Preparation ? Almost non-existent. The planets seemed perfectly in line, newly single again, my 40th birthday and a 6 week paid 'holiday' due to a contractual issue when changing jobs. Shame to waste it :) My first idea was to stick panniers on my 62,000 mile 1999 TDM and disappear...... but then I realised that buying a properly equipped tourer off Ebay and selling it when I got back would be cheaper and more comfortable. About 8 minutes later I was the new owner of a 1995 Pan European - and after a trip from hell (well, Birmingham actually) in heavy rain down an accident-littered M40 and M25, things are starting to shape up. While waiting for the V5 to arrive from the DVLA, I am putting a cigar lighter on the Pan so I can use my iPod for both music and for photo storage. I am expecting to build up an extensive photo library on the road - one benefit of travelling alone is that no-one else gets bored with all the photo shoots ! Eagerly awaiting a V5 before the next instalment....
I was waiting for my V5, but I have now realised I can go with a temporary cert from the local DVLA office. The ferry is booked for Sunday 7th August ..... and then on the Saturday I hit a massive bump on a local road.... the centre stand whacked the already rather tired exhaust and the left silencer is now hanging free....great start ! 4.30pm on a Saturday....trying to find a local shop with one in stock. So down to a local car spares shop for a bandage - I'll get it fixed properly on the trip. I quite fancy having an outlandishly foreign stamp in the service history anyway...
Now in Prague. Its been raining most of the day, so the photo opportunities are limited. I arrived here exactly 24 hours after landing at Calais. I got a very civilised ferry from Dover around noon to let me get a good nights sleep, but my smoke alarm decided to play up all night for the first time ever.... great ! So I was sleepy on the way down and ended up overnighting at Mannheim in Germany. Scattered showers right through Germany and the Czech Republic, but all quite short so I skipped the waterproofs - the Pan keeps me fairly dry at speed. My exhaust repair seems fine. Cruising around 100 - 110 through Germany, getting blitzed by cars which must be doing 150. Even your average white van man will thrash the poor thing to death to kiss my topbox ! The roads were great until I neared the Czech border - the Germans are digging them up to check they will support their latest model of tank, and there are a number of detours involved. BUT, ignore the guidebooks - bikes don't have to pay to use Czech motorways - thats just for cars.
Hotel very basic and not very cheap, so I hope that starts changing soon - over 40 days on the road could get expensive otherwise. Food and beer very cheap if you avoid the most central tourist area though. I haven't seen a British car since I left France and there are very few bikes on the road - the only ones going my way were a Spanish couple on a Diversion and two Swiss guys on Harleys. But then again, its wet - so who is the stupid one .....
I spent two nights in Prague - a beautiful city, but nothing looks as impressive in drizzle and overcast skies. Thanks go to Daniela for showing me some of the nightlife - its a fun city. I'm sure she would do the same for free drinks in future...and they are very cheap there ! Much cheaper and more fun than a guide. It might be better if you're not English as the only guy who ever dumped her was..... I don't think she liked him much anyway, but apparently no one is allowed to dump someone that beautiful.... she decides when ! So I'm safe there then... The next morning I finally found my way out of Prague and to Kutna Hora - not easy, as when they work on a road here they tend to just close it and leave you to find your own way there... Kutna Hora is famous for the church which is piled high with human bones. They used them for decoration, chandeliers, the works..... macabre, but worth a look.
By now I had decided to go to Krakow and Czech roads being what they are, I used the motorway via Brno to get to Poland - probably the right choice, as even some of their motorways are fairly poor.
As I entered Poland the sun was shining for the first time - but it didn't last long. The roads continued to deteriorate - one pothole caused my mirror to drop off in its 'accident breakaway' mode but no harm was done. A few more bikes started to appear - all local - and I had a CBR6/R6 escort towards the city centre. They weren't making much on me away from the lights but I couldn't match the wheelies and I conceded defeat when they got on to full on slalom races in traffic.
Krakow looks beautiful as you approach at night - castle in lights, impressive city square. I got in to a hotel just before it started pouring with rain again. Meal in a good restaurant on one of the best city squares in Europe - under 2 GBP. With 2 pints of beer, total bill 3.50.... impressive. I will stay here two nights and then head to Budapest through the Tatra mountains / Slovakia.
