April 02, 2009 GMT
Starting in April 2009, I will be travelling round Europe on a 650 Transalp for around 4 months. The first month will be spent in France researching and writing for Rough Guides, then I head east towards Ukraine and the Balkans. During this time, my other half Tim will be seeking work clearing landmines, so it's all change for both of us! Hopefully this trip will be the first of many!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 11:18 PM
April 06, 2009 GMT
Here we go!
After a wonderful couple of days at my friends Chris and Natalie's wedding, I've ridden hundreds of miles of motorway to my parents' house near Paris. It's only a brief stop though, and today I carry on down to the Lot, where I start my Rough Guide work. More motorways...
Oh, and for anyone who was at the wedding, it takes just over 3 hours to get from Bristol to Dover on a Sunday. So all my worrying about whether allowing 4 hours would be enough was in vain - I came off the M25 with 1hr45 to go thinking, if Dover is over a hundred miles away it could be tight. "Dover - 62" said the sign. Oh well that's alright then! And I made the earlier ferry. And remembered to ride on the right.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 08:42 AM
April 08, 2009 GMT
And so it begins... Badly!
I wasn't going to add another entry this quickly, so don't get used to it. But I thought you might be amused to hear about my first 24 hours of actual independent motorbike travel. Plus my hotel is being renovated and the building down the road is being sandblasted, so the library is infinitely more peaceful!
I left my parents' at about 11 on Monday morning, only about half an hour behind schedule so not doing too badly. France is a big country as we all know, and even with fast empty motorways it was a long ride down. As I headed south I even started to feel hot, whilst riding, on the motorway!! Which had to be a good sign.
At what I hoped would be my last fuel stop I decided to check the directions to the campsite, with the aim of not having to stop again. Check the book. No directions. OK, I thought, I'll have got it out of the guide, so what do they say? Nothing. Clearly I didn't get it out of the guides, this was one of my cunning finding-new-places moments. I didn't seem to have a phone number either. Oops. All I could remember was that it was west of Agen. A couple of the village names on the maps sounded familiar, so I headed that way. And guess what - I found it first time with no stops, confusion or U-turns!!!
Three things I like about riding in France: there aren't too many people on the roads; they signpost campsites and hotels clearly and from miles away; and you can park motorbikes anywhere they're not in the way. French bikers ride like nutcases though - I'll filter at 10-20mph through stationary traffic; they filter at 70 through traffic doing 70!!!
Anyway, back to the story. You're probably wondering about the title by now. So here goes.
After pitching my tent I cast off some layers and rode into Agen for some food. Just as I left, the rain started. First time in the entire journey that I haven't had full waterproofs and it's pissing it down. By the time I got back to the tent I was drenched. Still, I draped everything out to dry (yeah right) and went to sleep to the sound of happy frogs.
The plan was to cover 3 towns on my first day, and get an idea of how realistic my schedule was for the rest of the trip. Up early, shower, rearrange things, put on wet jacket, tankbag on bike, check time - 1am according to the bike's clock. Uh-oh. The only other time the clock died was when the battery died. Sure enough, any attempt to fire the bike up was met with complete silence. There goes the schedule...
So, on my first proper day, I called Carole Nash, and after a hugely long, expensive (for Mum's mobile!!) conversation including details of my bike, establishing that the registration they have is not mine, giving them the right one, telling them all my hugely vague plans and no, I don't have a ferry ticket booked for in 4 months time, they sent out a very nice dépanneur, who turned out to be a biker. He duly took me to Honda who sold me an insanely expensive battery (I knew I avoided dealers for a reason - that's two rip-off prices in a month!!) and saw me on my way.
And I still managed to get everything done, and am now in sunny Agen in a hotel no less. Next post will hopefully have some photos!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 03:21 PM
April 11, 2009 GMT
I'm afraid I can't figure out how to get photos small enough for the blog on the eee, so they're on facebook for the time being: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=89744&id=646461975&l=68d01cdff2
That's all for tonight, I'm on slow stolen internet, waiting for things to dry out, and feeling a wee bit guilty at having taken the indoor option rather than going to my campsite, especially since when I phoned to cancel the campsite people said they had no intention of letting me sleep in a tent and had prepared a caravan for me. Oh dear. At least they'll still be going in the guidebook for being really friendly!!!
PS sorry sean, the photo of your house didn't arrive with the email, get it to 300pixels wide and 50kb and it can have the honour of being the only photo actually on the blog!!!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 09:44 PM
April 23, 2009 GMT
Rather a lot has happened after the last post, which is part of why I haven't written anything in a while (the other part being that rural France doesn't have much wifi kicking around, and I've been a bit busy to go looking for internet cafés, which are also few and far between).
I woke up on the morning of Easter Sunday to find myself mostly still surrounded by wet things. The chambre d'hote was very swish, but didn't have much in the way of heating! Mind you, given that it was still pissing it down, starting off dry would have been a nice luxury but not something that was going to last. So I packed up, and carted the first load down (bumping into the owner on the way – I think he thought I was trying to do a runner!). Came back, paid up, carted the second load down, unlocked the disc lock, kitted myself up, put the key in the ignition...and only then did I notice that the clock display wasn't telling any time at all. The new, expensive battery Honda had sold me was completely and utterly flat. In the rain. On Easter Sunday.
So it was back on the phone to Carole Nash, who this time were convinced I own a Harley and live in Taunton. Amazingly they still decided to provide me with breakdown cover (thank goodness!), so I settled down on the bench outside Bruniquel's tourist office. Bruniquel is quite resolutely closed at lunchtimes and in fact for most of the afternoon, but I was amazed at their lack of dedication to bank holidays, as both the tourist office and the shop were open on Easter Sunday, the latter manned by a friendly football fan who is desperate to visit Ukraine (apparently because of football, some of you may understand the connection, I don't!).
A couple of hours later my recovery man turned up in a bright green van. After informing me that it was impossible to kill a Transalp, he concluded that there wasn't much he could do and loaded it into the back, while I tried to figure out where I wanted to go – luckily he was used to dealing with breakdown people and informed me that Axa would pay for a taxi to take me anywhere I needed to be! Which was helpful, as the only place he could take me was Montauban, which I'd already done, and I was going to be stranded for at least 2 days.
So the bike headed off to Montauban, to another Honda dealer, while I waited for a taxi to Cahors, the only place I could usefully fill two days. The taxi driver was another biker, who had recently swapped his bike for a jetski, which he showed me pictures of on his phone as we raced at insane speeds through pouring rain. He also informed me that it was impossible to kill a Honda of any description.
Cahors may be a large town, and presumably something of a tourist attraction as all its hotels were full or nearly, but its tourist office is resolutely closed on anything resembling a Sunday, bank holiday, or in fact any time when people might actually want to visit the place. So I checked out a few restaurants (a lot of which were also closed at varyious mealtimes, so scheduling became of utmost importance), some hotels and the cathedral. Eventually Tuesday, day of revelations, dawned.
I rang the garage, and was relieved to hear that they did in fact have my bike, though not so reassured to hear that they couldn't do anything at all until the battery was fully charged (it seems Honda dealers don't do cross-plugging). But they would call me later. Eventually I called them back, and was told it still wasn't charged, and it might need parts. On to Carole Nash again. No, my registration does not start with a W. Can I have a hire car? I have work to do. Yes of course. Matters were slightly complicated by the fact that, as we found out in Bruniquel, Carole Nash can't reach me on Mum's mobile. Everyone else can, though, and they can call any other number, so from here on in every message had to go via Mum, who then called me to relay it. After 45 minutes I'd heard absolutely nothing, so I called back, only to be told that they couldn't do anything because Europcar close at 12 and it's now quarter past. Idly I wondered what happened between 11.30 and twelve, then went for lunch.
The girl at Carole Nash had said to make my way to Europcar for when they opened, so I did. Europcar in Cahors is a good half hour walk along a main shopping road. I arrived hot and sweaty, only to be told that they didn't have a car, because the woman had been told I needed it indefinitely for a one-way hire, and had visions of me returning her car to Paris in a month's time. Once I'd reassured her that 3 days would do, and I could return it to Cahors if necessary, she found one. Which, in a bizarre coincidence, was then to be rented to the owner of a hotel I'd visited the previous day. (As she was on her own she asked me to return it straight to the hotel, which I did, a day early. She then called the owner to say she'd be round the next day with the paperwork. I was a little confused!)
So for two days my research continued with the aid of a horrible little Opel thing you couldn't see round corners in, and I missed being able to just park anywhere, though it was nice to be dry!!
Eventually on the Wednesday I received a call saying the bike was fixed, so I headed back to Cahors, dropped off the car, and proceeded to wait an hour and a half for a taxi (Cahors-Montauban is about half an hour on the train, and I'd dropped the car off next to the station. Sometimes having someone else paying doesn't make it easier!) It turned out to be the same taxi driver, who also knew the owner of the Honda garage in Montauban, which was handy as there was no way we were going to make it before they closed, so we called ahead for them to stay open.
When I arrived, the mechanic presented me with a beautiful, clean machine, that bore little resemblance to the muddy lump of metal I'd last seen in Bruniquel. Apparently there had been two problems: firstly the heated grips stayed on when you turn off the ignition, so he'd disconnected them. I decided not to point out that as they were wired straight to the battery that was normal, and I still haven't worked out where he disconnected them! He also found some corrosion on the alternator, which was preventing the battery from charging, so he'd cleaned that and checked all my electrical connections – though somehow in doing so he'd missed the fact that one of the indicators was disconnected! So I wasn't hugely confident as I left, and felt that maybe next time I'd use a jet wash rather than a Honda garage to clean the bike, as it would be cheaper. Though so far my misgivings have proved unfounded, as the bike is still running, so maybe he was a better mechanic than he seemed. And I didn't have the heart to tell him that cleaning a touring bike headed for a campsite in the rain was a waste of time.
I made it to my campsite and pitched my tent just before the thunderstorm struck. Twenty minutes later, when it was finally safe to emerge, the whole world shone with orange light, and the cliffs above the campsite glowed gold in the setting sun. It was almost a sight worth getting soaked for.
Since then it has mostly been about lots of hard work, desperately trying to keep track of what I'd covered and where I'd been – the breakdown meant quite a lot of rearranging for the precise scheduling! But the hard work has paid off, and bar an insane number of “fermeture exceptionnelle” of tourist offices (to the extent that if they're normally open 7 days a week, but someone is ill one morning, that's the morning I'll turn up – I had to go to Luzech 3 times before I found them open!), I've managed to get everything done fairly painlessly. I've met some lovely people, and visited some beautiful hotels and chambres d'hote (including one set in a park full of 200-year-old trees from around the world), and eaten some very nice food.
All I have to do now is lots and lots of sorting through notes and brochures, and plenty of writing!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 10:23 PM
May 08, 2009 GMT
On the move again
There's a stage in packing when you know you've forgotten something. You know, because everything fits, and you're really tempted to throw your hands in the air and shout “Yes!” I packed. It all fitted. I looked around, and couldn't see anything else. I took my topbox downstairs, and stashed the random bits of toolage under the seat.
“You know you've got a whole load of maps through in the living room, don't you?” said Mum.
I've spent the last two weeks at my parents', just outside Paris. It's been less relaxing than I would have liked, as the first six days or so were spent at the computer, eight hours a day, typing up my chapters for Rough Guide to Dordogne & Lot, then dealing with the (sometimes rather bizarre) queries the editors had about the Northern England and Scotland stuff I researched & wrote a couple of months ago. I dealt with that just in time for Tim (my boyfriend) to make it over for 48 hours, and now suddenly it's time to go again.
