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Tom Sebastiano

Around Europe on my Cagiva Elefant 650

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Introduction:

I suppose it started as a small idea but it really enthralled me, get on my motorbike and go as far as I can. I could have gone further but I was distracted by too many things. What was the point in just travelling? You've got to hang out, sit around, smoke fags, drink beer and lay in the sun as much as possible. Never having been one for sun bathing and being fidgety by nature I had to learn these new skills. It was great fun much better than learning to use some piece of hi-tech office equipment.
" I quit!" How many times had I wanted to shout those two words? They came softly spoken and fell on disappointed ears. Not because I would be missed, that I now know - it's the business that I generated that would be missed. So after eight years selling print contracts I left. Just to go for a ride on my bike.
Through the channel tunnel to the long tree lined avenues of northern France. What a great day. Feeling free, the sun had come out to greet me. By the time of my return
I had completed many miles, but these first two hundred were amongst the best. Having ridden through Rimes city centre that day I stopped in a motel for the night. It was enough excitement for one day. Slept like a baby that night.
Two weeks earlier I decided that some long distance practice might be in order. Having only passed my bike test a few months previous, I was short of experience - of any kind. The best place to go would be my mothers. She lives in Trowbridge only two hundred miles there and back.
Next day I was in a vice-like grip from the devil himself cured only by my whining to a doctor and magic pills called Ibuprofen. The Ibuprofen came with me just in case. Imagine my relief in the morning, having rode three hundred miles without falling off, crashing into a Renault or having any crushing pains. What's more I did not have nappy rash. There will be a lot more about my bottom later, suffice to say that along with my stomach these dictated to my head exactly how long the Elefant and I could stay on the road in any one day.
What's an Elefant? Don't you mean Elephant? No, that's what Cagiva called their new big trilie back in 1985 when it was released. In those days Europeans couldn't get enough of Paris Dakar style bikes. They didn't come much bigger than this, too big for me really, but having fallen in love with its chunky looks over eleven years previously, I wasn't going to let a 36 inch seat height stop me buying one. Anyway I was alright on tiptoes and the sound of a Ducati 650 twin was fantastic. So I set off on my own little adventure with a ten year old Italian motorcycle that I could hardly reach the ground on, and with little more than six months biking behind me - if I wasn't worried then my mother would be.
Next morning off towards Germany, I wanted to visit the Black Forest. Lunch was great, eaten al fresco in the sun outside the north eastern French city of Metz. French is not my strong point but I understand just enough. With big smiles and pointing, the waiter understood and brought vegetable soup with croutons and a dash of creme fraich, after grilled pork with pineapples and potatoes and some gorgeous sauce. Desert was apple pie with cinnamon. All presented beautifully and under ten pounds. I have since started a love affair with cinnamon amongst other foods discovered on my journeys. Belly satisfied off to Germany and confusion.
Spending the night in Karlsruhe at the city camp site. Along with most things in Germany the camp site was not easy to find. Using Germany as a hub one has to cross in to her many times to get to other countries. On each of these occasions I would get lost - it's the long words that confuse me I think. Sehrlangesnamenstrasse - see what I mean?
Evening was spent once again with big smiles and pointing as I tried to communicate with some young lads from Stuttgart, we ended up drinking beer and playing football.
Trying to hit the road early I was thwarted by the tent which simply did not fold up properly then I got lost in Karlsruhe centre. I did study the map in great detail and noted that the camp site was conveniently just around the corner from the road with the number 10 which in turn lead to the road with the number 294 taking me to the heart of the Black Forest. After fifteen minutes riding with morning traffic I passed the camp site on the opposite side of the road and was on my way. Just a word about German roads, as far as I could make out they don't have prefix's, you know like A303 or B267 in the UK or E32 in France. This is very confusing for stupid people like me or anyone who's not German.
What a wonderful ride that afternoon, the Black Forest is beautiful, tall trees coating endless hills with brooks and streams everywhere. Villages built from wood with pointed roofs, in between twisty roads made with smooth tarmac perfect for motorcycles.
By late evening I needed emergency roadside medical treatment, my bum was sore, out came the medicated talcum powder. Sadly this injury forced me to retire for the night .
Planning ahead I would make my way to Uster 10 km from Zurich to stay with my aunt for a few days, relaxing. Well I was on holiday after all!
The Elefant was in good health requiring only some oil, I was also in good health having been treated well by the family.
Onward to Austria - newly crowned member of the European Union according to the Swiss, Austria is like Switzerland but poorer and God forbid in the European Union. Travelling through Tyrol I arrived in the beautiful city of Innsbruck. Spending the weekend at the Moonshine hotel built in 1497 ( unfortunately refurbished in 1982 ) I sampled the delights of Innsbruck night life, went motorcycling in the Alps and enjoyed the hot Alpine summer.