I spent two nights in Krakow, moving to a cheaper hotel for the second night. It is a beautiful city with what they say is the largest city square in Europe. Its surrounded by pavement cafes and upmarket shops, but food and drink is amazingly good value. I was told I got ripped off by paying GBP 2.50 for a 10 minute cab ride - but if that is my biggest mistake all trip I will be very happy.
A waitress offered to show me the nightlife when she finished work - at midnight.... but I don't exactly have to get up for work in the morning :) So a big thankyou to Magda for her work for the Polish tourist industry - very helpful and a lot of fun.
I left Krakow with the sun shining - things are looking up. Horrendous traffic jams for the first few miles. Filtering is tough as Polish drivers won't move at all, and trucks have worn big grooves which make the filter area a nightmare of ripples and unpredictable slopes and cracks leading to sudden wobbles which risk scraping nearby cars. There is a lot of road repair work going on, so maybe that will improve. After a few miles, the scenery changes - alpine style villages, rivers, rolling green hills - very pretty. Road is single carriageway, busy and illegal to overtake - which would have been tough anyway due to traffic and bends. So I bumble along looking around me, and I think avoided a speeding ticket as I finally looked back in front of me to see a cop with a radar gun pointing straight at me. Luckily I usually slow down when I'm not looking where I am going...
Entering the Tatra range, the roads get more fun. Less traffic, more hairpins, better views. Lots of small hotels available. This is what I was looking for ! Stopped for a few photos on the lower slopes, but its tougher to stop higher up and the light is not as good as I reach cloud level. Round the next bend and brakes full on.... what turns out to be about a 3 mile queue of cars and trucks queuing for the Slovak border. I lead 4 Austrians right to the front of the queue....maybe thats why Polish drivers don't like bikes :) Tough to see why the queue was so bad - they do the usual quick passport check, but those cars were looking at waiting several hours at the speed one guy was working at...
The Slovak border crossing looked like a real border - narrow bridge over a mountain river. Sort of what you imagine. The slovak side of the Tatras is equally impressive. Lots of parked cars in the middle of nowhere - this is trekking and cycling country. Roads improve. I ride with the Austrians for a while until we can all fill up with fuel.
Once out of the Tatras, the Slovakian countryside remains impressive. Attractive villages, churches and old castles - interesting scenery. The last big city - Kosice - looks pretty grim though.... Eastern European tower blocks... grey and not very appealing. The Hungarian border appears with no announcement or signs - completely deserted. No one interested in Hungary ? I start realising why - completely flat, no scenery whatever and even the villages are unappealing. However, although the first few miles were again being extensively repaired, the road to Budapest is excellent. Fast, well surfaced and fairly quiet.
I arrived in Budapest about 9pm. For some reason, the route in to the centre is not lined with easily accessible hotels, and all the ones I phone or find are full. There is a big music festival going on ...... decide to book in to the Meridian because I don't have any better ideas - Budapest does not seem to be as well served with internet cafes as other places, and I don't want to waste all night. Suddenly realise I forgot to eat all day, and have to break a promise and go to McDonalds as its late and I can't wait...
Saturday's weather is perfect - the best so far. Wander around being a tourist and then have dinner and drinks with a friend of a friend. Up early Sunday for a 10K run around a mountain above Budapest, with quite a large snake crossing my path. Spend the rest of the day with a group of Hungarian marathon runners, watching Paula Radcliffe win the World Championships and chilling out. And making me realise that I'm not that fit after all ! Momir from the HUBB forums also joined us and we talked about Romania.... must Hungarians have a low opinion of Romania and its people, except for the part which should really be part of Hungary :) Which is Transylvania. .... Dracula country. Momir, who is Serbian, agrees with them...... but I doubt I am going to change my mind.
I change hotels late Sunday to keep costs down, had a great meal with my Romanian guide book and my iPod while I take in all the scary advice I am hearing. There are four Italian bikes at the hotel - had a quick chat. I still haven't seen another UK bike since I left the ferry at Calais, and no British cars since entering Germany. Rain sets in on Monday - I've booked to leave the hotel Wednesday, as I am seeing a bike shop later today to see if I can get some work done on my bike - not essential, but may be a good idea.
