wine are so good in this part of the world and a pinch of the cost that we would pay back home so we take the opportunity to dig in.
Back on the bike we head towards the snow capped mountains.
Every time we think the scenery can't get any better it astonishes us again. We are both beaming smiles, every third word is "wow", "woah", "look.. at.. that!". The tarmac is perfectly smooth, maintained and massive rock faces rise up on either side of the road. We follows a river that carves it's way through thick snow and to my surprise the temperature remains above 12 degrees despite the 100's of metres we gain in elevation.
We stop at an old train station that looks as though it may still get some use. There is a huge pile of snow and after a photo with the bike I can't resist spinning up the rear.
Up we climb and the road starts to carve into the cliff face, dropping off a hundred metres to one side. I am really enjoying the turns and the bike still has plenty of power despite the 175kg load. We pass through a giant hole cut out of the mountain face as we reach the top of the range at about 1000m.
We realise how lucky we are to be seeing this spectacle at this height. 2 weeks ago the temperature would have forbid us coming even close when temperatures were -10c. Today the temperature is perfect. In another 2 weeks all this snow will melt and the landscape won't be the winter wonderland it is today.
After riding past snow fields we decent around 20 hairpin turns to Castellane. The whole time we can see this church on the edge of a cliff overlooking the city. Nicole is eager to stop to get photos.
We climb again to elevation and have the choice between a route to Cannes or direct to Nice, our destination for the evening. Cannes it is. Our whole afternoon is winding roads up and down, around through the mountain range until late afternoon we finally peak through and can see the meditteranean for the first time. Like someone had flicked a switch the vegetation went from alpine to tropical. Palm trees line the roads. The houses are painted the typical meditteranean colours, ochres, madarins, maroons.
In Cannes we stop for a snack, crepes with nutella, as we watch old men play bocce in the park.
It is just after 5ish and the sun is starting to set, we pull over to take photos. It is up there with one of the best sunsets I have seen.
Carnavale is on and what was meant to be about an hour drive to Nice takes two. Finally we arrive, find a hostel and a safe place to chain up the bike before getting some cheap chinese food and pastries.
In the morning we say goodbye to Nice and head towards Italy. The sun is shining bright and warm. As we leave the city we climb up a hill to the east that gives us a pretty stunning view.
Following the coastline we take the scenic route. The road winds along the mountains that run into the ocean. It is busy with scooters constantly flying past and road works along the route. We are not making very good time but it doesn't really matter. Today is going to be a big day with about 5-6 hours riding on the bike. We got away from Nice around 10am and so hoping to get to Genoa by about 6:30pm.
Monaco is along the way and I have always wanted to see it so we stop through for a coffee at a little cafe called le Bambi. A lot of super yachts dock here. I have heard my friend Renee back home talk about working on the super yachts. Apparently it is a pretty good gig. There are 4 mid twenties sitting at a table next to us. A couple of british and maybe some Americans. One struggles with a "sil vous plait, one coffee please" to the waiter who responds in perfect english "One coffee for you." They are talking about what I can only assume is the owner of the yacht, who by the conversation, had a huge party the night before, leaving the yacht a mess and they had to clean it all up.
Not long after and we are at the border to Italy.
WE'RE IN ITALY!
There is a marked difference between ether side of the border. Immediately everything looks more disorganised, rustic, random, rough. I like it. I wait for the driving to get worse. Reportedly the Italians care very little for rules on the road.
The first thing I notice about the roads is the scooters. They are everywhere. I mean, they were there in France but here they are in droves, everywhere... they fly around the traffic, weaving in and out. You have to shoulder check every time you reposition the bike to make sure a scooter isn't about to fly past you.
Cars are not indicating, everyone is trying to cut corners to get ahead but somehow it works and I find my groove.
We stop for lunch on the beach. It is quiet apart from a man reading a book near us.
Half way through our lunch a plane flies low, directly over our heads.
We watch as it lands in the water.
5 minutes later the same plane goes past again.
It takes us a few times to realise that the plane is picking up seawater and flying it to a bush fire in the hills behind us. We notice two planes and a helicopter all working on the fire. People start to leave their houses to watch and the street gets busier.
We look fairly conspicuous and have bee getting our fair share of stares and attention. You can see in this photo the hand out the window on the left giving us the wave. They beeped and carried on when they went past us.