Next stop Rimini, on the Italian Adriatic. That will do nicely for the summer I thought. Once again as luck would have it my uncle Giovanni lived nearby, so after a short stop over in Reggio Emilia I arrived.
The European championships were in full swing back in England, the weather was hot and I had found a comfortable bed. The first few days were spent at the beach wondering around Rimini looking for a job. My stay at the coast depended on me finding some way of earning money in between watching football matches and riding about on the Elefant. I had popped down to the local Cagiva dealers where I met Agusto the owner. Agusto was impressed that I had been stupid enough to ride a ten year old Cagiva all that way, when I told him of my plans to ride to Greece and my lack of motorcycle maintenance knowledge I was quickly recruited in to lessons during the afternoons that followed. In the workshop under Agusto's supervision I serviced the Elefant and fitted a new exhaust. As the Elefant originally came from California it was fitted with a stifling exhaust to comply with tough US laws. As a consequence it sounded crap. Not now, now it sounds just like a Ducati should, letting out all sorts of motor music.
Pottering around Rimini I started to get an insight to this interesting city. With a population of 130,000 who do 'God knows what' during the winter, the city swells to about half a million in the peak season of July and August. In this place everything happens that humans do, here they sun them selves, relax, eat good food, fall in love, go dancing, and have fun. Then there's the other side - the cheap prostitutes that line the sea front causing traffic jams at 5am as everyone slows down to stare at just how good a Brazilian transsexual can look flashing his hormone induced breasts.
At every intersection you are swamped by Albanian street children cleaning windscreens, selling Bic lighters and Magic trees. Many of these kids work from midday to midnight giving everything they make to the brutish men that look after them. Every summer these men return to Albania promising trusting parents that they will find work in the factories, or in agriculture for their sons and daughters. Inevitably on arrival they're whisked off somewhere, soon to be forced on to the streets to sell their bodies or drugs under constant threat of beatings, with no one to turn to.
On the beach there's the Coco Bella Mafia, as you lie soaking up the sun, young Neapolitan men walk about with wicker baskets full of chilled coconuts crying "coco bella, coco bona." There is me thinking they get up in the morning, buy the coconuts wholesale and make a packet all day. No that's not the way it works, first before the summer in Naples you are chosen to sell for the coco bella ring if you pay the right man the right money, then off to Rimini where you pay another man for the coconuts and of course a good share of the profits. It all works well until you try to go it alone or sell on someone else's patch, that's when you receive a visit in the night. Next day you're limping about with a black eye and a broken finger or two. Serious stuff coconut sales. All this is illegal but it takes all summer for something to happen. The Polizia and Carabineri have got other salesmen to worry about selling a different type of coca. Anyway it's all there to see, some of it funny, some sad.
After working for a bit as a barman I saved enough for the ferry ticket to Greece, off I went leaving Rimini at 8am and riding all day the length of the boot arriving 438 miles later in the ugly port city of Brindisi.
Aboard the Sansovino on my way to Igonominister I didn't sleep a wink. It was 6am by the time the Elefant and I thudded our way into the Greek countryside. By 10 o'clock I stopped for fuel and coffee after spitting out the ground beans from the cup, I asked the barman just how far it was to Athens, "It's 300 miles that way".
It was hot and everything was new to me, the countryside, the colours, the writing on the walls and shop fonts. Greek looks nice but_______________________and ______meant nothing to me at least the road signs are in the roman alphabet! So by about 6 o'clock I rode in to the suburbs of Athens, in sweltering heat. I was tired and the traffic was mad, I had reached the first capital of the trip and wanted to get out as soon as possible. Following the signs to Piraeus port I was greeted on arrival by more madness. Surrounded by hundreds of people rushing around backpackers, islanders, Greek holidaymakers all jockeying for position to board the ferry's leaving for the Cyclades islands. Asking for the boat to Naxos and pointed in the right direction I joined the havoc, that was loading up the Elefant abroad a Greek ferry. This is a harrowing experience matched only by the unloading, while you negotiate with all the passengers their goats and backpacks down the slippery ramp to the quay side, as the boat sways to and fro. Not much fun with a 200 kilo motorcycle overheating between your legs. Once on the quay the craziness continues, camp reps. and little old ladies rush over like screaming pop fans, ready to sell accommodation, discounts at the local taverns and night-club tickets. There was just such a scene when ten hours later I docked on the island of Naxos. Naxos Camping has a fantastic pool where I lazed about, deservedly having been on the road for over 48 hours. That evening I met Frodo and Dimitri, two Australians on their travels. We ate and drank all night.