The bike shop changes my tyres and oil/filter Tuesday, but the exhaust problem is too expensive to fix here and will have to wait until I get back to the UK. Andrasz at Powerbike speaks good English and was very helpful. Had coffee with Jeremy who works out here and runs around on his Guzzi while tinkering with an ageing Velocette and Jawa. Its still raining, but I think the weather is worse in Romania....unsure about when to leave. More and more scary stories about Romanian roads and drivers keep surfacing, but Jeremy has done part of the route - it can be done, but carefully.
At breakfast in Budapest it is pouring with rain. I leave at 10.30 during a lull, having still avoided unzipping my waterproofs despite all the rain on this trip. That record lasts until a few miles outside Budapest and I do the rest of the M3 in heavy rain. Heading for Debrenca, it dries up but the road is awful - and they say Romanian roads are bad..... To be fair, they are improving long sections but it certainly needed it. Mile after mile of construction damage makes overtaking impossible. My fuel reserve light has been on for over 30 miles and I'm starting to get very worried. I get to the front at another traffic light controlled section and, once through, swing it on what looks like the obvious route - nice new tarmac. Big mistake. Half a mile away, a truck is slowly heading towards me. I am now separated by a 2ft trench from the muddy construction track which I should have taken. The trucks behind me are slowly closing the distance. Spotting a gap where construction traffic has been crossing, I manage to sprint ahead and cross the trench on a pile of wet mud - good job my tyres have now got some tread on them.
Normally border areas have two way flow, meaning I should be seeing Romanian cars. There are none. For the last 10 miles on the minor road to the border there is no other traffic going either way. A little spooky, but the sun is out and things are looking good.
At the Hungarian border post they try and peel the photo off my passport and take a keen interest in my bike papers. Must be bored - obviously not many travellers here. The Romanian border is 200m away through some trees. Two Italian cars and one Hungarian have all the luggage strewn all over the road. Lots of armed border guards are wandering around with papers in their hands. I pull up for a long wait. A few minutes later, a guard wanders over with a stamp in his hand - takes a quick look at the passport and stamps it. He has no interest in the bike papers at all. He is peering at my speedo - he traces across from '150 mph' to the smaller '240 kph' and roars with laughter. He gives my passport back and seems to be encouraging me to demonstrate the top speed immediately. I laugh and decide its a joke...... there are at least 6 armed men watching me as I weave through the cars and head in to Romania.
The first few miles in to Romania were indeed pretty poor. Big holes, patchwork repairs - bad ones - and loose sand and gravel everywhere. Still, I could maintain about 30mph so it wasn't all bad. I passed my first horse and cart within a few minutes - after half an hour they were no longer a novelty. Men over 40 are wearing pork pie style hats - apparently Madness are still popular here. Very little traffic about - mostly old Dacias, which are copies of Renault models from the 60s and 70s. This is like stepping back in time - and the sun is still shining.
Once I got on the major road to Oreadne, long sections were actually quite decent. There were bad patches, especially in villages, but nothing too outrageous. Polio seems to have been active fairly recently and the looks on some of the faces suggest a few other problems - I know serious pollution caused a lot of birth defects years ago. A middle aged man gives me a 'go faster' wave and a big grin - rather similar to the banjo player in Deliverance. Hmm..... A new Bentley Continental passed in the opposite direction. That would stand out even in Knightsbridge - god knows what its doing here, but I don't think it had any plates. I later saw a recent Ferrari wearing Italian plates in Cluj - that would take a real hammering on these roads.
Turning on to the major route to Cluj, the road gets a lot worse as we go through a series of diversions. An Alsatian launches an attack as I approach his yard - luckily I'm going fast enough to breeze past before he gets there. A couple of trucks flash me as I come in to a village. Universal language. I go past the police car at 50 kmh with no other traffic around and he is shaking his head and laughing at me. The sign language seems to suggest 'stop taking the piss and get out of here....' Then we start climbing. The road surface improves still further - two lanes up, one down. Endless smooth curves, multiple hairpins and everything else is so slow they instantly pull over. This is the best road I have seen so far. New tyres now nicely scrubbed in, the lean angles get very impressive. And then....I'm back in Romania - fully committed to a lovely bend, peg just off the tarmac, and there is a medium sized dog standing just the other side of the centre line. She has 3 puppies playing around her legs and is about 6ft from the line I need through the corner. She hears me and turns - I get a nasty flashback to the Alsatian incident - she looks harmless, but she could easily wipe out my front wheel. Luckily she doesn't move, and just stands there wagging her tail as I pass. Hopefully she moves before the next truck passes.