Staying here has been lovely but odd, especially as I don't have a home of my own at the moment. It almost feels like I've stepped back in time: days of work interspersed with time spent roaming the countryside, dinner with the parents, familiar shops and places and faces. But at the same time plenty has changed, and I can't forget that it's been nearly ten years since I last spent any time here. Checking out details of a hostel near Fort William, I saw photos of Glen Nevis, and was reminded of how much I love the Scottish scenery, the wildness that you just don't get here. With no idea where I'll eventually end up being based, I think there'll always be something I miss about wherever I'm not; it's just a matter of finding the best balance.
So tomorrow morning I head east towards Germany. I'm not expecting to make it to the border in one day: not only am I taking the scenic route, but the chances of me leaving at a sensible time are slim to none, and I don't want to rush. Besides, there is definite appeal to spending my first proper night travelling somewhere I at least speak the language! Although I'm not expecting any real likelihood of difficulty until at least Slovakia (which I still know very little about, incidentally, it seems to be generally ignored!). The hardest thing for me will be to take it easy – I'm not very good at going slowly, not in terms of riding but in terms of covering ground. My intention is never to ride beyond dinner-time, and I think sticking to that will be an excellent move towards enforced relaxation! Walking around Paris with Tim I realised it had been months since we enjoyed a day off together, even before I left for France – what is it that always takes up the time? Who knows, but whatever it is, it's definitely time to take a step back from it.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 10:08 PM
I promised my friend Sean that if he sent me a photo of his house, I would put it in my blog. So, here is the house I stayed in in London:
It's a very nice house, and I'm very grateful to Sean and Lisa for letting me stay there!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 10:18 PM
May 14, 2009 GMT
Europe in the rain
It's been a few days since I set off. My plan is to write blog entries in my own time, and then simply type them up when I find an internet cafe. So this is being written on a campsite in the German Alps, near Berchtesgarden. It's not the best campsite I've ever stayed on, seeing as it's right next to a main road, and basically sited on rock - great for campervans, not so good for tents!
Last night however, was much better. There I pitched my tent on soft earth, overlooking a lake on one side, and with the beginnings of the Alps soaring overhead on the other. The lake was half dried up, leaving expanses of earthy beach, perfect for a wander after a long day's ride.
And they have been long days. Partly because France, Germany and Austria were always going to be about just riding through, via scenic routes but without much stopping. And partly because it keeps raining - I haven't had a dry day yet, and relaxing lunch stops keep getting cut short by the need to swathe myself in waterproofs as the drops start falling. The first day was the worst: four and a half hours of solid rain! I nearly decided to return to the dry parental home and try again the next day - only the (well-founded!) suspicion that the next day might not be any better made me ignore that option. My boots are only just dry now, after four days and twenty minutes under a campsite hairdryer - and that's with a night in a youth hostel to dry out! Still, it has got slightly better, and at least I haven't yet had to pitch a tent in the rain!
Weather nonsense aside, I have so far ridden through some stunning scenery on very twisty roads. Germans seem to close some of their roads to bikers, with little warning, no alternative directions, and nowhere else to go. So far I´ve ridden two of them, as the first one was signed at the start of a series of hairpins, and the second one at the entrance to a tunnel, neither of which makes stopping or turning round an option! But the only consequence was to be shouted at by a cyclist, and followed by a securitas car, which may have had nothing to do with me, but if it did probably decided that a foreigner was likely to be actually going somewhere, not just out for a jolly, and they soon turned off again.
I´m now in Austria, in Melk. I´ve visited the abbey, which is very impressive but a little baroquely excessive for my tastes. I tried to visit Hitler´s retreat in Berchtesgarten, but annoyingly it didn´t open for another two days - though the ride up to it on a 24% hill was quite exciting for first thing in the morning! Today I carry on through Austria to Neusiedlersee, then it´s off into the great unknown of Slovakia tomorrow!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 09:47 AM
May 16, 2009 GMT
After leaving Melk, I rode along the Danube, which is predictably wide and impressive, though very definitely not blue! I was surprised to see occasional rocky outcrops and hills between the vineyards, for some reason I expected the landscape to be completely flat.
My sightseeing record did not improve, however. The road to the runied castle at Aggstein was being dug up, and had been reduced to muddy bulldozed ruts. So I carried on to Krems, site of another monastery where I proceeded to get determinedly lost. When I eventually found the monastery, I could barely see it. Perched as it is a couple of hundred meters abover the river, it sat swathed in mist, its candy-cane ink and whiet towers looming eerily through the clouds. I did visit, in spite of the fact that the reception staff seemed quite put out to be asked for a ticket. The interior in itself is more interesting than at Melk, as all the walls are onately painted with birds, landscapes and hunting scenes, but as a museum they have done less with it. I was however amused to find myself surrounded by truss and staging as they set up for a conference!
After that stop the weather worsened constantly. For the second time in six days I rode through hours of rain - I even had to put on my extra fleece for warmth: a digital sign in one of the villages read 10 degrees! Only the fact that I was nowhere near anything of interest, coupled with eternal hope that it might get better, kept me going. Eventually, after taking three and a half hours to cover just over 100km due to poor visibility, I made it to Rust, on the Neuseidlersee. I'd decided long before that to stay in a hotel, and I'd been staving off visions of warmth and luxury, knowing that the higher my expectations the more likely I was to be disappointed.
I managed to miss Rust town centre first time round, but on the second attempt I spotted a small hotel. Dripping wet and shivering, I squelched to the door. It would have been only natural for the owner to recoil in horror at this soaked apparition, but instead she hustled me in, gave me a room, and held my hands in hers to warm them! And you know what? It was perfect, a lovely little attic room with a hairdryer for wet boots and a phone so Tim and parents could call me.
Tim checked the weather forecast for me. Bratislava: rain, Vienna: sun, so I decided to make an exception to my "no cities" rule and hole up in Vienna for a day or so.
Friday dawned dry if not bright. I headed for the Neusiedlersee, an area of marshland known for its wildlife, and wandered for a few hours, spotting egrets, lapwings, hares, a deer, and lots of geese with their goslings. Just after lunch I headed Vienna-wards. I stoppped off in one of the villages to make a phone call, and as I got off the bike a tall skinny man with too few long yellow teeth examined my licence plate.
"From where you come?"
"Ah!" He broke into a wide grin and gave me an appreciative thumbs-up. "I from Hungary." He pointed. "You just one?"
I said yes, and showed him on the map where I planned to go. Another big grin and thumbs up, and off he went.
Thirty seconds later, as I took off the tank bag, he was back.
"You have money for me? One euro?"
I'm sure when I started travelling ten years ago you weren't expected to pay for every conversation, now it seems to be the standard parting word.
I called Dad's colleague in Vienna and gave her the hostel address I'd written down.
"Oh that's easy, it's right next to the West Bahnhof, one of the major train stations. Just follow signs for the centre then ask someone."
Which I duly did - and spent two and a half hours riding round Vienna. Every time I asked, I was told it was too complicated to explain, but that I wanted to be going in the opposite direction - not easy when you're on a four-lane one-way express road! Eventually I spotted a petrol station, and begged tearfully for assistance. Whereupon a very nice manplucked a map off one of the shelves and showed me - it was so easy! Clearly the Viennese, like Londoners, simply don't drive in the city. Any one of the people I'd asked could have sent me a long but easy-to-explain route to where I needed to be!
After a pleasant evening at the hostel bar with some much-needed beer, I walked into town today. Vienna is elegant, expensive, full of tourists and interesting museums. I watched the Spanish Riding School exercising their horses and went to an exhibition of old maps, including some from Roman times of where I'm going. Mine are definitely more accurate, but lack pretty little pictures of villages and wildlife! I also ate ice-cream and walked, walked, walked. But the one thing Vienna didn't have was sunshine: it's been cold, and grey, and occasionally wet. Although I did manage 36 hours without rain, which is an achievement in itself, so I should be grateful for small mercies!
Tomorrow I head for Slovakia, and hope for sunchine. If none appears, I may just head south, and make this a Mediterranean trip instead! Although apparently only Spain and Portugal have sun at the moment, and that's a long way to go! Or I could go home - I'm told Scotland has been beautiful...
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 05:43 PM
May 20, 2009 GMT
I left Vienna under blue skies and brilliant sunshine. Hallelujah! The night before had involved much late-night drinking and talking, so I left late after a leisurely breakfast. I'd also found a Guide du Routard for Slovakia in the hostel, so marked the highlights on my map, and talked bikes with a Mexican guy who's planning a trip through South America on his V-Strom.
Leaving Vienna was relatively straightforward, and I followed the Danube east, though it was hidden for most of the way. I wanted to avoid Bratislava, so had picked what my map terms a `local border crossing` to enter Slovakia. It had occurred to me that this might be a waste of time on a Sunday, but sunshine makes you easy going so I tried anyway.
No doubt it would have been closed not long ago, but EU entry has removed the need for border guards. The border itself is a river, and you cross via a tiny ferry - basically a raft with an outboard motor. My brain has finally accepted that the more daunting a situation the more confidently I have to ride, and I made my way on board with no hesitation or deviation.
Slovakian roads are somewhat hit and miss: most are perfectly accesptable, but you'll occasionally find very good and very bad sections. The countryside in the western half has been largely uninspiring: roads follow the broad flat valleys, taking you tantslisingly close to the hills but rarely actually in them, instead feeding you through endless small towns with huge trucks.
The first thing I noticed in Slovakia was bikes. Lots of cruisers, but also hundreds and hundreds of sportsbikes. As I rounded the crest of a hill after a particularly twisty section I realised why: this was clearly a Sunday run, not only for locals but also for Czech and Austrian bikers.
I found my first port of call, a castle in Casta, with no real difficulty, and spent a pleasant hour wandering. They also have falconry displays, so I sat in the sun and watched eagles, hawks and owls swoop around.
Then the difficulties began. My map has hundreds of campsites marked on it, but it would seem most, especially the more remote and appealing ones, no longer exist. At the first place I triued I was directed to one not far away, and even found a signpost. Only one though, and I rode round for a long time, asked some locals, and had to take my panniers off to squeeze round some barriers before finally finding some tents and a small bar. A happy drunk local dragged me in, and would have kept me there indefinitely, but luckily the barmaid spoke excellent English, and explained that the tents belonged to fishermen. She directed me to yet another place, but I decided to give up, head for the nearest town and find a hotel.
Halfway there I noticed three BMWs in my wing mirrors. They stayed with me all the way to Trnava, where we all stopped and decided to join forces in finding a hotel. The three were Germans heading for Azerbaijan, where one of their fathers is an ambassador. After riding round town we established there was only one hotel open, so we went for it.
The next morning we headed our seperate ways. I wandered round Trnava, which is very pretty, then failed to find a UNESCO World Heritage castle. I succeeded on my second castle, which was closed but picturesque, and also made it to Cismany, a small village where they paint their houses with abstract designs in white.
I was fully prepared to have to find a hotel, but amazingly passed an open, operational campsite! After four days packed and wet, the tent was damp and musty, and the thermarest had started to go molday. Everything dried and aired, but a huge storm overnight meant I had to wait while the sun warmed up and dried everything again. The birds liked it though, and kept perching on the tent to sing!