The night before we wrote down a few possible places to stay in Genoa. I am trying to preserve cash and I have suggested that we camp along the way. There are a lot of campsites on the maps and we have already passed many since leaving Nice. It is starting to get dark and we have been on the road a few hours since lunch. We see a campsite about half an hour from Genoa and stop in to enquire. Nicole hops off the bike to ask and I can hear her try to struggle a conversation in Italian. She comes back to the bike. They want 25 euros for us, the bike and the tent - each item gets a separate charge. I am used to paying maybe 5 euros a night for camping back in Australia. Cosidering we can stay in a hostel for 16 euros each, making it only 7 euro more expensive - we opt for the hostel.
It is completely dark by the time we near Genoa. I have the hostel address punched into the gps. Traffic is hectic and I am weaving and avoiding the whole way. We pass shipping yards and a port. They must run a lot of ferries into the mediterranean out of here. Completely slave to the GPS we start weaving back and forth up a hill. I come around a hairpin corner and a bus is coming straight for us. My instict pulls the bike to the left, to where the left lane would be and I have to fight it and pull quickly back to the right. The bus beeps and my stomach turns as our margin for error was very thin.
We get to the hostel at the top of the hill. It's an old school looking building with a view over the whole city. The Hostel is part of the 'Hostelling international' chain. It was my first experience with the chain and I wasn't impressed. First thing we were told that there were no shared dorms and that we would have to sleep in separate dorm rooms on different floors. It is handy being in the same room, you can watch over eachothers stuff while the other person showers etc. They also charged us 3 euro extra to buy a membership card for 'hostelling international', which is a bit of a sham as this is compulsory but not advertised online. In all the place was overpriced and felt like a hospital. Not much we could do though as it was the only hostel in the city. In retrospect, and for those ever in Genoa looking for cheap accommodation you would be better off paying the extra 5 euro and staying in a b&b. This Hostelling International comes from a time when YHA's and so forth required membership and were run like glorified school camps. Hostels have changed a lot since then except where competition is scarce. Enough whinging, back to the good stuff.
Our plan for today is to see the Cinque Terre and then make it to Pisa where we found a very cheap hostel online with good reviews.
Our route takes us straight back down the hill that we came up the night before. Genoa has a very industrial feel to it with everything built up the sides of the mountains by the sea. Massive viaducts cross overhead, it is the autoroute. The beamer display is telling me I only have 12 miles to go until I need to refill the bike and we are heading through the mountains. I search for fuel stops in the GPS and fine one about 20 k's away. This is becoming a habit for me as the range on the bike is only about 300k's and I keep trying to push it to the end each time to reduce the number of fuel stops we have to make. With only a couple of miles left on the hud we fill up with gas.
The woman at the hostel had told us that we would be able to ride into Riomaggiore from the north and the road was open. In october last year there was devastating flood through the area which destroyed a lot of buildings and roads in the cinque terre. You can see some pretty insan footage here Cinque Terre flood: Vernazza - YouTube It was hard to get reliable up to date news about what parts of the area were open so our plan was just to go there and find out.
We ride through the mountains which follow the coastline. It's a touch cold as we climb high but the sun is shining bright and the views straight out to the ocean are brilliant.
After a stop for some food we reach a fork in the road and a sign that says Strada Chiusa.
We knew that Strada meant road, but what the **** does Chiusa mean?
Logic and the interpretation of a red circle crossed in the middle planted right in the middle of the road would suggest it means closed. However our unbridled optimism and eagerness to see Cinque Terre has us searching our Italian travel phrase book for the word chiusa. A little 3 wheel piaggio comes past us with an old couple inside. We struggle a few phrases but the basic gist is that we have to go all the way around to La Spezia and come in the back way to get to Riomaggiore.
Just a sidenote on the 3 wheel Piaggios, these things are everywhere in Italy. A lot of farmers, builders and labourers in general use them to move their goods around. Originally they were just vespas with an extra wheel on the back and a tray but they have evolved into these things today. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo at the time and can't really see where to find any online. Either way, here is what they look like courtesy of wikipedia.
I play with the GPS to find the route we need to go consulting with Nicole. It is going to mean we won't get into Pisa until 7:30-8:00ish. We agree it's fine and we take a back road which is a little worse for wear and hasn't been repaired since the flooding.
We arrive at Riomaggiore and start the walk along the Cinque Terre, we are going to try and see 3 of the 5 towns in the day.
I am going to put in a fair few photos that Nicole took here because I think they are all great.