Down in to the valley, it is single lane only. Hunting down trucks and taking them on the brakes in to bends, in short stretches no car could take advantage of. Surface gets a bit rippled as heavy trucks have given their braking area a hard time. As it flattens out, the traffic slows for a series of villages and I see two Super Teneres in my mirrors. A great riding day just got better - sport ! I know these bikes very well and considered buying another one for the trip - better on rough roads, lighter and nimbler. But we are on good roads - I have significantly more power than them and better tyres. After the villages we have a great time tearing along the valley curves - there is a third bike behind them and he seems to be struggling. I offer them the lead in the next village but they decline...... good, they got the message then :) I lose them when we start heading upwards again - more beautiful curves, but often only one lane. They don't have the power or the brakes to do steep uphill overtakes in the short spaces available. Guess I bought the right bike then.
I get in to Cluj at what I thought was 6pm - and later realise is 7. I crossed a time zone. Its a run down place with an attractive central square. It starts pouring with rain as I check in to the hotel....someone must be on my side.
Breakfast next morning... still raining. Its 8.30am and the guys on the terrace have finished breakfast and have a brandy each. They are wearing cowboy hats and huge moustaches. Inside, the diners near the door are still on beer with their breakast. The waiter gives me four photocopied sheets of paper and I ask for a coffee. No - I must choose a breakfast. But coffee is on all the menus - can he get that while I decide ? No. Every item is individually priced, right down to one small butter and the half a tomato which goes with each type of fry up. Each of the 4 options comes to exactly the same price, but my rate included this and I'm not hungry anyway.... if I had company, we could have hours of fun asking him to leave off the tomato, extra egg, extra..... no, no, no..... The coffee is an espresso and the rest of it can be ignored..... time to go.
I had a quick walk around Cluj before it dries up for the ride. In my opinion, writing this after having seen a number of other places in Romania, give it a miss. Its claim to fame is having some trendy London-style bars. It does, but thats not why I came to Romania.
I decide I'm wasting time checking in and out of hotels, so stay two nights in Cluj. That lets me do a circuit up towards the Ukrainian border through a very scenic area. It is of course still raining next morning....
In Romania, you may smoke a pipe in the shower - but we recommend you keep your hat on.
After a nightmare getting out of Cluj, I head north. There is heavy flooding just outside the city. People are trying to bale out their houses. The rivers are chocolate brown torrents and the locals are hanging over bridges just watching.
The road on the way north varies - nothing too bad. The road in to the mountains is again stunning - beautiful views, lovely curves.... but this time the surface is awful. Heavy trucks have destroyed the tarmac and there are waves, holes and all sorts of odd features in the surface. Most of them haven't actually cracked the surface, so they are tough to spot. Trucks have dropped so much diesel I can smell it. Scary. Coming down the other side in the wet is even worse....
Sighetu Marmetei is quite an interesting spot. If I had brought my kit I would have stayed here - could have even detoured in to the Ukraine, but I assume I need a visa. I visited a museum - a Securitate prison. The walls were lined with photos of victims and there were descriptions of the styles of torture in the cells. I can't read the text but the pictures said quite enough. Its difficult to understand how such a backward country could develop those practices to an extent that, arguably, no one else has ever achieved.
My average speed is a lot less than I predicted. I decide to take a different road back because it might be quicker - and because it is different..... This involves a long distance on a lower category road which is absolutely terrible. I start getting worried about making it back before dark. The locals are leading cattle back from the fields. Men are walking home carrying full size 'Grim Reaper' scythes or pitchforks. The smell of diesel has been replaced by woodsmoke - no trucks on these roads, and they are getting ready to eat. Few cars about, and I can still go much faster by skirting most of the potholes - but in some places that is still only 20mph ! I get back in to Cluj at dusk. Poor planning - must try harder !
I beat this train to every level crossing for the next 10 miles. And they were all closed waiting for it to come through.....
