After a brief spell in Croatia (expensive!) we legged it to the more hardcore countries of Bosnia and Albania. The borders for both were suprisingly easy, the Bosnian one took a few of our hard earned sheckels for (needed!) insurance but got a free import docket from them (result).
First stop was Mostar, staying in the weirdest 'pansion', where much dodgy homebrewed moonshine (loza rakia and orahovaca) was drunk, accompanied by the bingo, which was avididly followed by our ex gymnast host (also saw footage of uber floods in dear old Blighty!)
Lots of war-damaged buildings and 'beware mines' signs, encouraged our non-free-camping status. There was an excellent road to Sarajevo with lots of Africa Twins zipping round (obviously a more rufty-tufty crowd!) Found the only campsite in Bosnia and headed (by ancient tram!) to Sarajevo, which is a really happenening city - full of life and really getting on with sorting itself out (oh, a good local beer - Sarajevsko pivo??)
Best road was in the Republica Sprska, with the added bonus of all the signs being in Cyrillic (a quick gen-up was duly done). Some of the borders into Montenegro were closed (no reason given, of course!) so back to Dubrovnik and a looong wait in the heat (yup, it's been constantly in the 40s for the last couple of weeks). Turned left into Montenegro for a quick dip in southern Europe's deepest (only?!)fjord, and into Albania. A quick enquiry about whether James would like to give his biking gloves as a gift to the border guard was gently (and successfully) rebuffed by the pierats as the AT gently ooozed into the melting tarmac.
Tirana was our first stop and we managed to find, what we can only assume was a "love hotel" (yes, AGAIN) as rooms were by the hour or a "rest" for the night... Again, a happening city, with a multitude out and about enjoying the park and pavement cafes, feeling totally relaxed and safe, even after hearing all the horror stories of armed police waving guns in faces at the border and the like ....
Through into the mountains and being miles and miles from anywhere opted to freecamp. Saw forest fires coming closer and wondered about the bears, wolves and gun toting locals, surrounded by Hoxjo's weird bunkers (of which there are 70,000 apparently fact fans).
Our last stop was the bizarre UNESCO town of Gjirokastra, where we watched the presidential elections (for those not fully versed in AL politics, it's Bamir Topi) on tv and the fireworks being let off in the streets by happy locals (we assume).
Note: here is the bike in our B&B restaurant, to get it off the streets.
We really enjoyed Albania, and altho it has more than a whiff of Morocco to it (bad roads, even worse drivers in their ancient Mercedes, cows being butchered in the dusty streets...) it's a great country to explore, the locals friendly, and very beautiful countryside to explore, and we even managed to get out without paying the exit tax OR daily tourist tax - result!
After navigating the whole of Albania by the map ripped out of a Lonely Planet, we decided on buying a Greek map to help us traverse our way. Into Greece and our stops have been the amazing Meteora monasteries, swimming in the Aegean by the moonlight shadow of Mt Olympus and birding at the Dadia National Park, with more black vultures and raptor fun, despite the fire department closing the park as we left due to fire hazards from the heatwave....
Next country, Turkey!
The Turkish border is quite a thing... jaunty waves abounded from the armed 'kids' on the bridge but then we hit the big guns. Hut 1: Greek farewell dude and a photo of the bike number plate; Hut 2: Friendly Turk greeting; Hut 3: Main Turk a) passport check b) bike insurance (but a bargain at 8EUR); c) visa (not a bargain at 30EUR) d) vehicle stamp e) final stamp; Hut 4: customs and photo of bike; Hut 5: post-main-passport control, fierce, then super friendly and of course, another photo of the bike number plate and with more jaunty waves and, quite some time later, we were in Asia Minor, our 3rd continent.
A few things we noticed straight away about Turkey, is that NO ONE drinks coffee, it's tea, tea and more tea, in fact, our teeth have been rotted by the vast amounts of sweet, black (bonus) cay we have been given over the past few weeks - a quick visit to Sensei Di and his tooth salon when we're back I wager. There is also no Turkish Delight (boo) but lots of halva (yum) and definately no hummous (boo), our biggest problem!
It's been a Roman ruins bonanza, with visits to Troy (no Brad Pitt, alas), Ephesus, Pergammon, Hierapolis and the famous travertine pools at Pamukkale. Also the amazing 'fairy chimmneys' in Goreme (and the early morning wake up call of 20 balloons floating over the tent doing their 'sunrise over the valley' thang).