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A couple of days later while sitting on the balcony at Frodos apartment looking at the busy street below, I noticed that no-one was wearing a helmet. While in Rimini I had taken to riding in tee-shirt and jeans and it was only a small step to ignoring everything I had been thought about motorcycle safety. Only a few minutes later I was laying face down, the Elefant on top of me surrounded by Greek men saying that I was going to fast, whilst they were paying lots of attention to the blonde Danish tourist who moments earlier had stepped out of a shop straight on to the road without so much as glance around her. She wasn't quite ploughed down, as I had almost come to a stop on the glass finished road by the time the front tyre hit her. I went down with a thud, my chin just missing the curb. Crying "I'm Sorry I'm so sorry," she got up helped by all those men who left me to squirm in the road unable to pick up the bike which looked very indignant spilling out fuel on its side. Finally with Frodos help who had witnessed the whole thing, I returned to the campsite.

During the next few days my health slowly deteriorated, I developed a summer cold with ear infection, nice stomach bug and some conjunctivitis so as not to see too good. Not to mention hobbling about on sprained ankles and two wrists twice as thick as usual. Feeling quite low wondering what the hell I was doing in Greece when I should be working like everyone else in the real world! After a few days convalescing by the pool I felt a lot better and moved on. Paros island and the surf club camp site where I spent seven days getting up strolling down to the beach, sitting at the beach side bar for a while, sunbathing a bit, reading, talking to people I met and eating whatever Nickos happened to be serving that day.

Time to leave and on to Ios, this island has a reputation and when I got there I saw why. A visit to Ios town after midnight is a real eye opener.'Drunkenville' what else could I call it, pissed people wobbling in and out of loud bars. By virtue of my injuries I hobbled and wobbled most of the night in a club playing the Clash, Jam, Specials and all that sort of stuff you would have loved if your very intoxicated and my age. By six in the morning most people have collapsed on the street, piles of humans litter the narrow alleys. This happens every night. On the Greek Islands you're often asked where have you been so far? The mere mention of Ios and you will be asked how long were you there? Reason being that most people can't handle more than a few days, or so they tell me! Next to Santorini this is where I would be meeting up with Adrian. Adrian overtook me and flagged me down in Rimini centre six weeks previous when he spotted a motorcycle with an English number plate curiosity got the better of him. "What are you doing here?" he asked me. " Nothing," I said "What about you?" " I work here, I'm a designer for Cagiva" " So what's the score with the new F4?" I asked. Adrian laughed, telling me that things are slow in Italy and even slower at Cagiva Research Centre. We went for a drink down by the port bar, where we spent hours chatting about his new life in Italy and how difficult adjusting was, and I explained in great detail why I was there. So just before I left for Greece I convinced him that him that instead of going back home to England for a holiday, he should ride down to Greece to meet with me, and that his boss Signore Tamborini would not mind if he took his company bike, a rather tired Cagiva Canyon 600 down to the Greek islands. Our arrangement was rather vague, I had phoned him one week earlier telling him I would be in Santorini and he told me that he would be leaving Rimini on Monday morning. Based on my own journey it would take him 48 hours, so I sat at the port waiting for the four ferries arriving from Athens on a warm Wednesday dawn. Sure enough he pushed the bike down the ramp of the first boat that arrived.

" This thing's been giving me grief since Rimini"
" Calm down, you here now," I responded in typically Greek style.
Some time later after crap coffee and cigarettes I heard the horror story of Adrian's ride.
Unfortunately the Canyon would not start at all when the engine had cooled down. This was the opposite of what was happening three weeks previous back in Rimini, when it had to be push started if it had a hot motor. Adrian had given the bike to the Cagiva engineers who had literally turned the problem around.
" We'll fix it tomorrow," I said optimistically.
We never fixed the Canyon and had to push start it every time, not very good down a packed Naxos high street and quite dangerous considering people can't hear a bike that's going let alone one that's being pushed!
On balance, my Cagiva was still going strong. "That's because it's got a Ducati engine," Adrian would sarcastically retort.
Greece can make a man lazy, so I spent many hours laying on the roof of the youth hostel soaking up the sun and philosophising with whoever was interested, the mad Swedish genetics student, the Argentine economist, the Neapolitan brothers - a doctor and nuclear engineer, Australian and South African primary school teachers, all sat on the roof at some time or another.
