March 09, 2008 GMT
Long days in short countries

28 Feb to 7 Mar 08

The passage from Tunis to Palermo, Sicily, was smooth. After a beer with Sicilian BMW rider, Vito, and his wife, Antonella, we slept well in our comfortable cabin. Next morning, we rose and packed early to be ready for the formalities of getting back into the EU. Our experience on these ferries so far had been that the immigration procedures were carried out on board and in transit to shorten the turn around in port, but the desks and chairs set up in the passageway for this purpose remained determinedly empty.

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On board the Palermo ferry with the Sicilian coast in the distance.

The chairs were still empty as the ferry backed into the dock in Palermo. The crew were inscrutable and insisted in herding passengers into the ship’s cafeteria, but we hung back resisting all efforts to direct us into the masses. We didn’t know what the format for the proceedings would be, but experience has taught us not to be timid at these times. When Vito and Antonella appeared at our elbow and confirmed that we were aimed at the right doorway for EU passport holders, we pushed forward with renewed determination. We stood our ground against others pushing forward and relentlessly pushed aside those with less mass or determination.

We were amongst the first dozen to be processed by a disinterested, harassed looking official, but it had taken nearly an hour in the maul to get through. We could only imagine how long it would have taken for those back in the cafeteria mass.

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These well tied down bikes accompanied the Elephant in the car deck.

We rolled the Elephant down the ramp from the vehicle deck and straight into the streets of Palermo. I think I heard the Elephant groan, “so, this is Sicily, now get me some decent clean petrol!”

Back in the land of digital mapping, we had programmed the GPS well in advance with the location of the BMW dealer but, unfortunately, not the BMW “Moto” dealer. It took us an hour in the traffic to find the place but it was time well spent getting used to local traffic. Greg and Kerry Lane will be pleased to know that the Sicilian drivers make the Italians look like masters of restraint.

We weren’t surprised when they couldn’t service the bike late on Friday afternoon, but the friendly and helpful service manager booked us for Monday and gave us the address of a business to fix the slow leak in our rear tyre.

We were told to ask for Mario Gambino and we did just that when we arrived an hour later. Mario had been phoned and warned that we were on our way. He and his team marvelled at the Elephant’s fit out, where we had been, where we were planning to go and the whole idea of the Ulysses Club and its crazy motto. In short order, they removed a shard of steel from the tyre, repaired the wound and pumped it with 3.5 bar of Palermo smog.

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Mario’s team get to work on the Elephant.

“How much?” I asked. Mario shrugged his shoulders, spread his arms in a welcoming gesture, and said something we took to be “welcome to Sicily!”

We joined Mario for lunch at a new restaurant next door. The proprietor, Antonio, had learned his trade during 17 years in New York and had returned with his family to make a big investment in his home town. We had the best pizza we had tasted since New York, exchanged stories about our families and enjoyed our first Italian coffee for a while.

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Mario, Antonio and Mike enjoying the early spring sun.

We left Mario with a Ulysses sticker still chuckling over Antonio’s interpretation of the Ulysses motto and the special hand shake we had shown him. With two days to explore western Sicily we headed for the coastal town of Trapani, a warm hotel and two more alarmingly good pizzas and long neck of local beer.

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Sunday in the park – Palermo.

By the time the Elephant was back from the BMW dealership three days later, we had discovered that Sicily was full of challenging mountain roads and ancient villages clumped precariously on the top of the hills.

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Jo loved the “undercover police dogs”. At least that is what we thought these well fed pooches must be.

We walked all over Palermo from our hotel in a less salubrious quarter, ate some great Sicilian food, and started to get used to the budgetary reality of being back in Euro-land.

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“Our street”, at least for a couple of days.

The Elephant was also in good fettle with new fuel filters after the lousy petrol in North Africa and new brake pads in back. Its warranty expired on the day after its 30k service.

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Another BMW dealer and a chance for the Elephant to pick up bad habits from the locals.

We headed out for Messina on the eastern coast by the old coastal road. The 250km took more than 8 hours in the saddle and was a good explanation for the construction of the autostrada.

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Messina looked smart from the mainland ferry.

After the ferry to Italy, we elected a combination of autostrada and back roads for the ride over to Brindisi on the east coast. This interesting town was the end of the Appian Way and the step off point for the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.

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The crusader church in Brindisi had the remains of a…

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…fresco showing the Virgin blessing the knights. I assume this was before they sacked Constantinople.

We bought tickets for the only ferry running to Igoumenitsa, Greece, departing at 1900hr and got ourselves down to the docks late enough to ensure we were last on and close to the loading ramp. We spent the 8 hour passage in the bar chatting with Steve and Sandy, an English couple on their way to Greece to spy out a permanent mooring for their yacht. Steve had once ridden a 250cc two stroke Harley Davidson (who remembers this period of Harley history these days?) through Algeria and across the Sahara to Mali and had some great stories to tell about that adventure so the time went quickly.

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The trick is to turn up late so that you go on after the semis and are positioned near the door. Most small (cars, etc) vehicles go a level up or down and take much longer to get off.

We rumbled off the back of another ferry at 0400hr Greek time and had a great rush of enthusiasm as we stormed past the semis up a new freeway heading into the night. Our enthusiasm lasted for as long as the new road, about 25km. After that it was down to business and we hustled east and then south along the twisting mountain road through the dark.

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Ready to roll off another ferry. It's cold and nothing is open because it is 4:00 am. Welcome to Greece!

I know I have mentioned this before, but the headlights on the Elephant are a hopeless disgrace. For safety sake, we will have to organise an upgrade before our next night ride in mountains.

By dawn it was raining and cold, but we were thankful for the light and just hustled on. By midday we were half way down the country, warm and comfortable in a hotel room in the prosperous town of Messolongi with our bellies full of mousaka and beans and with the feeling that we had done a pretty good night’s work.

It was the first time we had been to Greece for about 20 years but we still have great memories of the wonderful month we spent here with Sarah and Nick in 1990. We had been propelled on our journey here by the kindness of strangers, and it felt good to be back.

Posted by Mike Hannan at 05:52 PM GMT

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