This must be a very 'romantic' thing to do. All along the walk couples have scrawled their names and initials on any possible surface. Even on plant leaves.
I think the idea here, which is becoming overdone in a lot of places, is to put your initials on a padlock and those of your partner. You lock the padlock somewhere and throw away the key. I had seen this on a bridge in Cologne 3 months prior. I read an article that in Dublin they had to remove them from the halfpenny bridge because so many had accumulated and were putting the structural integrity of the bridge at risk from the extra weight. The trend is everywhere over Europe and in Italy is gaining popularity here.
We get to Manarola where they are rebuilding still after the floods but most of it is back to normal. We stop for what is, brilliant and cheap coffee with tourist-priced gelati.
On the way back it must be that time of the day and all the older Cinque Terrians are out and about going for walks and sitting watching the sea. The women are knitting and then men are chatting and smoking.
As we are riding to Pisa the GPS takes us all the way to the end of a peninsula thinking that we can cross a bridge back to the mainland. The bridge is closed. It takes us another 45 minutes to get back around and so by the time we get through Viareggio and on to Pisa it is dark and cold. It drops down to 6 degrees and I have less warm gear on than normal. Nicole has her arms wrapped tightly around me though, keeping me warm and our conversation distracts me from how bloody cold it is. We finally make it into Pisa about half 8 and settle into our hostel for the night.
Pisa-lucca-pistoia - february 25-26
It is Saturday and we awake in Pisa. Our plans is to get to Pistoia, a town an hour from Florence and about 2 hours from Pisa. The night before, or maybe it was the one before that, we had confirmed with a Couchsurfer by the name of Alice to spend the weekend with her and her friends in Pistoia. Being in Pisa and only having a couple of hours there is only one, obligatory thing to do.
I had seen so many pictures of the Tower of Pisa in the past it was mostly just a trip to confirm that it had existed and tick the box to say I had seen it. Travelling has become a bit of a process;
Step 1: Decide on a country to go to.
Step 2: Google 'Things to do and see in 'country x'
Step 3: Find things that look interesting or amazing.
Step 4: See them in real life.
To be honest, this has been the process and I have found it does not entirely fulfill me. Maybe that is why I ride a motorbike. For me, it is less about the destination, but the way and the means. I like that I can look at a map and I know what the country looks like in the area. Flying into a city gives you no context of where that city sits in or the culture it draws on and permeates into the area surrounding. Like the Faithless song, I want more. I want to find things I wasn't expecting. I want to meet people that teach me new things. I want to expand the cup and not just fill it. Little did I know I was about to have one of the best travel experiences of my life that weekend.
I digress, back to Pisa. I doubt anyone reading this has not seen the tower, so I won't put any pictures up of it (solely). We have packed up everything onto the bike. As we circle the block we can see it popping out over buildings in our view. I think I accidentally double-dosed on my medication the night prior and I am feeling a little buzzed. We get a park a short walk from the tower. What you generally don't see in pictures of Pisa is the giant cathedrals or dumos next to the tower. I was expecting the tower to just stand out in the middle of a grassy patch with nothing else. Tourists are everywhere and I can smell freshly baked patries and coffee. Two patries down the hatch while I look at the kitsch souvenirs for sale in stalls that line all the side streets to the tower. It is the same mass produced souvenirs you see around the world. I heart PISA shirts and coffee mugs shaped on a slant like the tower itself.
There is a constant line of people taking photos to make themselves appear to be holding up or pushing over the tower of pisa. I find it more interesting to take photos of them, than the tower itself.
We leave Pisa and head towards Pistoia via Lucca having heard good things about the latter. After finding a spot to lock up the bike we go in search of coffee. The key is to try and find somewhere that isn't in the main tourist area. The logic being that it will be cheaper and that if it is where the locals go then they will have to work harder and make better coffee to get the business. I have one of those moments where you think you have forgotten to put the alarm on the bike on, paranoia gets the better of me and I go back to check. It's fine and when I return Nicole has struck up a conversation with a couple, they are from Australia and have been living in Lucca for over a year. They recommend a few places to go and we find coffee for 1 Euro.
It is by far the best coffee I have had on this side of the world. I have Nicole to blame for this as she worked for a coffee distributor in Australia and literally wrote a book on how to make good coffee. So when a coffee is bad, she explains to me why, like the beans have been overburnt, the milk is too watery. As a result my brain is now finely tuned to pick up subtle differences in coffee - that's right, I have become a coffee snob. I mean, I will still drink a nescafe instant for the caffeine fix but I enjoy a well made coffee.