Four Italian bikes were at the hotel last night. Identical V-Stroms - which is either great trip planning (cuts down on spares & tools) or incredibly unimaginative. One of them speaks some English - he went to Twickenham to watch the Italians get thrashed :) They are now on their way home.
I decide on a low mileage day and ride to the Turda Gorge. This sounded like an easy option at the time...... The last 4 miles to the Gorge are worse than your average farm track. Not a surprise really - it basically is a farm track ! There is no tarmac - just mud, stones and gravel. I remember that part of 'The Long Way Round' where they take the bikes up a track they can't get back down... I can't turn round either.... most of it is uphill, which is safer - but I have to come back ! If you had told me I could do this on a Pan-European two weeks ago I would have laughed at you. The photos of the gorge were great, but they would only be worth it if I don't drop the bike on the way down. Felt quite sick at the time. But I made it... couple of Germans smiling in their 4WD as they see someone standing on the pegs of a fully laden supertourer going the other way. If I ever meet another biker who has done that, they will have used a GS or XT. Unless someone has done it with a Goldwing, I'm quite proud of myself :)
More great curves back on the main road. Get to my destination about 4pm. Get attacked by another dog at very short range, but I'm able to accelerate away. Glad I wore my massive old Alpinestar MX boots - they are about dog height and are as tough as .... Tough to find a hotel as there is a music festival on. But the sun is out and its a beautiful place. Park the bike outside the B&B. When the first question from the usual crowd is not 'How fast is it ?' but 'How much is it worth ?' I feel a bit uncomfortable. I tell him its 10 yrs old, and as it now looks like I have ridden it around fields for months he loses interest.
Sighisoara one of several places laying claim to the Dracula myth and would make a good stop for any tourist. Had a chat with an Australian doing part of my trip in reverse - heading towards Hungary on an SV650. Have a few beers and a corn on the cob watching the dancing - realise that is all I ate all day.
It took me an hour to reach the start - eventful only for the fact that this is Saturday and its obviously a big wedding day. In one village I stop to let the wedding party cross to the church - mostly conventional type dress except for one girl who must be well over 6ft tall in her heels. She has the longest, most tanned legs I have ever seen and she is wearing a black silk mini-skirt which covers virtually nothing..... I would love to see what she wears in the nightclubs !
This road was one of Ceaucescu's follies - determined to prove he could control nature, he built a road across the Fagarasan mountains at great cost in money and lives. It is the most scenic route I have ever seen. It took me an hour to get to the turning off the main road - no special signs. I stop to put on an extra sweatshirt and take some snaps. The mountains are dark and covered in cloud.
At the base the roads are dry, but in poor condition - big trenches gouged out for future repairs. Hard braking makes the imperfections grip the tyres and steer the bike, regardless of the line I wanted. Further up, we enter the clouds. The roads are damp, and waterfalls become routine. Riding in to another thick cloud, just a few feet from a sheer drop is psychologically demanding and my average speed drops like a stone. No trucks on this road, but plenty of slow cars - we are all stopping for photos regularly so no one is in a hurry here. You will not be achieving any impressive lean angles here.
When the clouds clear there are fantastic views of the roads, waterfalls and peaks. I have never seen anything like this. Coming down the other side, the surface is worse - and wetter. Much of it is along the side of a stunning moumtain lake. Romanian tourists unfortunately leave piles of rubbish wherever they can have a picnic, but its still impressive. At the end of the lake I cross a huge dam - guarded by one heavily armed soldier who walked in to the armoury and asked for 'one of everything please, sir'. I assume he probably doesn't want me to park on the dam, but I get a few photos from further on.
I took a lot of time up there, but I still wanted to see two monasteries. Both require detours but the first - whilst clearly a gem - is completely covered in scaffolding. Given the time, the sensible thing to have done then would be heading for the next hotel. But of course...... I head for the next one, knowing it will be closed but wanting to get a full day of sightseeing in. The main road there is closed due to flooding, so I get diverted through the back roads. Which are also flooded, but only by a few inches. Which might be OK, but I saw the size of the potholes on the dry bit, and now I can't see the road at all ! Luck must be on my side, but I get in to Pitesti very late.
