August 01, 2009 GMT
Closing the circle

I'm afraid this last blog will be short and probably not very well written – I'm so tired I just booked and paid for a non-refundable Eurotunnel ticket at 3am instead of 3pm. Not a happy bunny! It seems I can navigate happily round Eastern Europe for 3 months without getting excessively lost, but give me a booking website and I'm a babe in the woods.

Slovenia ended on a high. After playing email ping-pong for days, I finally managed to catch up with my friends Beej and Chris (fellow HUBBers) in Bovec. They'd left me a message saying where they were camped, and although they weren't there when I turned up it's not hard to spot a teepee tent with two GB bikes next to it! I'd already booked rafting for that afternoon so pitched the tent, left them a note, and headed off to get very wet riding the rapids of Soca river. There'd been a huge storm the night before (I woke to find the bike on its side, the stand sunk into mud that had been hard ground!), and the river was more than twice its usual height for the season, which made for some seriously good rapids – our guide, a young Irish guy called Derek who'd fallen in love with Slovenia and moved there, said some bits were the best he'd ever done them!

It turned out Beej and Chris had gone for the hardcore option of canyoning and rafting in the same day, so that evening although we talked of cooking we all ended up taking advantage of the campsite's restaurant. The next day we parted ways, as they were staying in Slovenia while I carried on to Venice. It was a strange but pleasant interlude in a world of new faces.

I'd been told again and again that Venice in the summer would be hot, humid, smelly, overcrowded and overpriced. I'd also been very limited in my choice of hotels because of the bike, and was worried I'd ended up with a bland corporate option on the mainland. As it turned out everything was perfect: the hotel staff gave me a wondrous “Alone? On a motorbike?”, and the tall, dark, handsome male receptionist suggested he would have taken me on a tour of the city himself if he hadn't already had a dinner engagement – every Italian stereotype in one! The room was comfortable and very pleasant, and there was a bus to the city from a few minutes' walk away.

I showered, changed, and went to explore Venice. For the first time on the trip I had a guidebook, although I'd bought it in Slovenia and the only thing they had was a Lonely Planet. I'd planned to visit the modern art museum at Ca' Pesaro as it was closed on Mondays but open till 6 on Sundays, but when I got there at just gone 4 I discovered that was complete nonsense and it closed at 5, whilst still being shut on Mondays. So I boat-hopped out to the islands, then set about finding a nice place to eat – at which point Lonely Planet let me down once again, as their map is often pure fantasy! Venice is a hugely confusing place, but to mark on it streets that don't physically exist, and clearly have never existed, is not helpful.

Eventually I found pizza, which was OK though not exceptional – it turned out I was round the corner from the place I was looking for! But never mind. When I made it back to the hotel, it was to find a world music concert going on in the square outside. I listened until the end, which was only a couple of songs later, then retired to bed.

Next morning I rose early to beat the crowds. And it worked! I took vaporetto 1 along the Grand Canal, and there was barely anyone on it. Arriving in St Mark's Square I found it to be similarly devoid of crowds, though the queue for the basilica was already easily half an hour – given my limited time I decided to pass on queuing and spend the time more profitably exploring the rest of the town. I went to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art, and then to the Accademia Gallery which houses a selection of classical italian religious art. I must confess that although the former fascinated me, I only really went to the latter because I felt I ought to, and it did as expected leave me fairly cold. I was impressed by the techniques, but red winged heads of bodiless cherubs have never been my thing, nor have bored-looking martyrs pierced by arrows!

From then on I mostly wandered. I found my way to an excellent little bar for lunch, where they serve chichetti, the Venetian equivalent of tapas. The place was very full, and as I was alone at a 4-person table I was joined by Fay and Kate, an American mother and daughter. Kate lives in Parma and is studying food culture, and we all ended up dipping into each other's dishes – I ate octopus salad, snails, cuttlefish cooked in its own ink, and baby octupus, all excellent!

After lunch I carried on with my meanderings. One thing Lonely Planet did get right is the fact that very few tourists venture off the tourist trail, which mostly consists of a few streets around St Mark's Square. Step a few feet left or right, and you can be completely alone. It's not unusual to cross a canal on a deserted bridge, and look across to the next one where it's impossible to move for tourists! Add to that the fact that a pleasant breeze blew through most of the city, and that important things like ice-cream are cheaper than in either Bled or Croatia, and I felt that anyone who hates Venice in summer isn't trying hard enough!

After another sumptuous meal, this time of lobster, pasta, and crema di mascarpone, I made it back to the hotel, only to find yet another concert going on outside the hotel! This band were clearly more well-known, as not only were there far more people than the previous night, but they were all singing and dancing along. The next morning I desperately tried to convince myself that I had the time and money to stay in Venice another day, but reason eventually prevailed and I left.

I had hoped to spend a couple of nights with friends in Bordeaux on the way back, but unfortunately they were away on holiday until the night before, so I didn't get their email until too late! Instead I took back roads through northern Italy (lakes heaving, Dolomites much nicer!) and into Switzerland, because I could, and 15 countries clearly wasn't enough! Switzerland was the only place apart from Durmitor where the scenery made me catch my breath and laugh out loud. It's stunning – snow on the mountains, jagged peaks, roads that go under waterfalls, waterfalls that are everywhere. Right next to my campsite was one that plunged what looked like a good hundred meters off a cliff, falling free to the rocks below – when I woke in the morning a breeze had picked up so it fell sideways, landing on a different patch of rock.

The three days after Venice were long, hard days of riding though. I have now closed the circle and made it back to my parents' house near Paris (though they're away visiting my sister). Since arriving last night I have been in an exhausted daze – the last few months seem intangible, out of focus. The final push will take me back to Edinburgh, with very mixed feelings. Amusingly there will be one final touch of the trip: the tandem riders I met on the Moldova-Romania border are arriving in Edinburgh on the same day as I am, so we will meet, before I settle, as if I too were only pausing for a moment before carrying on my journey.

Posted by Laura Bennitt at 07:17 PM GMT
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Croatia 2
Venice and the ride home

Posted by Laura Bennitt at 07:21 PM GMT

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