Eastern Slovakia is infinitely more picturesque than western slovakia. Almost immediately after leaving my campsite I was riding through a beautiful valley on the edge of the Mala Fatra national park. I finally managed to visit a castle, at Oravsky Podzamok. It was first built in the fifteenth century, teetering on a rock above the village, and it's everything a medival fortress should be, with a drawbridge, turrets, and rooms full of swords.
The guided tour was greatly enlivened by the presence of lots of people to talk to. Chris is an American, also a biker, with a Slovakian wife, and he loved the idea of having a life where you can take three months off to travel! I think American get a lot less holiday than we do, so even three weeks would be a long trip. The other couple was also mixed: Duncan is English and his girlfirend Lunu (I think!) is Slovakian. I clicked with them straight away, and whe we parted got a hug from Duncan and a kiss from Lunu, which I found very touching.
After that the rain set in - thunder and lightning and a downpour so heavy I had to shelter in a bus stop for a while. Eventually the storm and I parted ways, though I did later encounter a road flooded not with water but with very thin, slippery mud, meaning the bike and I are now rather reddish-brown in colour! There was enough blue sky to make me decided to stick to my plan of riding through the Tatras, which was definitely the right decision as it's a stunning place. The sun was warming wet roads and trees, so mist hung in the valleys while the snowy peaks rose to sharp points above me.
Duncan and Lunu had warned me that more storms were forecast that night, so I found a small pension in the village of Dedinsky, on the edge of a reservoir in the beautiful Slovak Paradise national park. The pension was run by Jozef, a wonderfully eccentric old man, who danced around and used me as translator for the two Australians who later joined me in the restaurant.
The original plan for today was to make it over to Ukraine, however at the Dominca cave, one of the biggest in the world, I met a group of Slovak students, who had spotted me and my bike elswhere the day before. They invited me to join their tour, so I did, and Martin, Mayo and Lucas, as well as their teacher, made my visit far more memorable than it would otherwise have been!
The tour took longer than expected, so I will spend the rest of today riding round scenic roads, and spend the night near the border, ready to attack Ukraine tomorrow!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 01:43 PM
May 23, 2009 GMT
So here I am in Ukraine - the biggest, most daunting and most foreign of all the countries on my route, the one everyone warned me against, where I can't even read anything.
I woke early on my last day in Slovakia, and set off after a half-eaten breakfast (scrambled eggs with tomatoes, peppers and onions may sound great, but when the tomato is ketchup and the whole thing is made in the microwave it bears an uncanny resemblance to vomit)/ I was fully prepared for a long wait at the border, and stocked up on food and cash. I couldn't find fuel, but including the jerry-can I had half a tank, so decided to go ahead.
I rode round and through the long lines of motionless trucks, and pulled up behind the cars. On first approaching I'd thought I could see bikes, but no sign of them on arrival. A guy in a tracksuit was walking the line of cars collecting passports and car papers. No-one else was questioning him, so I handed mine over. One car at a time we moved forwards. Then it was my turn. The guard wanted to see the engine number. I have to confess I had no idea where it was. Amusingly the only person who did know was the one femals border guard! After wiping off layers of dirt, the first guard held up his dirty finger mock-accusingly, then laughed as I offered to give him a baby-wipe.
Off I went into no-man's-land. I hadn't imagined it: ahead of me was a group of Austrian bikers, who wandered over to introduce themselves. They also warned me they'd been told to give the official 5 euros if they wanted to get through quickly.
Before that stage I still had paperwork to complete and forms to fill in. There was no sense of urgency, and I didn't even get the impression that much accuracy was required - when I said I had no accommodation booked and so couldn't put a receiving address, the guard thought for a while as if this had never happened before, and said 'just put Ukraine'. Fair enough! Customs was even easier, a short queue, two stamps, and away! I managed to get a smile out of most of the officials, a wave out of one, no-one asked me for any money, and the whole process took well under an hour!
If Slovakian roads are hit and miss, Ukrainian roads are all about missing - missing holes, cows, horses, people, police, all of whom populate roads that are frequently missing tarmac. Potholes is one thing, but an 11-km stretch that is mostly gravel, ruts and dirt is something else. Many grateful thoughts went out to Dazzer, Basil, Neil & co for their patience in Yorkshire, without that experience I would never have been able to do what I did and just ride through it! Although thank goodness it was dry...
I managed to ride through my intended overnight stop without even realising it, so ended up in a motel on the main road, in a room decorated with more leopard-print than one person should be exposed to in a lifetime! The place was seemingly run byt three young girls with no English whatsoever, and we all got very exctied when I managed to order dinner with a combination of pictures and lucky guesses.
Ukraine is an hour ahead of the rest of Europe, but I had no difficulty in wiping out the time difference, as by 9pm local time I was more than ready for bed! Which of course meant I woke up absurdly early. The plan for day 2 was to head for Kamyanets-Podilsky, a city ringed by a river. 250km may not sound much, but it made for a long day's riding. The roads were mostly better than on day 1, though riding through freshly-poured tarmac that hasn't even been properly flattened yet made for an interesting experience. The Carpathians aren't as scenic as I expected, though I love the Ukrainian churches, with their silver and gold onion-domes. I also bumped into the Austrians again, who all took photos of me to prove I exist, and expressed great awe at what I was doing. Although it seems that the police at least were more lenient with me than with them!
The police are the major annoyance on the roads here. Cows are picturesque, ruts are challenging, coppers are neither. I have been stopped three times in two days, which isn't too bad. Times one and three they accused me of speeding; you have no way of knowing if you were or not, as the speed limits are seemingly arbitrary and completely undisplayed. The first one was blatantly a lie as he accused me of doing 100kph, which is a speed I only dream of here!! One thing I have found though is that Ukrainian coppers lack patience. None of them so far have been able to speak English, and clearly expect me to panic and get my wallet out. When I didn't, but instead looked baffled, apologised lots, and said 'I don't understand', they very quickly ran out of means to explain what they wanted, got bored, and sent me on my way. The last lot even made sure I knew where I was going and which roads to take first!
The second pair to stop me were just checking my documents, and thought I was absolutely hilarious - a clear case of mad foreigner, providing excellent-value entertainment.
Apart from the cops, I love riding here. It's hard work, but for the first time I feel like I'm on an adventure, travelling by bike because it's the best way to go. Up until now the bike hadn't seemed any better or worse than a car or train, just different. But here, where there is so much to see, where every detail is new and interesting, it truly makes a difference not being enclosed. It's precisely the point where you stop being able to speed round corners that motorbike travel comes into its own.
Today is my last day in Ukraine, I am much happier taking my time, so won't be going to Crimea. I would like to spend more time here, but on balance would have to sacrifice too much else, so this is it for now. Tomorrow I head to Moldova for a whistle-stop tour, then it's on to Romania.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 02:02 PM
May 30, 2009 GMT
Moldova & Romania
After typing up my last blog entry, I returned to the old part of Kamyanets-Podilsky and attempted a walk round the "island" it sits on between two rivers. As I climbed back up after failing to find a routs, I noticed a thick pall of smoke over the town. No-one seemed unduly concerned, but closer to I could see flames leaping out of an old building. A quick bit of local geography and I realised the building in question was round the back of my hotel! I hurried back, and spent a couple of hours with all my valuables in a bag ready to go, watching the Ukrainian fire service at work through the window. Luckily the fire never crossed the hotel car park, but the next morning the bike coughed out several clouds of black smoke before starting properly!
Crossing into Moldova was even quicker and more straightforward than Ukraine, and initially I made good progress on fast roads. I even found a money changer open on a Sunday to change my Ukrainian cash! In Balti, however, I took a wrong turn, and ended up on the wrong road out of town.Foolishly I decided to take a shortcut. The road turned to gravel quite quickly, but remained fairly solid Then it turned to dirt, and got smaller and smaller. The compass said I was going in the right direction, but by now I was on a track leading into fields. At the first wider section I decided to turn round - and promptly ended up fighting acorss deep ruts, with the bike going over and complete luggage removal required! Eventually I got going again. I gave up on the shortcut idea, returned to the gravel and kept on that, making for the main road into the nearest town. At one point I had to ask directions - and was sent down a tiny dirt track through fields for miles! Next time I'll trust the compass - I reckon if I'd kept going on the first track I would have ended up right where I wanted to be!
The aim for the day was to head to Orheiul Vechi, where there is a monastery on a ridge. It closed at five, but Lonely Planet said I could stay there, in rooms with stunning views. I made it at 4.45. There was a hotel, but it had no views, took cash only, and wanted the equivalent of €3 more than I had! But I was there, so I walked up the ridge anyway.
I may have missed something. People in Moldova don't come across as friendly, and asking if they speak any other language is met with a flat, conversation-ending "no", so I didn't try too hard to get information. But what I saw was a small yellow church, on a ridge, surrounded by a building site. Quite cool, but certainly not worth crossing into an entire new country for!
So I headed off to Orhei, a town about 15km away, in search of accommodation and/or a cash machine. Orhei is a reasonable sized town. But it does not have cash machines, hotels, usable roads, or indeed anything much except a very dodgy-looking bus station. On the way there I had passed a sign for a campsite, and a glance through the gate suggested wooden huts, and a generally presentable ambiance, so I decided to try that. Camping after all should be well within the range of cash I had, and I was keen not to carry on the 30km to Chisinau if I didn't have to.
It turned out not be a campsite, but a sort of complex with a kids' playpark, a restaurant, a sign banning guns, and a ludicrously expensive thatched cottage thing with no real sheets and a strong smell of damp. But they took cards, and it was getting late, so I had little choice but to settle into the most expensive accommodation so far in the poorest country so far.
The next day I got up early and left. I found more smiles as I neared Romania, but it's safe to say that Moldova is the only country so far that I have disliked. I never felt unsafe, but I did feel ill-at-ease and unwelcome. In Ukraine the looks people gave me said "Who are you? Where have you come from? Where are you going?" In Moldova they simply said "What are you doing here?"
At the border with Romania I met Nico & Leon, two French cousins who are cycling round Europe for six months on a tandem complete with trailer. They were halfway through their trip and had already been to Istanbul, before heading up towards Scandinavia. Once in Romania we shared a picnic by the river and compared the relative merits of our respective modes of transport.
All of which took time, so I didn't get as far as planned on my first day in Romania. I had a campsite marked on my map, so stopped for directions to that. In Romania however "camping" seems to refer to wooden huts, so I was sent to a restaurant with a few of those out the back. I managed to explain what I really wanted, at which point they found me a patch of grass and offered me full use of it!
The next day I headed off to Bucovina, an are of Romania full of painted monasteries. The paintings are inside and outside, hundreds of individual scenes, many of which feature bored-looking saints being martyred in a variety of ways. In one I met a tiny old nun, well into her eighties, who asked me with gestures and a mixture of languages where I was from. I managed to explain what I was doing, at which point her face lit up with excitement and she offered me her blessing. I'm sure if I'd offered she would have perched herself on the back and come with me!
That night I was again greeted with fantastic Romanian hospitality. I'd found a sign for what looked like a huge campsite, but missed the last turn-off. In the process of turning round, I spotted a small sign advertising hotel rooms and camping. It looked far friendlier than the other, so I followed it up a small gravel back street, and ended up at a pensuinnea. The owner came out and greeted me. The common language this time was French, and she chatted to me a little as I pitched the tent in the garden. I asked if they did food and was told no, so prepared to get the stove out, when she came over again and asked if I would like some soup! She took me inside and placed huge vat of excellent home-made chicken soup in front of me, and plied me with afinata, a liqueur made from berries, also home-made. Her husband arrived not long after, and I ended up there till bedtime, chatting, eating and drinking. I was even given a signed copy of her poetry book! Next morning was the same, with a huge breakfast, and I had to insist to pay any money at all! I left with suggestions of where to go, and headed off to find some wooden churches.