There is a wedding party in my hotel. I can't sleep so they move me higher up. I don't bother with the TV remote when I switch, as I just want to sleep. So when I switch it on while packing in the morning it is stuck on a porn channel. Funny.... sometimes i have to remember my mother is reading this. Then I pick my jacket off the floor and a cockroach scurries away - I'm just surprised it took me so long to find one. Another one seems to have hitched a lift to Bucharest as it falls out of the pannier seal when I open it. Crunch.
Uneventful, except for the only stretch of motorway here. This is a killing field - dead dogs in places where I can't even work out why a dog would be there. The hard shoulder is for cyclists going the other way, peeing, and parking so you can jump the central reservation to get a cup of tea. But its Sunday morning and its fairly quiet.
Bucharest is fairly easy to get in to and, being Sunday, I have no problems. I have booked in for 2 nights here. I get offered girls by a very friendly pimp but manage to politely decline. He insists on putting his number in to my phone just in case I need him later. There are strip bars everywhere and several restaurants advertise 'massage parlours' on the premises - one stop shopping...
I take a guided tour of Ceaucescu's Palace of the People - the second biggest building in the world, built by one of the poorest countries and entirely sourced from Romania. He had this marble staircase rebuilt 5 times because he was very short and didn't like the standard step height.
Getting out of Romania was straightforward and for some reason I am exempt from departure tax which everyone else has to pay, but there was a fairly long wait getting in to Bulgaria. Truck drivers just shrug and laugh.....seems like every country thinks their neighbours are worse than they are. They check my bike papers very carefully - the first to do so - but again I seem to be exempt from Bulgarian road tax. Approaching anyone in this area wearing a helmet seems to work wonders !
I head straight for Plovdiv, as I need to make up some time. The weather is mostly good, the roads are as variable as Romania's and I have another scenic ride through the mountains. I also hit the worst pothole of the trip - big enough to bury a cow in, and I was suckered in to it as I was close behind a car turning on to the highway. It went between the cars wheels, and as it appeared I had nowhere to go. My mirror fell off again....
Police are absolutely everywhere - I see more speed traps in one day than I have seen on the whole trip so far. They also have the worst roadsign system I have ever seen. Numerous major junctions in Plovdiv have no signs on them at all. The fact that the few they do have are in cyrillic script is just the icing on the cake.... My map was bought in the UK and isn't in cyrillic - the translation is often far from obvious.
Had a good and very cheap meal in Plovdiv after a lot of work on a cyrillic menu - no one spoke English. Next morning saw a monastery and decided to get out of the country. Roadsigns are very important to me and I'm wasting too much time...
So glad I was out of Bulgaria, it was a little unfair on Greece. Weather good. Big bikes are now all over the place - no-one is waving at me any more. I stop overnight at Katerini - bike is making an odd noise at low speed but I can't work it out.
Next morning, the front wheel bearings collapsed on me - abuse on Romanian and Bulgarian roads, no doubt. Scary, as I had been doing over 100mph not long before. I called my bike insurers in the UK - Tow truck, palatial Honda dealer in Larisa.... all solved. New wheel bearings fitted while I wait for 65 Euro - not bad. And the sun was still shining....no worries. Now if that had happened in Romania or Bulgaria I would probably still be stuck there.....
Headed towards Athens after the bike was fixed. Nightmare. NEVER drive in to that area. I finally found a very expensive hotel near the airport.
Took a slow and scenic route out of Athens, over an impressive ship canal cut deep in to the rock. Some very pretty mountain roads and typically greek seaside tavernas. Stayed overnight in Korfos - took my first swim. Very stony beach was hell on my feet though.
Second and third nights in Kyparissia. More mountain and coastal roads - would be great on a sports bike. Plenty of idiots riding sports bikes with their helmets carefully protecting their left elbows. I easily caught and passed a ZXR on a twisty mountain road - on a Pan European.... When I passed him, he didn't even have sunglasses on - the 50mph wind had his eyes so screwed up he could barely see where he was going. There were no turnings on that road, so he had just cruised along for nearly 20 miles without being able to use his bike properly - presumably because a helmet looks more cool on your arm ???? I was told they do this because they only get fined if the helmet is with them - if they don't have one at all then the police can confiscate the bike.
The road surfaces look fairly good at first glance but often seem shiny with use and I wouldn't want to lean it too far over on some of the bends. The centre stand touches down several times on both sides - hitting a big dip halfway through a bend rather than riding particularly hard. Enough to wake me up though.
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