A few days later Adrian and I moved on back to Ios for the weekend. During the day we went off-roading, after all that's what the bikes were made for! What a laugh, I really enjoyed it and from then on hardly a day would pass that didn't see me blasting through the countryside raising clouds of red dust behind the Elefant. It didn't take long before my new-found confidence was so that jumping over humps and dodging rocks at 60mph was the best way I could think of to get to the other side of whatever island I was on, to eat at the taverna. Sitting in the shade with a big plate of Moussaka and bread, me covered in dust while inevitably gazing at electric blue seas, was good.
We left Ios after having witnessed and participated in the drunken carnival of a Saturday night making our way once again to Naxos. I longed to return to Naxos Camping and the fantastic pool, where I planned to spend whole days sunbathing. Adrian adapted to this difficult routine with ease. Some days we would explore the interior off road of course! On one afternoon while bombing up a hill it happened the Elefant broke down. Stuck in the middle of the island twenty miles from town, 38 degrees Celsius with one dead bike. Not a sound - nothing. Remembering what Agosto had taught me.
" It's a process of elimination."
Ten minutes later behind the head lamp cover, I rejoined the loosened electrical connection and spent the rest of the afternoon feeling quite pleased with myself.
We discovered a small bar in Naxos centre that was owned by a Roman, as the days passed we found ourselves eating there more often, my interest in Greek cuisine was wavering and together with a longing for some comforts like having a shower, that's not in salt water and not being eaten alive by mosquitoes every night, signaled time out.
After thirty-six days we contemplated the long journey back to Rimini and very nearly decided to stay.
Once again over night to Athens, push the Canyon at the other end to start it, got lost in the city for an hour or so, at least we caught a glimpse of the Acropolis. When we arrived in Patrai Adrian pointed out the oil all over the Elefant engine block. Staring into the oil window there was nothing.
" Oh shit! my bikes bleeding."
We filled it up, only needed half a litre so things weren't that bad. Looking closely oil was coming out of both cylinder bases and from one head. Things didn't really get any better I just had to keep topping up. 24 hours after leaving Naxos we were on the ferry to Italy a long night ahead, gone were the backpackers replaced with hundreds of Turkish immigrants returning to their homes in Germany. Next morning we docked in Brindisi, stopping for the first decent coffee in weeks we moaned at how tired we were. It got the better of us when 200 miles later we stopped to rest in the long grass by the Autostrada and fell asleep for three hours. At 9 o'clock that evening we were at the port bar in Rimini very tired but home.
That night I had quite the most satisfying shower ever and for the first time in ages saw soap suds. The salt water showers on the islands don't allow for such luxuries. Still it took some scrubbing to get the road grime off my throat.
Agosto confirmed my suspicions that the long ride from Athens in very high temperatures had probably been responsible for the gaskets springing leaks. Short of spending a lot of money I had to live with it. If the oil pressure was a bit lower than usual and the weather was cooler it was fine. I spent a couple of weeks in Rimini doing the usual.
Back down the boot to Rome to visit my friend Angelo. I set off early, riding through Tuscany and Umbria, the landscape was beautiful, the road even better as it snaked it's way through the Apennines mountains, rolling hills, and vineyards with medieval cities and towns. Stopping just outside Perugia for lunch and staring at the Elefants oil covered engine, I was concerned and resolved to have it looked at when I arrived in the capital.
Later that evening Angelo's mother, Valentina cooked some wonderful food and as usual I was stuffed and happy by bed time. Next day to the mechanics to look at the oil problem. On investigation he discovered that one of the oil seals on a bearing of the valve belt was perished and it was replaced. Relieved, and with the Elefant in an underground garage I enjoyed the next few days.
I've been to Rome so many times that a visit to the Vatican or Coliseum are not on the agenda anymore, but one place that I always like to visit is the Stadio Olimpico to watch a football game. All my friends in Rome are empathic AS Roma fans and spit and curse at the mere mention of Lazio the capitals other football club. I think Lazio play quite well, but for fear of being chucked out by Angelo, and my cousin never talking to me again, I fail to mention this fact on the way to the stadium to watch the opening game of the Serie A season - anyway as it was an evening game and Lazio had already lost at Bologna that afternoon - my guests were in very good humour. There buoyancy continued at the pizzeria after the game Roma won convincingly against Piacenza, not hard considering the disparity in superstars that the capitals club had over their unglamorous provincial northern rivals. After ten great days it was once again time to leave, I decided that I would ride up to Lake Como for a look around and then visit my aunt in Novara near Milan for a week.
One hundred miles into the journey I stopped to rest, feeling quite pleased with myself that I had ridden 100 miles without stopping, some mean feet considering my ever moaning bum. Looking at the engine I was disappointed at how much oil had leaked out, the mechanic hadn't fixed her and now there was a strange rattle too. It was a long ride that day stopping often to check the oil, wiping it off my boots which began slipping off the pegs, and when things were getting worse having to drain petrol on to a pair of socks to clean the back tyre coated in engine oil.