The roads in Maramures are scenic but slow, and it took a while for me to reach my final destination, the Merry Cemetery in Sepanta. It's right on the Ukrainian border, and although it was frustrating to have to effectively retrace my steps, there was something quite exciting about being able to look at the line of trees to my right and think "I know what's on the other side of that"! The Merry Cemetery is a small graveyard where the headstones feature scenes from the dead person's life. It paints a picture of a community as well as individuals; most of the women are spinning or weaving, while the men work the fields. The original sculptor died in 2005, and the work was taken up by one of his students, and I felt quite pleased to find what was obviously his grave: a picture on a headstone of a man carving a headstone.
The plan after that was to head as far south as possible towards Deva, where I would be able to stay with a friend of my father's. I set off optimistically, and in spite of rain was making good progress towards a town called Dej, which I thought would make a reasonable stopping point. There were plenty of signs for hotels, many of which also offered camping, so I wasn't worried. Then a sign announced that the road ahead was being rebuilt, and suggested an alternative route. A quick glance at the map showed that to be a better way for me, so I took it - and didn't see a single accommodation sign for two and a half hours! I ended up on the main road into a city I wanted to avoid, in the rain, as it got dark. Eventually I stopped at a fuel station, and was directed to a small hotel right next door.
Again, I was greeted like royalty. Mihaela was simply staying there with her husband and young son, but she called the owner, sorted out a room for me, and then invited me to join them for a barbecue! So we sat outside, at 10.30 at night, eating excellent Romanian sausage-like things and discussing the state of our lives. Excellent end to a very hard evening!
My plan for the next day was simple: visit a couple of caves in the Apuseni mountains, then ride to Deva. From the outset the road was bad, and combined with foul weather it was 12.30 by the time I saw the first sign to the first cave. I was slightly surprised when the road turned to a gravel track, as I had the impression that this was one of Romania's major sights, and supposedly I still had 10km to go. I was even more surprised to find another sign about a kilometre down the track pointing straight up side of the mountain! I pulled over to figure out what to do, and in the process slipped in the mud and ended up on the ground.
A couple of minutes later, as I was slipping around trying to get the bike upright again, a car pulled up, and two young guys got out. They helped me pick the bike up, and introduced themselves as Vlad and Nico. Vlad had recently graduated from art school, and Nico was in the final stages of a master's degree. They offered me a lift up the mountain in their car, so I secured the bike, removed the valuables and the muddy waterproofs, and off we went.
I was very glad I hadn't attempted it on the bike! The road was rocky and muddy, twisting up very steep hairpins. We passed a car coming the other way, and the driver told us we were only a couple of kilometres away from the cave. The car was a fairly low BMW, so we decided to turn it round and park it up as soon as possible, and walk the rest of the way. We'd been going for about 15 minutes, when we passed a farmer, who told us we were still a good 4 km away from the cave! We pressed on, but were soon passed by a yellow 4x4 school bus, and managed to hitch a lift up to the top - which was indeed a very long way!
To reach the cave you have to walk down a set of very rickety metal steps set into the side of the limestone sinkhole, and the only part you can access is the very entrance. You walk along a wooden walkway, with only one handrail, to a small cavern. The ice formations are not hugely impressive I have to say, other than in their complete alienness. They were formed without people, and exist without us. I found it impossible to ignore the fact that this environment was not mine, and that here I could not survive.
Just as we left the cave, the rain started. Luckily there was a sheltered picnic table, so we sat and waited for it to stop. And waited some more. And some more. Eventually we were forced to conclude that we were going to get very wet, and headed back down. No lucky lifts this time, only a small caravan-shop that sold us some plastic bags to use as ponchos! It was a long, wet walk, but when the rain finally stopped not far from the car, we were rewarded with views out over the valley, wreaths of mist rising from the trees and moving like living things with the breeze.
Following the unplanned adventure I decided not to bother with the second cave, and headed straight to Deva - a very cold and wet 2 hours' riding! But I was greeted with a washing machine, a bed, hot food and a bath. After a good night's sleep Kevin took me on another adventure, this time sneaking round the back of Deva castle, which is officially closed for renovations. We also visited Hunedora castle, just in time to run into a freemasons' convention - they're not very discreet about the secret handshake it has to be said!
Today the bike has received a bath, and with clean clothes, fresh food supplies and a couple of days' rest I'm ready to head off again for my last couple of days in Romania, before heading into Serbia and the unknown once again.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 05:02 PM
Apologies for constantly forgetting to add these!
Austria and Germany are here: Austria and Germany
Slovakia, Ukraine and Moldova are here: Slovakia, Ukraine and Moldova
Romania is here: Romania
You can view these even if you're not on Facebook.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 05:57 PM
June 08, 2009 GMT
I ended up staying in Romania longer than intended because of - you've guessed it! - rain. After leaving Deva I headed to Sibiu, which is a very pleasant town, more Austrian than Romanian in style. Their art museum also houses some real masterpieces, so I felt very cultured as I wandered round. Just outside the town is an open-air museum with examples of all the traditional styles of Romanian house. Most are wooden, and some of the mills are very elaborate, but as all the explanations are in Romanian I couldn't help feel that I'd gained more from actually riding round the countryside and seeing the real thing!
It was only 5.30 when I left the museum, so I ignored the nearby campsite and headed for one further south, which turned out not to exist. So an hour later I was back at the first one. There I met my companions for the next few days, as we all sat through the bad weather. Felix and Nina are a young German couple on a similar trip to mine, though, like everyone it would seem, in the opposite direction. They were however able to provide some very useful information about Albania. One road was so bad it took them a day and a half to cover 60km! Needless to say I will be avoiding that one!Also at the campsite were Esther and Markus, a Swiss couple riding to Australia on a pair of XTs. They had already ridden the length of the Americas, and we spent many hours swapping travel stories about various parts of the world.
After the weather improved I visited some fortified Saxon churches, then headed south towards Serbia.
Leaving Romania was as slow as entering it, as all the customs officials seemed to have disappeared. When one finally showed up she just waved me through, and over the Danube I went. The Serbian side were more interested in my trip than my papers or the contents of my panniers, and soon I was riding along the shores of the Danube again - this time blue blue indeed! The road rises along the hillside and through gorges, tunnels (all unlit - not nice in bright sunshine) and at one point, a ruined castle.
Serbian roads are on the whole infinitely superior to Romanian ones, , and the drivers actually give you space when they overtake! I made much faster progress than expected, and by mid-afternoon was riding through the Deliblato Sands. The sands are an area of dunes covered win woodland, very picturesque and completely unlike anything I have seen elsewhere. Unfortunately there is nowhere to stay withing walking distance and no paths through the area. There is one small road though, so I took that - only to find that as it doesn't really go anywhere it's in a state of advanced disrepair! There were some really rather deep puddles, and the bike is now once again covered in mud. I did see (and nearly run over) a very large bright green lizard, but no other wildlife. Coming out of the dunes area I was overwhelmed to see absolutely nothing - the land is flat and unbroken in every direction, making you feel very small indeed.
The next day I headed for the wonderfully named Despotovac, where I had my first encounter with the arbitrary nature of Serbian signposting. Expecting to drive straight through and out the other side, I was somewhat perturbed to arrive at a T-junction with all town names in Cyrillic only! Freytag & Bernt have so far proved invaluable, but their Serbian map is not quite up to scratch - the Ukrainian one was dual-language but this is not and really should be. After several failed attempts to find the right road I asked for directions, and was told to keep going straight, but this did not lead to the monastery I was looking for and I still have no idea where I actually went! Eventually I ended up at a large town from where I was able to get my bearing and head out on the right road.
For a few days I had been on the lookout for a garage that might know something about bikes, as my chain had got very slack, and without a centre stand it's a pain in the backside to sort. I struck gold just outside Paracin. There are a lot of bikes in Serbia, and here was a guy who builds his own trikes! He and his assistant/relative/friend stopped all work to help me, his daughters plied me with bitter lemon and fruit salad, and everyone asked their share of questions, all via the poor friend who spoke some English.Before leaving I posed for multiple photos, and was presented with a T-shirt from their local bike club. There was no question of payment, and I noticed an instant difference in the bike!
The guys at the garage had also warned me of major roadworks on the road I wanted, so I was not too dismayed to be sent on a 40+km detour right before my destination. I found a campsite not too far north of where I wanted to be, which was unfortunately only a minor improvement on the previous night's one. The owners both times were friendly, but the sites are full of dingy, permanently anchored caravans, and the facilities leave a LOT to be desired. The first one had no hot water or showers, and only one tap, in the middle of the site. I won't mention the state of the toilets, or the wildlife I found in the showers at the second one...
I seem to have finally found summer in Serbia, and by the timeI reached the Roman ruins at Gamzigrad it was already getting hot.The ruins cover and extensive area, and make an interesting change from castles and monasteries.I was welcomed as a guest of honour by Sasa and his boss Bora, the guides, both of whom spoke excellent English. Sasa gave me and a pair of Latvian handball referees a very detailed explanation of the site's history, after which I wandered round and found an enormous grass snake. The site's mosaics are housed in a museum in nearby Zajecar. It's normally closed on Sundays, but Bora drove into town and opened it up for me. The mosaics are truly spectacular, rivalling any I've seen elsewhere.
After that, later than planned but after a much more interesting visit than expected, I set off. The sun was well and truly baking, and for most of the journey, along main roads and through towns on flat open plains, I slowly melted. The last stretch of road made up for it though. It runs along a river valley, with forested hills and rocky outcrops either side. Sasa and Bora ahd warned me it's an accident blackspot, and although I could see why (it's hard to overtake, so people get impatient) at 4.30 on a Sunday it was nearly empty. The tarmac is new and smooth, and a couple of sportsbikes passed me at speeds far greater than my leisurely pootling!
Halfway down the road, on a hairpin-filled side-road, is Studenica Monastery, where I stayed the night. I arrived too late to visit the monastery that night, so instead enjoyed the luxury of a real bathroom (en-suite is double the price of non, but at 11 euros I thought I'd splash out!) and an excellent meal on the terrace. A group of four paragliders swooped over us as I was eating, then again later - no wonder, as even just riding I could feel the air currents over the mountains.
This morning I visited the monastery. There was obviously some sort of religious occasion yesterday, as I passed quite a few people walking along holding handfuls of grass, and the church floor was strewn with it when I went in today. The guesthouse where I stayed is officially for people wanting to "enhance their spiritual life" in the sanctity of the monastery. The setting is beautiful, as is the monastery itself, but I observed people crawling under a table in the church as some sort of ritual, so decided that I will stick to spirituality and enjoying the beauty of these places rather than go for any particular religious observance!
The big decision was whether or not to go to Kosovo from here, but as far as I can tell I have no insurance there, so reluctantly will pass - annoying from a practical point of view too, as the best border crossing for me is in Kosovo, and I really wanted to see Pec. So tomorrow I will head east for some more scenery, then south into Macedonia, where the plan is to base myself at Lake Ohrid for a few days and enjoy the area.