A bit of a walk around the walls of Lucca and we are back on the road to Pistoia. As it is Saturday there are motorbikes everywhere. It has fnally warmed up enough for the Italians to get their bikes out and they love it. Everyone is friendly, waving to us on the bike and beeping their horns when they see that we have GB plates on.
We finally reach the train station in Pistoia and wait for Alice, pronounced A-lee-chay, to come and get us. She turns up with a huge smile on her face and we get the cheek kisses that are a standard greeting in this part of the world. That is between men and women, women and women, but men and men shake hands.
Couchsurfing is the sort of thing where you kind of have to just go with the flow. People approach it differently but I think it is most rewarding when you spend a lot of the time with the host. If you want all the time free to yourself to explore, couchsurfing is not really for you, pay $10 and get a hostel. So Alice told us that she was going to take us to a folk dancing event that night, then a BBQ the next day followed by swing dancing the next night. That was fine by us, so long as we could get a nap on the couch beforehand. Alice's boyfriend Lorenzo turns up and starts cooking up an Italian pasta for all of us. We chat about the time that Alice went and toured around Australia. Alice and Nicole get along really well, both with an artistic bent, they have a lot in common.
After a fantastic meal we head out to go folk dancing. I don't know what to expect. We turn up to what looks like some sort of community club. There are a couple of guys on a stage drinking and playing what looks like an accordion. Alice and Lorenzo know a few people there and get into the dancing fairly quickly. Nicole and I step back and watch for a bit. After a few songs Lorenzo grabs Nicole for a dance and I fight off Sara, one of Alice's friends who is trying to drag me onto the dance floor.
Nicole and Lorenzo.
Sara dancing on the right.
A group circle dancing song comes on, looks like something I could handle and so I jump in. I try and follow the steps of the others in the circle but it doesn't take long to realise nobody knows the actual steps and it's all a bit of improvisation.
It's a great night in the end, desite having no alcohol I manage to dance for a few hours.
The bike chained to a fence across the road from Alices apartment.
The next day we spend half the morning sleeping. After midday we head out for a BBQ at a friend of Alice's. Apparently they organise these BBQ's about once a month and everyone puts in 5 euro to help pay for the copious amounts of food and wine. The car winds up through the Tuscan hills until we reach a spot we have to walk from.
We arrive at a farmhouse that is built into the side of the mountain. A 20 metre long table sits a handfull of people drinking wine, we can smell the olive groves, lavender and wood burning on the fire. Everyone is smiling and laughing, the sun is shining warmth onto everything and everyone.
Everyone plays fetch with the two farm dogs.
Meat cooking on the BBQ, Italian style.
More people start to arrive, eventually around 50 people turn up for the BBQ.
Alice, our CS host and now friend, writes our names on cups so we can all start consuming the Italian wine.
Wine is drunk from a jug.
Bread always plays a big part in Italian meals, especially for Scarpetta - the practice of wiping ones plate clean with bread when finished a meal.
The pasta is finally finished and everyone is all smiles. It was great, this Italian guy was smiling and yelling as he served up everyone their pasta for lunch.
Everyone digs in for lunch.
Nicole is a happy camper.
Everyone is toasting as a couple at the BBQ have announced that they are going to have a baby. The bald guy sitting next to Nicole, we are told later, is a famous Italian soccer player.
After lunch we all headed up to a soccer pitch they had cut out on the hill above the house or a game of soccer.
Running into a group hug and celebration when we scored.
Relaxing afterwards and watching the sun set.
Nicole taking a nap on the grass.
Later that evening Alice took us to their weekly Sunday night swing dance session. Alice tells me that swing dancing is becoming very popular in Italy among the mid-twenties.
Nicole and I trying to learn the moves.
The instructor showing everyone how it is done.
A panini and a beer after the dancing and then it was bedtime for us. We got up the next morning to head to Florence. In all our stay with Alice was one of the best travel experiences I have had. It was simple but we just felt like we had experienced a slice of this Italian life, something that normal tourism can't offer. It was much better than just seeing statues and art galleries. I like this couchsurfing thing and plan to do a lot more of it in my travels.
Here is the latest video blog that covers up to the last written. Spent over 40 hours editing this one... more to come. Enjoy!
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