Riding 480 miles worrying about the health of the Elefant most of the way, I was very tired by the time I reached the shores of Lake Como. I stayed three days relaxing in some of the most wonderful landscapes in Europe. While riding about the oil mysteriously stopped leaking, on the way to my aunts in Novara I stopped at a Cagiva dealers where we discussed in detail the problems. Confident that with cooler weather ahead and keeping a close eye on the oil level and maintaining it low, it would not spew out all over the place. Blasting my way down the Autostrada towards Turin I felt the Elefant twitching as she craved more fuel, leaning over as I did hundreds of times previously to turn the fuel tap to reserve the familiar feel had gone. I had forgotten to turn the tap from the last time and had left it in reserve, with no warning of my impending drying out I was stranded on the hard shoulder and left to walk the 6 kilometres to the nearest petrol station, pushing the Elefant fully laden in hot weather for what seemed like ages. It taught me to remember the fuel tap.
I cursed all the way only to be greeted by a smiling petrol pump attendant asking, "if I had pushed it far?"
I just stared at him as the sweat dripped off my grimy face, droopy arms flopped by my flanks, whizzing like an asthmatic. I vowed to give up smoking and kept on thinking how stupid I had been.
Spending a week in Novara I serviced the Elefant and investigated the strange rattle coming from the engine. A bearing had shattered in the valve belt housing. Little steel balls were rattling about mixed with dust and oil from the leakage's. All cleaned up with new plugs, oil, pads and a new bearing, the Elefant sounded great and during that week the leak was minimal.
So when I left heading towards the Alps and Munich things were fine, that was until the evening. After three months of summer riding the cold air on the Autobahn was a shock. It was September after all but that didn't make me feel any better late that night, once again lost in a German city! I eventually found a bed. Taking stock of the situation I had no winter clothes and no money to spend on them either, and I could kiss good bye to Mediterranean weather from now on.
Next day I joined the German Youth Hostel Association and booked myself in. Hostels are good places to stay if you don't mind sleeping with 27 other men, naturally I got the fat guy who snored all night on the bunk above me. I cursed him and all other fat people as I twisted and turned most of the night only to be wakened at 7 O'clock in the morning to be told that anyone who wanted to stay another night must book in again before 8 am.
You do meet lots of people in hostels, mostly cliquey backpackers. Sitting in the bar if I closed my eyes I could picture myself in the lecture hall of some grand old German university listening to some young American professor discussing European history, culture and economics. There is a paradox here as most Americans think that Brazil is in Europe, I exaggerate but I did over hear one who got a little confused talking about the once great sea empire of Vienna, I think she meant Venice.
After four days in Munich drinking Bavarian Weissbier, eating schnitzel and listening to other travellers tall stories of how cheap it is in this town, how one shouldn't go unaccompanied to this area and how they nearly got mugged in some God forsaken country I never heard of, I left for Prague.
Once again I left early on the 250 mile ride to the Czech Republic, it was cold and overcast as I lamented to myself on the lack of sunshine. Arriving in the early afternoon I immediately fell in love with the Czechs fine capital and decided that this was a good place to spend some days. The architectural splendour of this city is stunning, it is a place for everyone, great history, culture even and night life.
Getting lost in the city streets is fun as you stumble upon bars, clubs and restaurants surrounded by contorted and magnificent buildings.
Finding accommodation in Prague Technical University student rooms, I shared a room with a Czech who I didn't see until 5 am the next morning. He worked at night and slept in the day and when he slept he snored. I got up to shake him and he mumbled:
" I'm Mike, I don't have the keys to my apartment that's why I'm here"
What the hell are you talking about I thought, I only shook him to stop his snoring not to hear his life story at five in the morning. He carried on:
" I went to St. Petersburg two days ago to collect some money but they arrested me for racketeering and put me in a Russian jail."
" Have you ever been in a Russian jail?" He asked,
No I said trying hard to understand his thick accent, not easy that early you understand!
" Then they said that if I wanted to leave in one piece I must go now."
He asked if he could return to his accommodation for his keys and bag but they just took him to the airport and sent him home, and so he was waiting for his girlfriend to return so as to get into his own apartment.
" Russia is a dangerous place," he continued, "The Russians are dangerous, my old girlfriend is dead now. She was a beautiful girl, I loved her, she was a photo journalist for a Prague newspaper, eighteen months ago she went to Chechnya to cover the fighting. I got a telegram from the Military saying she was dead and that they were sorry, no body no explanation, nothing!"
I was confused but that was how I heard the story, and soon after I fell asleep.