I've left the relevant cables in my topbox, so no photos this time I'm afraid!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 12:44 PM
June 14, 2009 GMT
Serbia and Macedonia
After writing my last entry I headed for yet another monastery. This one also had accommodation in the form of a run-down hotel with great views and, most importantly, a balcony where I could hang my washing! In the morning as I left I was given a thumbs-up and "bravo!" from a tiny old cleaning lady - the best reactions I've had throughout the trip have been from women, who display none of the incredulity the men show.
Having decided to avoid Kosovo I neede to head east for my border crossing into Macedonia, so I cut through a national park. I was a little worried about the state of the road, but as it turned out I found brand new tarmac that allowed me to fully appreciate the views instead of concentrating on the potholes! The area is a ski resort in winter, and in summer the mountains are covered in pine forests, occasionally opening out into alpine meadows.
The road down on the other side is very steep, an endless succession of hairpins that on the inside turn come very close to vertical. So I was rather alarmed to suddenly find a complete lack of response from my back brake! I wasn't exactly going fast, so I shifted down to first gear from second, put on my hazard lights and crawled down until I could find somewhere to stop. With my limited mechanical knowledge I could see nothing wrong, and resigned myself to a long slow ride to Blace - a good 40km away - or possibly even Nis, in order to find someone to fix things.
I must be the luckiest traveller in the world. In the next village, barely a kilometre further on, was a sales and servicing place for ski-doos and ATVs! Not exactly bikes, but close enough. To make things even better, the mechanic's sister-in-law Ines speaks nearly fluent English. After a thorough check, they came to the conclusion that my bad riding had simply overheated the brake - oops. The mechanic's father, who speaks some French, desperately wanted to clean the bike for me, but a power cut meant he couldn't use the pressure washer, so they reluctantly sent me on my way with an open invitation to come back in winter and learn to ski.
The rest of the ride was uneventful, and I even managed to successfully negociate Nis without getting lost. The day ended in my worst campsite yet: no running water, rubbish everywhere, vicious mosquitos and toilets I decided against using in favour of the trees. I would have turned back to the accommodation I'd seen at the other end of the lake, but by then it was a good half-hour's ride away so I made do. At least the lack of organisation included no-one being charge, so I left without paying in the morning.
The crossing into Macedonia was quick, as none of the guards showed the least interest in me. For once I remember to ask useful questions, and changed money at the border instead of finding an ATM in Skopje as originally planned, so that I was armed with enough small change for the endless succession of tolls on Macedonian main roads. Skopje itself is full of trucks which loom all around you, digging the tarmac into ruts so deep you can't get out of them, and hiding the signs which, in true Balkans fashion, are excellent as long as you're staying straight on the main road, then don't bother to tell you when you need to turn!
But I made it eventually, with only one mistake, and headed for my first stop, the mainly Muslim town of Tetovo. There I met a French-speaking local who now lives in Switzerland, and another one who delightedly informed me that he was from Kosovo. I saw a painted mosque and a dervish monastery, though the latter didn't have much to offer.
After that I continued my way south and west into Mavrovo National Park. Macedonia has without a doubt provided the best scenery so far. The road through Mavrovo runs along a river in a deep gorge. Every turn reveals new cliffs, new peaks, new vistas, and with decent tarmac and little traffic it's possible to admire it all as you ride.
I spent the night, yet again, at a monastery, Sveti Bigorsky. It's built halfway up a mountain, and looks out across the valley to villages seemingly suspended in the forest, inaccessible to anyone without wings. As well as the monks, there were about 20 young people staying there. I spoke to one of them, Vangil, who explained that many of them see it as their spiritual home, and come when they can to stay, work, and generally participate in the life of the monastery, away from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
Next morning I left feeling refreshed and relaxed. The southern half of the road is not as scenic or as good, but it still follows the river, which periodically widens into deep green lakes where it has been dammed. Nina and Felix, who I'd met in Romania, had told me of a nice campsite on the shores of Lake Ohrid, where I planned to base myself for a few days. Unfortunately I had marked it wrong on my map, so rode all the way to the Albanian border before turning back and trying again!
I found it eventually though, and have spent the last few days relaxing and swimming in the lake. When I arrived there were also two French couples in campervans and a Dutch couple in a car, and we all appreciated finding somewhere pleasant to stay - the place is basically a patch of grass behind a cafe, with toilet and shower and all sorts of things you can't take for granted in this part of the world! The campsite owners, Rino and his wife Gami, are incredibly welcoming, and the atmosphere is more like that of a small youth hostel or family guesthouse than a campsite, with conversations taking place in a multitude of languages.
I have been welcomed here with open arms, taken to visit the sights, introduced to local people, and last night I even went out to see a famous Albanian singer perform - although someone should tell him mullets and synthesisers are a little outdated these days! Tomorrow I head into Albania, and in a few days I will hit the southernmost point of my journey, effectively starting to head home albeit in a roundabout sort of way. I have better information on Albania and its roads, and unfortunately won't be able to see everything I wanted to, but never mind!
No photos again I'm afraid as the computer is steadfastly refusing to upload them!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 05:31 PM
June 18, 2009 GMT
I deliberatly told Rino & Gime that I would be leaving earlier than I actually planned to, in order to allow for the predictably lenghty goodbyes. The hospitality I'd enjoyed there was wonderful, but after four days in the same place it did feel good to be on the road again, heading to pastures new.
The crossing into Albania was slow but painless. I was very pleased with myself for remembering to change money at the border, but almost immediately concluded that my previous haphazard attitude was better, as I was charged 6 euros commission on a 20 euro exchange, and literally right round the corner was a restaurant proudly advertising its 24 hour cash machine!
My original plan was to head through Elbasan then on to Berat, and stay the night there. I couldn't find the castle in Elbasan, so got lost in its one-way system instead - which to be honest is every bit as viable a way of getting a feel for somewhere! I'd been making better progress than expected, so decided to push on to Gjirokaster, and visit Berat on the way back north.
I had heard very mixed reports about Albanian roads, and although it's a major route the road to Gjirokaster is far from decent. Subsiding tarmac, potholes, roadworks, gravel, it's all there until Tepelene, where you're treated to a brand new, fast, wide road, empty apart from the occasional cow.
I hadn't realised Albania has oil. I don't know how much of it, and petrol definitely isn't cheap, but I'm guessing there isn't enough to interest investors as the only means of exploitation I saw were isolated, solitary derricks nodding their heads as they pumped. Many weren't operational at all, and the pipes running from them were old and rusting.
I had a note scribbled down from a guidebook that read simply Gjirokaster, stay Kotonii, Lagja Palorto. With no idea what it was or why I'd decide to tell myself to go there, I found a policeman who spoke no English and asked him. I'm not sure it actually meant anything to him, but he pointed vaguely further on, so I headed in that direction.
I found myself in what was clearly the old part of town, with a steep road winding up to a wide square. It's election time in Albania, and loud music blared from cars brandishing enormous pink flags. I stopped again and asked in a cafe. Up the hill, and left. So up the hill I went - and promptly found myself riding on Gjirokaster's steep, slippery, three-hundred-year-old cobbles. Stopping didn't seem like a very good idea, so I powered my way up until I found somewhere vaguely flat! More directions, and I finally found my little B&B, whose owners were leaning out of the window and waving as if they'd expected me all along. I parked on a small flat patch and settled in.
I showered, then wandered up to Gjirokaster castle, which includes a fairly impressive collection of old cannon, all lined up in the castle archways. There are no explanations, but you can poke around anywhere you like, and the views over the wide flat valley are superb.
Back in town and looking for food, I met Hajri, a cafe owner who loves bikes and was overjoyed to hear about my trip. I also chatted to Blerina, a young girl just about the head off to university, whose father is a local archeaologist. Everyone in Albania has been friendly, welcoming, willing to help - people will actually stop on the street or come out of their houses to make sure you don't need anything!
The next morning I wandered around Gjirokaster a little more, then headed to Saranda. The road runs across a set of mountains, rising very quickly and steeply above the plain. The earth there is red, and in places has eroded into sharp ridges and escarpments that stand out vividly against the surrounding green trees.
Saranda itself is the ugliest town I have ever seen. Most of it, including the main roads in and out, is only half-built. Everything is tall and square, hastily erected and unappealing. So I carried straight through, heading for Butrint and the Roman ruins there, and hoping to find somewhere more attractive to stay on the way.
The road runs alongside a blue lagoon, seperated from the sea by a thin strip of land. Along with my first sea-views, I found my first olive groves, and the powerful smell of wild thyme. The ruins are extensive, but the mosaics, really the star attraction, are covered with sand to protect them, and not visible. Frequently in the Balkans I have found tourism to be a work in progress, often put on hold, as the need to preserve things is recognised but the means to do so and still display them are not there. Churches too are often locked while they undergo restoration work.
At Butrint I met an Albanian family living in Canada. They were staying at a hotel owned by a friend of theirs, and in the absence of any other suggestions I joined them, swimming in the Ionian sea for the first time!
I left Saranda fairly early and set off along the coast road, the start of which is cunningly hidden behind a fuel station. Even by mid-morning the heat-haze blurred the views, making Korfu and the other small Greek islands seem to float above the water. Most of the road is shiny and new, but the bits that aren't are under construction, and I had a few hairy moments going through deep gravel!
I had planned to stop at Orikum and go walking on the Karaburum peninsula, but a man with a machine-gun politely informed me (via a pair of local children summoned from the sea) that it is now entirely military and inaccessible. So I picnicked by the sea, and carried on. A few miles down the road, I spotted two French campervans parked outside a restaurant. I had passed Bernadette, Christian, Antoine and Michelle, who I'd met in Ohrid, the day before, but had assumed they were heading for a ferry. But here they were, so I joined them and we caught up on the last few days' travel. They had taken a road I wasn't sure about, south of Korce, and said it was good and stunning - sometimes the caution brought on by travelling alone means I do miss things.
Their plan for the evening was to camp by a lake, so I decided to follow on and join them. About two hours later we stopped to ask directions, only to be told we were in completely the wrong place, the road we wanted didn't exist, and the lake was dry anyway! So at that point I left them to it, and rode to Berat, another old city with stone-roofed houses, slippery cobbles and a castle - though this one has houses and inhabitants within its walls!
The bike had been making some rather unpleasant clunking noises since Ohrid, and although I was fairly sure it was just because I'd had to top her up with the wrong viscosity oil, I wanted to make sure. Anastas, the hotel receptionist who also led this morning's tour to the castle for me and a group of German tourists, said he knew someone who could check it out. For the first time since Romania we had heavy rain, and eventually it transpired the guy wouldn't be there till 5, so I have ended up spending an extra night in Berat. But at least the mechanic concurred with me, so all I need to do now is find some decent oil (he reckons nowhere outside Tirana will have it in Albania) and change it when I can - at least it shouldn't cause any real problems (I hope!).
I've used the day to gather information, and it seems the ride to Komani for the ferry through a gorge that I really wanted to take is likely to be too hard for me to feel happy about on my own, so unless I find information to the contrary I will be heading to Montenegro the day after tomorrow, and spending more time there.
Photos are now uploaded, and you can find some more of Serbia and Macedonia and some of Posted by Laura Bennitt at 06:55 PM GMT
June 27, 2009 GMT
Leaving Albania, and Montenegro
I left Berat in a bad mood after the hotel tried to charge me an extra 5 euros or so for paying in the local currency - especially annoying as I'd specifically got extra cash out to do just that!