The Turkish people are unbelievably friendly and generous: one guy came out from his shop by a mosque in Sarkikargac and gave us a bundle of fruit, then brought out hot drinks and bottles of water! Then the amazing bonus night near Ankara where it was getting late, so we nipped into a likely looking spot just off the ring road. Alas, we were then waved over by 3 armed security guards, and with much use of the phrase book, it turns out we had entered the studio lot of TRT (Turkish TV), but over more cay, the guys said we could sleep in one of the spare snow ploughs, use their shower and asked us what time we wanted breakfast. Result! Then the international language of 'Pass the Pigs' game whiled the night away.
the security guys at TRT
our 'bed' for the night
Other notable friendliness was at the Abant lake campsite, which in itself was negotiated with the (again, armed) ticket guard over much cay, where we were greeted by the other campers like lost family and given almost more food and cay than we could cope with...
We were also given Turkish names: James (as he doesn't look English apparently!) is now known as Tolga (a name given by Zafer, a pide shop owner, and his eccentric American pal Delmar) and Imogen was given 'Dilara' as 'Imogen' was way too tricky.
Our original plan was to spend a month in Turkey, but with the haemorrhaging of cash on petol (about 1.40 UK pounds a litre - ARGHHH), we had to cut it short and head for cheaper countries. In fact, the petrol was such a problem that we saw cars being pushed through the Turkish border into Bulgaria, being gratefully fuelled by the myriad of petrol stations eager and waiting just over the crossing.
Now in Bulgaria, the land of free camping in the mountains, having a huge, be-tusked wild boar thundering through the long grass by our tent (with James almost whittling a pointy stick as 'protection'), washing in river water and being generally 'hombres' of the hills, after all, you can't be a true biker until you've pooped in the woods (and in the case of IM, thrown up also, after some Bulgarian bad eggs, unless it was the 1EUR wine... surely not).
James 'hombres' shaving in river water
On a more personal note for those of a soppy persuasion, James and Imogen are now engaged, with rings being purchased in the Grand Bazar in Istanbul and exchanged between the Aga Sofia and Blue Mosque... AHHHHHH...
Since our last blog we've been having a great time in the Balkans and Central Europe. Bulgaria was very interesting with a lot more horse and carts on the roads, no shops (where do they buy food?!) and of course, the delights of everything being written in Cyrillic (cue the purchasing of 2 identical maps, one in Roman, the other in Cyrillic, but IM's reading coming on a treat!).
Into the Rila Mountains which are gorgeous, and also many archeological fun things too - more tumuli than you can shake a stick at plus Thracian tombs a-plenty (and a 'hello' from Plovdiv for the ace Dobrinka Tabakova).
Needed to buy a new front tyre (now looking a little threadbare and not changed since leaving, so good on you Bridgestone Trailwings!) but the only one we could find was the ritzy make "Vee" rubber...hmmmmm... (no bikes in BG), so we waited till a more rufty tufty one could be found (in Romania).
The Romanian border was super easy (phew) and not even a glance at papers, so a nice change from Turkey. Eastern Romania is an odd place, strangely ritzy Black Sea holiday resorts, but then with very poor rural areas of looong streets lined with mud brick bungalows and mini marts. Our first brush with the local 'colour' was a guy who had obviously been on the breakfast beers, and some gentle harrassment at the traffic lights, until wife/girlfriend/fellow drinker turned up, threw a glass of drink over him and chased him through 4 lanes of traffic, causing much chaos, then the lights turned green..vroooom.
Bike drop number 18 happened at 7am on the way to a boat trip on the Danube Delta (birding fun for JB), BIG muddy puddle:
Birding highlights include Caspian Tern, Pygmy Cormorant, Marsh Sandpiper and the incredibly dull but hardcore and rare Paddyfield Warbler.
Onto Transylvania, which has a very different feel to the rest of Romania, lush greens, mountains and wooden pointy houses alpine-esque. We fantastically arrived in the area during a storm, and then free-camped by a graveyard (how very 'Buffy'). Muchos vampire fun had at Bran Castle and Sighisoara (where Vlad Tepes did his impaling) and we managed to spend many happy hours supping the local beers whilst watching a music festival in the town square, ending with the jazztastic Harry Tavitian.