In the room opposite were Iller and Alfredo, two Spaniards. We spent three days together sampling the delights of Prague's restaurants, museums, and night life. Very good beer at very good prices, in fact everything was at good prices. The former Eastern block was good for my Western pocket. We went on a beer and night club tour one night.
Budweiser Budvar, Starompramen and Pilsner Uruquel all passed our lips as we danced the night away. We returned with a charming young lady who thought her Skoda taxi was a rally car. Her ability to negotiate corners over slippery cobbled streets at high speed was limited only by the less than technologically perfect car. I'm sure that given a Lancia Integrale HPE 4 wheel drive, she could have cut down the journey time quite significantly and really frightened me, as she overtook buses and cars at over 90 kph and still found time to smoke and sing along to M-People playing loudly on the car stereo which drowned out the controllers voice.
After four days Iller and Alfredo left and Mike my Czech room mate, finally had a day off so we were able to talk. I discovered that he too was a biker and that he had a Suzuki GSX R 750. I told him that I needed to re-charge the Elefants battery. So the next morning we set off. When we arrived at the shop the man said it would be ready at 2 o'clock which was fine as I had to find new accommodation that day because the students were returning and needed their rooms. We went to a bar, Mike drank beer at 10.30 in the morning, all Czechs do he told me! I had coffee while Mike looked at me strangely asking if I didn't drink alcohol?
" I do but not in the morning."
" Why not?" he asked
I made some excuse and changed the subject. Finding out what exactly had happened to him in Russia and about the death of his old girlfriend, time passed and soon we were back at the shop to collect the battery.
A note was in the window and the shop was closed.
- Shop closed due to technical reasons - it read.
Mike walked straight over to the telephone across the street and called the other branch. After shouting down the line he turned to me to explain that as the boss had paid his employee his salary that morning and he had decided that drinking it would be a better idea than keeping the shop open for the afternoon. The boss was very apologetic and said that if we came over he would give me a new battery for my trip adding, that if I didn't return I could keep it. At the shop I was furnished with a new Japanese battery and the boss wished me a good trip.
By the time we returned to the student rooms it was late, our bags were out of the room and we had nowhere to stay, Mike's girlfriend had still not surfaced from the weekend so going to his house was out of the question. So once again with Mikes help we rode together on the Elefant, he said not to worry about him not wearing a helmet, I didn't, what worried me was the Prague rush hour, traffic everywhere. Terrifying when you have a passenger, a tall motorbike, hills, cobbled streets, slippery tram tracks, rain and to top it all you don't know where you are going, but you do know that once you arrive it's all got to be done again with the bags.

Finally I arrived in the suburbs. Gone were the wonderful old buildings of the city centre, replaced by huge grey apartment blocks built during the communist rule, in the drizzle the sight was depressing. Mike had called some people he knew and here we were at the Prague City Police Fitness Centre. They gave me a room and said that I could stay as long as I liked. I was allowed to eat in the canteen and use the gym, also we were allowed to drink at the student bar across the road at Prague University of Economics.
I stayed for four more days waiting for the weather to improve, all I saw was rain that did not inspire me to ride further. On the fifth morning I said good-bye to Mike and left, making my way east towards Poland. The ride was long over 300 miles, my confidence deserted me that day, riding in the wet through the Czech countryside I felt very alone and worried about the Elefant breaking down in the middle of nowhere.
To arrive at the border I travelled through mountains and forests, there was hardly any traffic, even the villages were strangely empty. I was very cold, my toes, knees and tips of my fingers were quite numb. By early evening I had reached the Polish border, as the light faded I only had another sixty miles before I arrived at my final destination. It turned out that the Elefant was more reliable than my mind that day and I arrived safely.
Oswiecim is a small town in south east Poland, in this town when Polish soldiers had attempted to repel the Nazi invasion of September 1939, the town and surrounding areas were incorporated into the Third Reich. At that time its name was changed to Auschwitz.
By the end of that year the SS police headquarters in nearby Warclaw had already considered several locations with the intention of setting up a concentration camp, needed to house Polish political prisoners in the newly conquered country. The ultimate choice fell upon the town of Oswiecim, the camp was to be located in deserted pre-war barracks away from the centre of town. Another important factor was the railway junction central in the existing network connecting with all occupied countries. By 1940 the camp had its first prisoners, over 720 Poles had arrived at KL Auschwitz. Slowly as the camps prison population increased through 1941-1942 it too was expanded. The prisoners comprised manly of Poles, political prisoners, Russian prisoners of war and Gypsies. As I walked towards the camp I was greeted with the cynical inscription above the main gate "Arbeit macht frei" translated from German it reads: "Work brings freedom." Walking alone it was raining, the streets between the barracks were muddy and a cold mist hung in the air. Passing through each building I was met by one horror after another. I cannot begin to describe what I felt surrounded by human hair piled 15 feet high, hair cut from the heads of Jews, Poles, Gypsies and others. The hair I saw was only the tip of the Iceberg. It was what was found by the Russian Red Army when they liberated the camp, that along with mountains of shoes, baby clothes, toothbrushes and suitcases. A room full of false legs, various prostheses and gold teeth, nothing went to waste as the Nazis perfected their killing machine. The killing machine was needed as efficient way to reach the "Final Solution," the genocide of all European Jews.