My plan was to ride to Shkodra and find out about the possibility of taking a ferry from Koman to Fierze. The boat runs along a gorge and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful sights in Albania. I'd heard that the road to Koman was so bad it took 4-6 hours to cover the 25km, so I wasn't intending to ride there. But when I passed the turning I decided to at least go and have a look - a couple of girls on the Horizons forum had been asking for info, and at least then I'd be able to tell them exactly. It turns out that the road is tarmac! Not great tarmac, and it wanders off from time to time leaving only gravel behind, but essentially it's tarmac! I even got to the stage of thinking I might make the 4 o'clock ferry that supposedly runs in summer.
It was a long, hot ride, and something I'd eaten or drunk in Berat had given me violent stomach cramps so I was surviving on 2 pieces of toast and a handful of raisins. But the water below was a beautiful turquoise, and mountains rose all around, so I kept on going.
Eventually I made it to Koman, only to be told that there is only one ferry a day, at 9am. Furthermore it starts in Fierze at 7 am, so effectively if I wanted to go there and back it would take 2 days. I sat and pondered over a cold lemonade, but reluctantly decided I didn't really have that much time to spare.
By the time I arrived in Shkodra my head had started pounding from heat and lack of food. The town didn't look hugely inviting, but my efforts to find anywhere nicer were thwarted by poor signposting. Eventually I crossed a rickety one-way wooden bridge, which turned out to be one of the main roads into Albania from Montenegro, and found a hotel near the lake. The lake is clearly the real attraction n Shkodra, and I wound down after the day by watching a grand sunset from the hotel grounds.
The next morning I had to wait for my stomach to settle before heading for the border, and even after that felt very glad when they called me forward out of the glaring sun. There is a very shiny new border post, but it isn't operational yet, so you leave Albania, fittingly, via a stretch of rutted, subsiding dirt road.
My first thought on entering Montenegro was, I'm in rural England. A tiny, quiet road winds through hedgerows and past fields, not a soul in sight. Gradually the impression fades, and soon there is no doubt you're in Montenegro - though exactly where is a matter for some debate, as signposting is often optional.
I stopped in Ulcinj for ice-cream (the only thing I felt capable of digesting) then carried on to Stari Bar, and old ruined fortified town. As with so many places in this part of the world, information is relatively scarce, but you're free to wander at will and poke your nose pretty much anywhere.
My route really lay along the coast, but I made a slight detour to see Shkodra lake from this side. The road back took me up into the mountains, then hairpinned back down the other side. From the top of the world to the bottom, with views of blue sea and perfect coastline all the way.
By the time I made it to Kotor I was once again feeling drained and headachy - not surprising considering I still hadn't eaten. So it was something of a blow to realise that the hotel I had noted down as the cheapest was inside the pedestrianised old town, and even more of one to find that their only free room cost 60 euros. Luckily, the guy at reception has a friend who runs a hostel, so I followed him to my dorm bed in little flat across the street.
What had been just a place to stay became a step into a different world. Since Vienna, my last hostel, I had been mainly staying along, meeting mostly locals and occasionally other overland travellers. That had become my way of travelling, and it wasn't until Kotor that I realsied just how different it is from the communal, sociable, city-based backpacking lifestyle. It's fair to say I experienced a bit of a culture shock, especially as Kotor is a very westernised town, with smart cafes, boutiques, and very swanky yachts in the harbour. But I had been craving contact with native English-speakers for a few days, so I settled in and made the most of the contrast.
That first night in Kotor there was a huge storm. Before it broke I sat down by the harbour watching the lightning streak across the sky, rising up from behind the mountains and racing along their entire length. The next day I explored Kotor. It's a very pretty place, though very touristy compared to where I'd been for the last few weeks. During my wanderings I spotted a sign for kayak hire, and as the morning rain had stopped I went for it. The kayak was of course a sit-on-top one, so as soon as the slightest breeze picked up (which it did) it handled like a bathtub, but it felt good to be on the water again, and I even had some sunshine!
The next morning was still damp, but I was determined to climb the fortress regardless. It's built right up the side of the mountain, and I can't help wondering why anyone would bother fortifying something with vertical sides. But the views from the top are worth the effort of hauling yourself up there. Partway up I bumped into Dwayne, an Aussie from the hostel, and we carried on together. Each fresh downpour of rain prompted us to seek shelter, and in each shelter we found a different set of travellers doing the same thing, who we talked to for the duration of the shower then parted from. Best of all from my point of view were a middle-aged French couple travelling by motorbike, who had been proud of their 5,000km trip until they met me with my 10,000 miles! They even took a photo of me to prove I existed!
After that I packed my stuff up and rode to Perast, where I climbed the immense clock tower for views out over the two nearby islands. Neither one is much more than a rock, and each houses a monastery. There seemed little point in taking the scenic mountain route in low cloud, so after that I wandered down the coast to Budva and the Hippo Hostel. There I found Damien, another Aussie I'd met in Kotor, and met Jackie and Baden, an Aussie couple, and Robin, a Dutch guy on a 25-year-old Suzuki that made my TA look very elegant indeed!
By the time I'd settled in it was raining again, but the others had decided to have a BBQ come what may, so BBQ we did! The Aussies, being unused to rain, were useless (though Jackie did marinade the meat very nicely), so the Dutch and British contingent got the coals going, with judicious use of a stray porn mag and a Russian dictionary.
The next morning brought more rain, a few rumblings of thunder, and a mad rush to book an extra night at the hostel rather than travel in the rain. We did hit lucky in the afternoon though, when it cleared up enough for us to make it to the beach for a few hours. The BBQ had been such a success we decided to have another one, and by the time it got going the whole hostel population was gathered outside to eat, drink and be merry.
All that relaxing did me the world of good, and by late morning the next day I was ready to go. The road over the mountains is truly spectacular, with views of the entire fjord - the deepest in Southern Europe. The clouds held back long enough for pictures, only breaking when I crested the mountain and entered the flat bowl of land behind it. As you head up and out again, all you can see is cresting mountains, wave after wave in every direction.
I'd planned to camp in Biogradska Gora National Park, but the ground there is made of rock (which doesn't stop them calling it a campsite!) so I took a bungalow. Very glad I was too, as it pissed it down again overnight. My walk the next day had to be cut short as the path deteriorated into a mud-bath, so I rode off, after having been assisted with my boxes by two awe-struck elderly local men.
The Tara canyon is, I have learned, second only to the Grand Canyon in the world. Though I'm not sure if that's length, depth, or just overall wow factor! Riding along it certainly makes you feel very small, expecially in the rain, as grey rock reaches up to grey sky and plunges down to a river you rarely see. When you do glimpse it, its bright turqiose catches your eye and holds it, the only dash of colour in the forbidding landscape.
The weather still hadn't improved by the time I reached Durmitor National Park, so again I took a wee hut, for two nights this time to allow for a full day's walking. Walking in Durmitor was infinitely more successful than in Biogradska Gora, and I was out for over 7 hours - though a fair amount of that was taken up with putting on and removing waterproofs. The area is mainly pine forest, dotted with clear, dark glacial lakes surrounded by bare peaks of rock. There are bears and wolves in the area, but my wildlife sightings were limited to some black squirrels and a very large red frog.
This morning I took the scenic route across the park to the main road. With that one road, Montenegro displaced Macedonia as the county with the most beautiful landscapes. The road runs high up, between mountain passes, across grasslands broken by cold, sharp rocks. Above it all rise the real heights, glowering down through the clouds, lonely and aloof.
The rain caught up with me at the Piva canyon, where I rode alternately in pissing rain and unlit tunnels. It stopped briefly for the border crossing, though I was mightily confused by the fact that it says "Welcome to Republika Srbska" as you enter Bosnia & Herzegovina - I actually had to pull over a mile or so later and check the stamp in my passport to make sure I hadn't somehow entered the wrong country! But no, all was well, and I have now made it to Sarajevo, were it is STILL RAINING! My speedo died in Foca, about 70km away, but I have found a local bike club, so hopefully they will be able to point me in the direction of a mechanic of some sort. Until then I will stay and visit the town.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 08:06 PM
June 28, 2009 GMT
Photo links - Albania & Monetnegro
More photos of Albania here.
Photos of Montenegro here.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 09:08 AM
July 06, 2009 GMT
Bosnia-Hercegovina & into Croatia
Once the morning rain had stopped pouring down, I ventured out of the hostel and into Sarajevo's old town. It's a lovely city: a maze of tiny streets lined with shops and craft workshops leads into a newer area of wide avenues and grand Austro-Hungarian edifices. The suburbs climb up wooded slopes to look down on the centre. And then you start to notice. A facade stippled with bullet-holes. The old library, half destroyed and shored up by scaffolding. You realise that the pleasant hills were once hiding places for deadly fire. The city remains forward-looking, dynamic, modern. But it's impossible to ignore why I first heard the name Sarajevo.
That feeling was to stay with me throughout my time in Bosnia. Riding along, you'll go through a village, and notice the same: ruined, abandoned houses. Bullet-holes in walls. And yet life goes on around it. The war is a very sensitive subject, and most people don't like to talk about it, preferring to simply get on with their lives. But even as a visitor it marks you.
In spite of this sense of unease, I loved the country. After Sarajevo, I rode north to Jajce. I'd planned some sightseeing on the way, but the Tunnel Museum proved impossible to find, and the monastery at Kraljeva Sujetska closed five minutes before I got there, while I ate lunch outside. I did get to wander round the fortress at Travnica, but the Coloured Mosque was also closed. After that sunshine gave way yet again to thunderstorms, so all in all I arrived in Jajce feeling very wet and miserable. I'd decided to splash out on a nice hotel in the old town, which turned out to be a good decision as I was fully prepared to pay twice what it actually cost! I also met Sabina, the hotel receptionist, who was desperate for company on her lonely late-night shift.
The next day saw a change in my luck: actual sunshine! I ambled round Jajce, whose stone-roofed houses reminded me of Gjirokaster in Albania, while at the same time being very distinctive, with long low roofs against snow. The town is quite small, so I left for Mostar by mid-morning. Mostar was hostelling again - campsites are usually out of town, and being centrally located makes it much easier to explore a city centre. Arriving early meant I had time to explore the old town that day, which I did in the company of Peter, who lives in Edinburgh and knows some of the guys I work with, and of Climmy, a young Dutch girl. Later we were joined by Tina, a Belgian travel writer whose brains I picked mercilessly for professional advice, while she ignored my advice about getting married, and accepted her boyfriend's proposal while we were in Mostar!
Mostar old town is another great place for poking around, like a tiny middle-eastern bazaar but without the hassle. One of the main roads through the city, however, was the front line during the war. Here more than anywhere history - living history - stares you in the face. Buildings are completely bombed out, some reclaimed by trees, others by graffiti artists. In a former bank, papers, office furniture, birth certificates, entire lives are lying around, ignored and untouched among the wreckage. Right opposite is a park, where children too young to remember play in the shadow of a constant reminder.
Since Montenegro I had been hearing about "The Tour". The Tour is run by Bata, whose family own the Majdas hostel. I'm not normally one for tours, and I wasn't entirely sure I was up to coping with Bata's larger-than-life approach to the world for an entire day, but I decided to go along anyway - aside from anything else, with the bike not entirely happy it was a good was of seeing the area around Mostar without any worries.