Our 'bathroom' in Sighisoara
Next country Hungary (filled with Tescos! most odd) which we ended up staying in longer than anticipated as, at Hortobagy National Park, we met the wonderfully monikered Zoltan Sellei, who invited us back to his home. Four days of fantastic cooking from Violetta, playing of games, all in mime, with their son Dani, and a highlight for James, feeding his 'pet' Hobbies with dead sparrows, bunnies and the like. We found it quite difficult to actually stop and rest in one place after always being on the move, and several times we had to be talked into staying another night, and to enjoy the generosity of (at first) strangers.
After promises of keeping in touch, eating turo-rudi and maxikings (any weight lost, now put on, sigh) we bid a fond farewell to our new friends and we were back on the road. First to Slovakia and more mountains (Tatra), this time for the Wallcreeper, which is still maintaining its elusiveness, even after 5 months of searching. Now back in the land of chilly nights and our first sight of snow in ages, brrrrr, it really feels like the start of autumn, after so many months of baking temperatures.
Realised that we were a stones throw from Poland, which is a bonus country for us (number 20) as we hadn't planned on going there. Had a great night in Krakow, even eating out in a pub, our first time since Albania, with beetroot soup and perogi on the menu, instead of packet soup and veggies with pasta. We then headed west for an afternoon at the sobering Auschwitz/Birkenau.
Onwards to the Czech Rep. for Becherovka drinkage and then towards Italy...
From leaving the harrowing Auschwitz and Birkenau, we hit country no. 21 1/2 (thanks Republika Sprska for that one!) and the Czech Republic. Rain, rain and more rain meant fairly miserable riding and a trip to a bike shop for emergency new boot purchasement, the old ones being consigned to bio-hazard and the fact that toes were peeping through in a rather unsatisfactory manner.
A low point, after all that rain, was a clamp on the bike in Cesky Krumlov (rhyming slang somewhere surely) and muchos handing over of hard earned wodges of notes to the local coppers - darn that local BMW rider who said it was OK to leave the bike there >sulk, sulk<
Had our last "mad local" incident outside the Spar, and only a few breakfast beers had been had I'm sure, so much arm waving and attempts at a Czech/German conversation to gain an insight into the local colour.
Into Germany and the fantastic roads through the Bavarian Alps and the many passes therein into Austria, including the Hochtannberg Pass at 1676 m and the billion Harley riders we saw (a memorable moment, pulling up behind a couple of hogs and yes, the dudes had snakeskin boots and were playing "Born to be Wild" on their stereo - absolute class).
For riders out there at the mo, take the 198 to Lake Constance - gorgeous, smooth roads and the best bends....
More passes through Switzerland and Liechtenstein (just to get that sticker!), and of course we did the Albula pass (2315m) and the Stelvio Pass, at 2757m, the highest in Europe (apparently) and so many bikes racing on the haripins and the novel sight of seeing a load of Lotus Elise's being stuck behind a large camper van (arf arf).
The better pass in that area had to be the Gavia Pass, slightly lower at 2621m but far more rufty tufty, with only the more hard core bikers on enduro/dirt bikes grooving around the hairpins on the weeny twisty roads with no other vehicles on it, less chrome and moustaches = better roads, surely?!
Over the Alps (again) into Italy for the wedding of the year just south of Florence, so saw sunrises over the lakes, with amazing roads (again) but way too many tunnels (over 4km in one stretch - ugh).
Our last official night before getting to the villa rented by the happy couple (Ben and Jane) was spent free camping in a church ground with the blessing of the church caretaker, after an unsuccessful few hours trying to find a spot near Bologna.. the light was going, all spare ground had "private" signs, and the one spot that we did manage to source in our growing desperation, was then visited by some ladies of the night, so we thought it prudent to move on. A wise move we felt! We asked at a farm whether we could pitch up, and they told us to try the church, which then gave us water and toilet facilities, plus a table to cook up on, result!
Arrived at the beautiful villa in Impruneta, smelling like bikers that have, well, been on the road and camping for 6 months, so we disrobed and flung ourselves into the pool..... bliss....
Ahhh, the delights of a villa in the Tuscan countryside, friends, food, wine, beer, a pool, a BBQ, and of course a wedding. A week was spent enjoying the high life and the wedding was beautiful in its simplicity and the 7 course meal that followed was out of this world, so congratulations to Ben and Jane!
JB as 'official' photographer here....