It was in the cellar of block 2 at KL Auschwitz in late September of 1941 an experiment took place. In that room where I stood, looking up through holes in the roof as rain fell on my face, through these same holes crystals of Zyklon B gas was dropped on to 600 Soviet prisoners of war. The first mass execution by gas.
By 1942 many thousands of European Jews were arriving and a decision was made to start work on the construction of a new camp in the nearby village of Brezezinka. This camp came to be known as KL Auschwitz 2 - Birkenau.
Nothing can prepare you for the sight that is Birkenau. The rail tracks lead up to the guard gate, walking through the tracks split into three with ramps down the middle, electric fences encircle the camp. The sheer enormity of that place is unfathomable. In the cold mist I could see row upon row of chimney stacks, all that remain of the barracks that once housed hundreds of thousands of Jews, they arrived from all over Hungary, Poland, France, Holland, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Italy and Norway.
After exhausting train journeys across Europe some lasting ten days or more, without food or water they were unloaded along the railway siding. Nazi doctors began the process first step to separate the men from the women and children, then the selections, those fit to work before they died, murdered by starvation, cruelty, and hard labour, went to be registered with tattoos on there forearms. The others were marched along the platform to the gas chambers.
Standing on the steps of crematoria and gas chamber number 3 I could see only remains. The building along with the others were destroyed by the Nazi's trying to hide the horror before fleeing ahead of the Red Army. I could still see the collapsed roof of the underground chamber with its holes to drop in the deadly gas. The rails that led up to the ovens that burnt the bodies were still visible. In the mud I stood looking at green frogs jumping and swimming in pools of water which had gathered in the pit of the entrance. On those steps over four hundred thousand people were led to their deaths. In the distance I could hear the screaming of trains pulling to a halt at Oswiecim station, it was a hard place to be.
At KL Auschwitz and KL Auschwitz 2 - Birkenau over one million one hundred thousand Jews were murdered, men, women, children put to death by Nazis for political purposes.
Over one hundred and fifty thousand Poles were also murdered along with twenty-three thousand Gypsies from all over Europe. In the same places over fifteen thousand Russian soldiers were executed as well as prominent members of the resistance movement, cultural, scientific and social life of Poland, Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, France, Germany and Austria numbering over twenty five thousand died as a result of starvation, slave labour, illness, torture and illegal medical experiments.
Between the two demolished crematoria and gas chambers at the end of the railway track is the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism, there are plaques in many languages, they all read the same:

FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE
A CRY OF DESPAIR
AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY.
WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED
ABOUT ONE AND A HALF
MILLION
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN
MAINLY JEWS
FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES
OF EUROPE.

AUSCHWITZ - BIRKENAU
1940 - 1945

Leaving Oswiecim all togged up, I felt confident. After thirty miles my feet and hands were cold and the greyness of the landscape was depressing, but what really bothered me was the mood I had felt three days earlier would return. Concerned about being stranded in the cold and wet countryside. The rain accompanied me, as it had done for the last few weeks. Ridding through the towns and villages people looked at me, some even waved and smiled as I passed. I wonder what they were thinking?
What's he doing riding about in weather like this?
Some of the faces gave away there thoughts staring at me as if I were mad. At times I might have agreed.
Or they may have been surprised and happy to see a motorcycle. I had been there four days and hadn't seen a bike. Either the Poles are very clever and don't ride in bad weather or they don't have many motorbikes.
It's not that I don't like Poland, Its hard to judge a place when you feel like I had done.
If anyone had asked"What's this country like?"I would have carelessly said"Ugly".
Ugly because I had spent my time in a poorly industrialised town, in a marshy flat landscape, which also happens to be the worlds largest cemetery. Then I rode my bike in driving rain through dull post communist cites - Katowice, Opole and Warclaw. Not exactly the prettiest part of the world, maybe its nicer in summer!