The tour takes in a bit of Mostar, a fourteenth century fortress, the Kravica waterfalls, Medugorje, and the Dervish monastery at Blagaj. Bata is a Bosnian Muslim, and unlike most locals he believes the war should be talked about. He himself lived in hiding before escaping to Sweden as a refugee, and since his return has made a point of discovering all he can about Bosnia's rich and varied cultural history. He works fantastically well with people, loud when he needs to be and serious when it matters. He clearly loves his home, and loves showing it to people. The waterfalls are a particular highlight, and swimming in them is cold but exhilarating.
I left Bosnia feeling more than with any other country that I hadn't spent enough time there. Not that I needed to visit more (though I did), but that I needed to stay there, to learn about it, to immerse myself in it, to try and understand it. Serbia overwhelmed me with how little I knew about it, Bosnia tantalised and fascinated me.
I had been told that my best chance of getting the bike's speedo fixed was in Split, so I altered my original plan of starting Croatia in Dubrovnik and working up the coast, and instead went straight there. Once again I was drenched repeatedly by thunderstorms, including as I crossed the border - though I was only moderately relieved that neither side wanted to even look at my papers. Getting them out in the rain would have been tedious, but I have no stamp for Croatia!
Once at the coast however I found some sunshine and a campsite. I'd expected to have to spend all the following day looking for a mechanic, but it turned out when I asked at reception that one of the receptionists has a biker brother, who knew where to find a Honda dealer! To celebrate the ease of finding information I treated myself to an ice-cream (amusing the girl at the counter in the process by trying to order in Croatian), then decided to sit on the beach - only to be thwarted as the sun disappeared in the time it took me to put on my bikini! So instead I amused myself by watching the Polish couple who took an hour to set up their tent next to mine.
It turned out that the Honda people couldn't do anything till Monday, so I zoomed back to the campsite, packed up my stuff, and rode down the coast to Dubrovnik. It was further than I'd thought, and predictably, the campsite which had been signposted from the Bosnian border wasn't marked once you actually got into town. I eventually found it, only to be told that it would cost the equivalent of €25 just to pitch my tent! Stormclouds were gathering, so I thought sod this and headed for the hostel, which I had been told was the same price. Unfortunately, as it was now July not June, their price had gone up to €30, for a bed you could feel every spring on in a poky little dorm without even any breakfast. They made up for it a little by taking us to the sea for a late-night BBQ (bring your own, of course), but still. Croatia has developed a serious love-affair with the tourist buck: it's more expensive than Edinburgh in Festival-time!
Feeling highly disenchanted, I hopped on the bus to the old town. I've been told that in daytime it swarms with cruise-ship day-trippers, but by the time I arrived it was, if not peaceful, at least relaxed. The main streets were lively, but the side-streets were almost deserted, and a couple fo hours wandering did much to restore my good mood.
I left early after my whistlestop visit and headed for Zuljana, on the Pljesac peninsula. I had a note saying there was a good beach there, so I planned to pitch the tent, catch a boat to Mljet National Park for a few hours, then come back and sunbathe. Best laid plans...
I found a nice little campsite, small but perfectly formed, within spitting distance of the beach. I rode to the ferry terminal, found I had just under an hour to kill, so went to take some photos of the peninsula. I cam back, bought a return ticket, and waited for the 12 o'clock ferry. And waited. And waited. Eventually it turned out it was a 1 o'clock ferry, and the returns, instead of being at 5 and 9, were at 4 and 7. It's a 45 minute trip, and about half an hour from the ferry terminal to the national park. Bang goes my late afternoon on the beach - 7 o'clock ferry will have to do.
Mljet is beautiful. It has pine forests, lagoons, mongeese, peace and quiet. And coral reefs. I didn't know about the coral reefs. I hadn't brought my swimming stuff. I made do with bra and shorts, but no goggles meant no fish-gazing. Although there is something quite cool about drying off on a rock with your feet in the water and watching a crayfish and a fish fight over your big toe! And I'm sure I caught a glimpse of a mongoose. All in all it was only spoiled by the feeling that I should have stayed there, instead of Zuljana. You live and learn. And I did at least get back in time for a sunset dip, with the last rays setting behind one mountain and the moon rising over another.
Another early start the next day, and what turned into a mad race for the boat to Hvar. I made it with 2 minutes to spare, and was squeezed on as the last vehicle, even as they turned one car away because it was too long for the space! Initially I was going to pitch the tent, then ride round and explore the island. But I'm tired. It's getting harder to focus on being here rather than on going home. My mind is full to bursting with people, places, logistics, work, personal stuff, mechanical stuff. So instead, I sat on a beach (well, a concrete slab - there aren't many actual beaches here), swam, read my book, chased fishes, watched a fish digging a hole (I'm not joking!), wandered round the Stari Grad where I was camping, took lots of photos and finally acquired a bikini tan instead of just a T-shirt tan!
This morning was the earliest start yet, as the first ferry to Split from Hvar is at 7.45, and I needed to be on it to get to the bike shop for 10. I left the bike with the mechanic, after much wrong-headed maths (parts are expensive, labour is not). It took me a while to get my bearings from the shop, but eventually I found a hostel that wasn't in the pedestrianised zone (well, near enough to the edge of it that you can get away with riding a bike to it!). I wandered round town in blistering heat, then went back to pick up the bike. Basic verdict: she'll need an awful lot of care and work when I get back, but with a new chain, and a fixed speedo, and new oil, and a clean air filter, she'll make it!
Photos of Bosnia can be found here.
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 04:24 PM
July 16, 2009 GMT
Croatia part 2
Once the weather finally cooled down, I set about exploring Split. It is very similar to Dubrovnik, Kotor, and all the other old towns along the coast - a pedestrianised city centre with tiny winding alleys and cobbles slippery as the fish sold in every restaurant. Split does have a bell-tower as well though, so you can peer down on the muddle from above.
Next day was supposed to be very cultured. I stopped off in Solin and wandered round its extensive Roman ruins. A hippy appeared out of nowhere and started singing the Cranberries to the tune of a small guitar, which combined with the already intense heat to make me feel oddly detached from my surroundings. The information boards around the site include computer reconstructions of how things would have looked - but there are no people in them. The reason these places fascinate, the reason they catch our imagination, is that people once lived there, saw these temples and streets the way we would see our local church or high street. People so very like us, yet so different we can't begin to put ourselves in their shoes.
Between Split and Trogir supposedly lie a string of castles, which were next on my list. I rode through a lot of villages with "Kastel" in their name, but not a fortress in sight, so I carried on to my intended final destination for the day, Krka National Park. I wasn't quite sure what I'd find there, but dutifully followed the signs, and to my horror ended up in a packed carpark surrounded by garish cafes and tacky souvenir stalls. The price list shamelessly proclaimed that admission in summer is three times the winter price. If I decided to visit, I could be bussed to some waterfalls for €13. Up the river is an island, where a monastery houses an old illustrated copy of Aesop's fables, which I really wanted to see. To get there by boat, with only half an hour on the island, would cost a further €14. If, as planned, I wanted to camp overnight then walk the next day, I would have to buy yet another €13 ticket. At that point I realised I genuinely disliked Croatia. It's the perfect example of what happens when greed and capitalism get hold of a beautiful place. Everywhere else since I left Austria, people have wanted to show me their country, to make sure I didn't miss anything worth seeing. Here, they're not interested in people any more, only in milking the tourist cash-cow.
So I left. had I been nearer the border, I might have left Croatia altogether. Instead, I compromised and went to Murter, where I hoped to be able to kayak in the Kornati National Park archipelago. After many enquiries I realised this wouldn't be possible, and that if I wanted to see the islands I'd have to take a boat tour. Luckily, my hunt for a kayak had led me away from the main tour operators, and my instructions on booking were "look for the smallest boat"! Where others were packed with a hundred people or more, ours had fewer than twenty people on it.
I became even more bemused by Croatia's idea of a national park, when the captain explained that all the islands in Kornati are privately owned by twenty or so families, his own among them. We stopped on "his" island, a tiny place with a picture-perfect beach, a restaurant, and not much else. After a brief swim, I left the rest of the group sunning themselves and climbed the hill next to the beach. Then the one behind it. You can only really appreciate the archipelago from above: mostly bare islands lie scattered haphazardly in a sea by turns deep blue and pale turquoise, depending on its depth.
Lunch consisted of two enormous grilled mackerel. I sat opposite a young Dutch couple, On and Yur, who are travelling round Croatia by car. Every year since they got together they have picked a different place in Europe and driven there for three weeks. So in spite of the organised side of the trip, I arrived back at my tent, packed in a tourist-filled campsite, tired, sunburnt (a downside of travelling alone; no-one to do your back!) but feeling a little more at ease with Croatia.
After Murter I was determined to try again with the national parks, and headed for Paklenica. I found myself a lovely, friendly little family-run campsite (with a kitchen! and a fridge! Luxury!), pitched the tent, ate lunch and set off. Paklenica is a huge climbing destination, which I didn't know. It's basically a pair of limestone gorges leading up to a mountain range running parallel to the coast. I'd planned a 4-5 hour wander along some of the major paths - you get a wee map on the back of your ticket, and everything is waymarked, so I didn't bother to buy one. The first stretch is up to a cave; it's one of the main "tourist" spots of the park, and the path is steep in places but wide and easy. After that, things got interesting. Immediately after the cave I found myself slithering down a leaf-strewn gap between trees - still waymarked, but with a definite sense of seeing the next mark and thinking "and I get there how?". Before long I was making good use of my climbing skills - one stretch was even roped, and involved bracing my way up a chimney! The "map" showed me skirting a peak, but the path was determined to take me right to the top! Standing on that peak was like being on top of the world. By then I was well above the main climbing face in the park. Below me stretched Pag island, and the tiny bridge that had so impressed me with its height when I'd ridden over it earlier. The rest of the mountain stretched down below me, to a ring of limestone crags arranged watchfully around a meadow. Behind, the real peaks, a patchwork of green and grey, towering up above. Getting back down was no easier than getting up, and by the time I made it back to camp I'd been walking for 6 hours!
The next day was riding only. I doubled back on myself briefly, then rode along Pag, an island separated from the mainland by a bridge on 130m or so long. Pag is barren, stark, alien. Beautiful, but hostile - you wonder why people decided to try and live here. The bare pinky-white rock is only broken by tufts of grass and a small patch of marshland in the middle. Cliffs plungs down to water so clear you can see every fish from the top. I ferried across to the mainland (last on again!), and from the mountain road watched as more and more of Pag came into view with every upwards hairpin, until I could see the whole island cloud-dappled below me.
Croatia's sunshine only covers the coast, and soon I was chilly, then damp. I had a couple of scenic routes marked on my map, so ignored the signs for Plitvice National Park. the last stretch was a cut-through between two main roads. Marked as yellow on my map, it narrowed almost immediately, and soon I was winding through mist-shrouded tress, trying not to slip on the moss-covered road, My map said 11 km, but soon I'd passed km12, then 13, then 14. Low on fuel, my best chance was to carry on regardless. Finally the main road loomed!
After that magical forest, I was damp and determined to find somewhere nice and dry to stay. The problem? There isn't anywhere nice. The entire Plitvice Lakes area is filled with ugly, new-build villages of B&B tourist accommodation - the place could be used as a definition of "tourist industry".Eventually, 26 miles after fuelling up, I ended up camping - on a site right opposite the fuel station!