We waved off our friends before the long race back to Blighty, trying to cover the distance in only a few days. Through Parma (very disappointingly no huge 'ham' cardboard cutout at the town - one for the council I think). Mistakenly rode through the centre of Milan and up what I can only assume is their equivalent of Oxford Street on a Saturday evening (arghhh) to Lake Maggiore, very beautiful and again, some of the best riding. We sat by the shores of the lake having a breakfast pastry whilst the ritzy locals looked upon our trangia brews and scruffy attire pityingly...
Took the fabulous Route 33 into Switzerland - you've gotta love the Swiss, their roads, their choc, their cows, nazi gold (thanks Green Wing!), blissful riding and in cold (yet oddly warm) sunshine.
Rode for a while with an Italian on a BMW who showed us some tops routes, so we went up the Furka pass (2431m) to Interlaken and a swift view of the Eiger.
Through Belgium and a stop in Chimay for one of the best beers you will ever taste (Chimay reserve at 9%). IM found that a vole had started making a nest in her lid as we packed up our gear one very soggy morning, so cue much merriment from JB and pics of the wee fellow jumping in and out of our gear.
Our last night was spent near Calais and it was so cold and wet that the evening was spent sitting in the gents loo as it had walls and a roof and the thermarest's had worryingly developed a "bulge" fault, so time to head home we felt.... bye bye euroland, hello Blighty.
So this is it! Thank you for reading, we hope you enjoyed it... thanks to Ben C for the Pie-rats logo and to Steve (Anvil) Trout for the bike side stand mod.
And if anyone needs an Arts Administrator/Office Manager, then Imogen is your girl, driving and aikido lessons from James.... all donations happily received!
Total miles: 19,043
Countries: 27 1/2 (Republika Srpska being the half): France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Andorra, Monaco, (Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily), Italy, San Marino, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovenia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium
Total days: 187
Bike Repairs: new inner tube, new tyres x 2, new chain and sprockets, oil change x 3, headlight bulbs x 2, oil and air filters change x 1
Bike drops: 18
Mosquito bites: 86948347783847673485676384
Items missed: Harveys beer, flaming hot monster munch, baked beans
Beer list: 32 (I'll email you Big Bob!)
'Hombres' poos outside: by IM - 13; by JB - a paltry 1 (wuss)
Most indispensible items: double silk liner (wusses, again), mozzie bite 'clicker' and Ortleib folding washing bowl
Items ditched: 10L water bag, 3 t-shirts, rubbish cotton pants x 3, socks x3, long-sleeved shirt x1, techno top (too horrible and had 'piled' - IM), trainers (IM)
Equipment list (take a deep breath):
Thermarest mattresses and chair converters x2
Softie 9 (Hawk) sleeping bag, Coleman liteweight summer sleeping bag
Inflatable pillow (but finally died!)
Vango Spirit 200 lite tent
2 trek towels, 1 small hand towel and flannel
Panniers: soft Bagster (fell apart in France, gaffa tape to the rescue), Touratech Vega topbox, Bagster tank bag
Bike stuff: puncture repair kit, bike pump, tools incl tyre levers, spanners etc, spare clutch cable, throttle cable x2, bulb kit, AT bike manual (thankfully unused)
1st aid kit: incl painkillers, antiseptics, various medical unguents, crepe bandage, triangular bandage, 'toilet issues' pills, charcoal pills, hayfever and sting relief items, a sterile set with needles, tiger balm, plasters, 'Captain' TCP
Bottle sterilser tabs for 2 Camelback waterbottles
Cooking items: Trangia stove, 2 thermo mugs, wooden spoon, sharp knife, cutlery set (now missing knives), plastic baggies
Aerobie (health and fitness!)
Books: Lonely Planet "Europe on a Shoestring" and Turkish phrase book (our only guide books); Bill Bryson's "Short History"; White Fang; Ben Hur (last 2 purchased in Croatia); Collins Bird Guide; Collins Butterfly Guide (!); Helm - "Where to Watch Birds in Britain and Europe"
Candles and lighters, flint lighter
Copies of bike docs, insurance docs, passports etc
Mini Ganesh (for good luck)
Mini screwdrivers for spectacle mendage
Mosquito net and spray (pah)
MP3 players and mini speakers
Pack of cards
Penknives x 2
Phone charger (and mobile)
Mini scrubbing brush
Sponge bag incl: moisturiser, deo, soap, shampoo 2-in-1, spf lip protector and suncream and talc (IM luxury item!)
Thermarest repair kit (used twice)
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