Heading west I passed some strange things by the side of the road. Every five miles or so there were small shacks selling bad instant coffee and Garden Gnomes, yes Garden Gnomes hordes of them by the highway, standing in the rain with stupid hats and fishing, rods grinning endlessly. In between the shacks selling useless things were people sitting under umbrellas. Next to them boxes were fresh mushrooms picked from the forest. Every so often girls standing alone, dressed warmly, smoking cigarettes, waiting for clients. They depend on the endless flow of German traffic pouring over the border for cheep goods.
That night I stayed at a fishing lodge in the countryside. I ate a wonderful meal very Polish with potatoes, beetroot and of course soup made with mushrooms.
Twenty four hours later I was at the Brandenburg gates on the former East Berlin side.
Staying once again at the city hostel. Spending four days exploring what must be Europe largest building site. In the shops postcards featuring the famous sights were sold along side pictures of Berlin's rebuilding projects. Imagine sending a post card of Potzdamer Platz with heavy building equipment.
Berlin was interesting and had a definite feel of renewal and expectations for it's new future. No doubt she will be an impressive capital once the builders leave!
Arriving in Hamlin I was architecturally relived even if it was pouring with rain. Most large German cities, I had been to were bombed heavily during the war and as a consequence they were rebuilt during the 1950's and 60's. God knows what architects were thinking of back then but it wasn't aesthetes. On the other hand the smaller towns are very nice places and Hamlin was no exception. The birth place of the Pied Piper legend was born here and in the old town centre you can feel the character.
Crossing in to Holland the sun beamed. It was the first time in weeks that the air was warm and the sky blue. At the Amsterdam ring road I took the turning for Hoorn and made my way north. Holland was great, relaxed and friendly people. I was able to catch up with some Dutch friends that I met while working as a barman in Rimini during the summer. Together we went around Amsterdam and as is usual in company you always have a better time and understanding of a new place. Amsterdam has immense charm with its canals and tall thin buildings. The waterways and bridges were build during the 17th and 18th century when the city was one large port. Boats coming in from around the world laden with goods to be loaded into the warehouses that have now tastefully been converted to apartments. Wooden piles sunk deep into the mud hold up the structures, some over time sink, the houses lean against each other crocked and twisted. Amsterdam is not just coffee shops and one big red light district!
I liked the landscape, flat with water everywhere, riding the Elefant on a huge dike outside Alkmaar I could visibly see the land was below the sea, only man made barriers stood between prosperity and natural disaster.
After a week in Holland I rode the short ride through Rotterdam to Brussels.
My only other visit to Brussels was in 1990, it had struck me as a dirty busy city.
So pessimistic would probably describe my thoughts as I approached the Belgium capital on the motorway. Wrong again, wow! they've cleaned it up and look nice buildings. I didn't see that last time. The number plates were the same though, easily the worst in Europe. Chipped and faded, red on dirty white. There only number plates you may say. Well you stick one on your shining new Fireblade.
All of a sudden I thought I was back in the Mediterranean again. The sun was shining and the Belgian drivers showed little in common with there Dutch and German counterparts. No definitely not, there just like Italians or Greeks, jumping lights, cutting up others, it's mayhem and I had arrived just in time for evening rush hour. Amsterdam means thousands of bicycles. Brussels means thousand of bicycles, scooters, cars and trucks. In Amsterdam the roads are narrow with peaceful waterways running down the middle. In Brussels they have massive avenues with an underground ring road running through the middle. Every 200 meters the tunnel venomously spits out cars at frightful speeds. It's like a computer game dodging the enemy as you fight you way through the city. I was glad that I didn't go there on the first day of the trip, I think I would have cried and gone home or caught the train.
I couldn't be bothered with all that hassle and rode to Ghent. Arriving unexpectedly
I had no preconception of the city. I was greeted by a majestic centre. During the renascence Ghent was second to Paris as a trading centre in Northern Europe, it showed. I rode around briefly stopping at the information centre to find accommodation. When I found out that Formula 1 was in town I jumped up and down with joy. There was no Grand Prix at Spa that day, Formula 1 is a hotel chain to be found throughout France and Belgium. Their great, easy to find as there always by the main highways, advertised miles ahead. There all made from prefabricated concrete painted loud colours. When you arrive, you slip your credit card in the slot, out pops a receipt in after a short transaction. A number printed on the receipt entitles you to enter the hotel via a key pad, a further number gives you your room number and entry code. It's a bit like the hotel version of Fast food not very good, but easy and you know what you'll get before you arrive because there all the same.
Two days later I was sitting in a bar in Saint Omer, France. It was a long evening alone remembering what a great summer and the many adventures I had with the Elefant. All the people I had meet and places I had seen in ten different countries. After nearly five months on the road and over ten and a half thousand miles it was time to go home. Next morning the Elefant and I rode the thirty kilometres to the mouth of the Channel Tunnel.

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