Luckily the rain only lasted a day, and I had beautiful sunshine for my day at the national park. Plitvice is a series of lakes linked by waterfalls, which push their way through anywhere they can, often coming in spouts stright out of the cliffs. It's enormously touristy, but by following the longest circuit, and then adding in a lake when that didn't look long enough, I managed to avoid the worst of them - all in all I walked about 8 and a half hours!
From Plitvice I rode to Krk. The thing that has most fascinated me about Croatia's islands is that they are all subtly different. Mljet was luch and forested. Hvar scented, Mediterranean scrubland. Pag barren. Krk is rocky at the edges like Pag, but densely green in the middle, and far more extensive than the others. I rode right to the edge, to Baska, which has a staggering harbour view out to other, uninhabited rocky islands. I simply sat and gazed. And ate ice-cream.
I was not hugely inspired by that night's campsite - huge, crowded, badly designed with not enough toilets or sensible parking. But the naturists have all the best campsites on Krk, and while I toyed with the idea of a naturist beach, nude camping was going a tad too far. Which turned out to be a good thing, as, just as it was getting dark, a solo, female biker turned up to pitch her tent next to mine! Mojca (pronounced Moitsa) has only been biking for a year, but is making her first forays into touring, heading from her native Slovenia to Vienna (where she also got lost!) and then to Croatia. She'd had a bad day, having parted ways with the mand who had started accompanying her on her trip, and ended up dictating it. So we shared a beer, talked bikes and men, and hopefully I made her day better and helped her have confidence in her decision to only travel alone from now on.
From Krk I went to the neighbouring islands of Cres and Losinj. Vultures live there, and there are few creatures more contemptuous of adventure than vultures circling over hot, empty scrubland. I'd hoped to use Mali Losinj as a base for diving and kayaking, but in the end neither proved possible, so I swam, sunbathed, chased fish through deep blue sea, and generally relaxed for a day - although one sunbathing session was interrupted by a Slovenian man named Dejan, who claimed he was led to me by Jesus. It's novel chat-up line I'll give him that, but not one that's likely to work on me!
My last couple of night in Croatia are being spent in Istria, at a motorbike campsite near Porec. It's run by Dragan, and unlike the campervan sardine-tins I've had elsewhere it's friendly, personal, haphazard. I've been promised a party tonight, with goulash and a campfire! Croatia has been relatively lacking in the personal touch, so it's nice to feel welcomed as an individual again.
Today has been spent exploring Istria, which is quite different from the coast. Thick forests hide sudden gorges and cliffs, and the lack of a coastal breeze make it seriously hot - 35° today! I stopped off in Pazin, and by luck they have a fascinating exhibition on emigration in the castle. It's strange for someone like me, who has always been a foreigner in one way or another, to imagine leaving a homeland, perhaps forever, to head into the complete unknown.
From Pazin I made it to Rosinj, where I have just eaten vast quantities of grilled fish, and, for all my searching elsewhere, found a place that does kayak tours! Do I want to stay an extra day and paddle? Or stick to my plans and head to Slovenia? I am tired of Croatia in many ways, but I miss kayaking too. Decisions decisions... Most of all I think I need someone else to make them for a change! Maybe I'll just toss a coin!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 03:15 PM
July 24, 2009 GMT
In the end, I decided not to go kayaking. I needed a change fo scenery, and given temperatures in Rovinj must have been well over 40 degrees, even on the water it would have been meltingly hot.
By the time I got back to the campsite after my last entry, the goulash was well underway, bubbling in a big pot over the fire. Dragan scarped some coals off to one side, and placed half a beer keg on them, with onions and potatoes to fry in the bottom. The Dutch couple on the campsite offered us all genievre as an aperitif, and later Dragan brought out the rakija. A Belgian couple had also pitched up, and contributed some vanilla liqueur which the local guys loved, calling it "Belgian milk". I was given further insight into the confusing intricacies of Eastern European identities, as Dragan was at pains to explain that he was Istrian not Croatian.
In spite of all that excitement, I woke at a reasonable time, packed up and set off for my last real border crossing! This time they actually looked at my passport (though not the bike papers!), and the Slovenian border guard asked about the trip and voiced approval.
My first stop was Lipica, where they breed Lipizzaner horses, the same type as used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I'd heard that it's possible to ride the horses, so planned an overnight stop, but unfortunately the only riding option is as part of a week-long, hugely expensive dressage course! So I made do with a visit. It's guided tours only, and they divide you into groups according to language. Only four people in the French group, I'll use my other nationality for the day! Five minutes to go, and an enormous tour-bus full of French-speakers turns up. There goes that plan!
From there it's only a short ride to Skocjan caves. I'd passed the turn-off already, and there was a campsite signposted essentially from the motorway. The Belgians at Dragan's had warned me that Slovenia was very touristy, so I expected a huge site full of families in caravans. Instead, I found myself nosediving down a tiny little road, landing up in a large empty field. The friendly owner pointed out that they had a small island in the river, so I pitched the tent there, in a lovely, cool, shady spot. Ecerything is relative though - one of the trees had a thermometre on it, 33 degrees in the shade!
My guide at Lipica had told me it never gets that hot in Slovenia, and sure enough at 5am I woke with the beginnings of a migraine and a sense of overwhelming pressure bearing down. The storm brokespectacularly an hour or so later, and by the time I got up there were puddles in every hollow on the island. Visits to Skocja are at specific times, and I didn't want to miss one, so I had to pack up as quickly as possible, the tent sodden.
At least in the cave I was dry! Skocjan cave is unusual in having a river running through it, at the bottom of a deep underground gorge. The cave's chambers are far bigger than any I had ever seen, with stalagmites several metres tall. Again a seemingly quiet tour had been joined at the last minute by a large group, this time some rather rude young people of uncertain origin, who decided to interrupt the guide with shouts of "in English!" when she welcomed everyone in Slovenian first.
The rain had stopped by the time we emerged, and I carried on my way. The idea was to make this a caves day, and next on the list was Postojna. It's one of the biggest caves in the world, and touted as a major Slovenian attraction. All the photos show people on a little train going through, and when I arrived it was heaving. Deciding that I'd had enough of being herded, I turned around, and went on an expotition.
My scribbled noted mentioned Krizna Cave, which supposedly has ice stalactites and lakes you can arrange boat trips on. I'd initially given up on it as I couldn't find it anywhere on the map, but on my last day in Croatia I'd spotted it in the Slovenian part of my Croatia map. The last 2km to reach it are on gravel track through the forest, and I apologised inwardly to the mechanic in Split, who's put me under strict instructions not to leave the tarmac given the poor condition of my head bearing.
By sheer luck I'd timed it perfectly, arriving just as a group was heading into the cave. But this is no tour-bus shepherding experience. Here you are given wellies and a hand-held lamp with a battery pack. There is no permanent lighting in the cave, and the guide had us turn our torches off at one point - complete, utter, absolute darkness. If there are ice stalactites they're further in, but the ceiling is a glod and silver Milky Way of shimmering bacteria. The river water is so clear you can't see it - just a rippling surface floating above the rock. We took a boat across the first lake, and dodged drips. One rock formation looked disturbingly like a human figure trying to break free. All in all, a proper cave adventure!
From there I rode to Sticna, where there is a large abbey. Rurla Slovenia is exactly as I imagined it to be: green, mountainous, forested, dotted with small villages and innumerable churches. In Ukraine I watched people cutting grass for hay; here the hayricks are mostly empty, and bales are being stcked ready for winter.
I rode around Sticna for a long time trying to find accommodation, and praying that the rain would hold off until I did. In the process I discovered that the abbey complex itself is only open to individuals at 2 and 4pm on Sundays - not much use to me! I ended up in the only place I could find, an overpriced hotel with springs coming through the mattress.
Next morning while I ate breakfast, the owner came across to inform me I had a flat tyre! Sure enough, the back was squatting sadly on its deflated rubber. I still have no idea how it happened, but the owner had a friend who fixes tyres, so he and a random punter helped me balance the bike on some bricks, and we got the wheel off. The friend then disappeared with it and my spare inner tube, and returned half an hour later with neat patch in the old inner. Much easier than trying to wrestle with doing it all myself - I'm not sure I would have succeeded, so thank goodness it didn't happen in the middle of nowhere!
After all that I left late, and paused in Novo Mesto, which is pleasant enough, but devoid of all life on a Sunday. From there I umm-ed and aah-ed about where to go. I really wanted to end up in a mountain hut by the Rinka Waterfall in the north, but I also wanted to visit Podsreda Castle further east. Doing both meant a lot of riding, and if the castle was guided tour only I might not make it to the waterfall. But I took the gamble, and if you're doing it you may as well do it properly, so I took the shortcut too. Which initially led me to a dead end at a farm, where two children stared at me as if they'd never seen a girl alone on a motorbike before, and a third locked itself inside the house!
I eventually found the right road, a tiny strip of tarmac climbing up at impossible angles. The castle is not a guided tour, and now houses exhibitions of various artwork, including washing lines full of women's underwear frmo the 20th century. One room as lined with tiny engravings, each so lifelike you expected them to start moving any second, carrying on the lives the artist had interrupted.
The ride from there to the waterfall was long but varied. I followed fast main roads through wide river valleys, and smaller ones winding through gorges, and finally the road to the waterfall itself. Round a bend, and suddenly there it is, heading stright to a semicircle of high, bare mountaintops. The road runs along a river, or, in summer, along a dry river-bed, which is where the waterfall should end up! So no waterfall. But I did find a very nice little mountain guesthouse type place, with superb views from the back terrace, and I had time for a wander before dark.
That night as I marked the day's route in my mapbook of Eastern Europe, I was startled to see another line on the same page, higher up. Many months ago I'd ridden in the opposite direction, barely 200km north of where I sat now. I don't think it had really hit me till then just how close I am to the end. I even rode through a tiny bit of Austria on the way to Ljubljana, just as I did from Germany in the first few days.
I really like Ljubljana. The streets lining the river are full of cafes, where the beautiful people gather of an evening. Pokey side-streets run between coloured houses, and tall church spires dominate the skyline. It has the elegance of Paris but without the grandeur or pretension of the more touristy capital cities.
From Ljubljana I rode to Bled, via a short stop in Skofja Loka. Skofja Loka is a "museum town", whatever that means - to me it meant I could wander and poke around through all the open doors, even if they led to people's houses! Bled is of course touristy. But there's a reason for that: it's beautiful. The water in the lake is turquoise, something that the postcards don't seem to capture. And where the Croatian coast has turquoise water that's clear when you're in it, in Bled it stays the same colour when seen from underwater, giving the impression you're swimming in a giant paint-pot.
Bled has become my base for a frenzy of activity. Yesterday I swam to the island, then went canyoning, and jumped off the top of a 9m waterfall as well as abseiling through gorges. There was a group of young French people with me for that, and they were camped right next to me so the evening was spent in relaxed socialising. Today, after 3 days of waiting, the weather finally changed in my favour (there's a first time for eveything!) and the wind became favourable for paragliding! I spent half an hour flying over mountains, seeing Bled and the Triglav mountains in the far distance, and Austria the other way. There really is no feeling on earth like that of not being on it, and I will definitely be investigating the possibility of learning for myself when I get back. As if that wasn't enough, this afternoon I climbed a mountain to find a lake, and tomorrow, my last day in Slovenia, my last night of camping, I will be going rafting.
After that I spend two nights in Venice, at a nice hotel courtesy of my parents, and then it's home - so this will almost certainly be the last blog written while I'm still on the road!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at 06:35 PM
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
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