Thursday 18th August.
Rain. Bloody rain. 'Central Europe enjoys hot summers and cold winters' or so I'd been led to believe. Well, at least I was seeing the road stretching out East again albeit through a misted up visor.
The border crossed, I pressed on towards Budapest. I'd stay for a day or two. A boat ride up the Danube to the medieval village of Szentendre perhaps, then on to the vine growing regions and the Romanian border. Excellent.
'I think a large plate of Hungarian goulash tonight, accompanied by several glasses of fine red wine. Maybe try a glass of plum brandy or...WHAT??!! The battery light?? Stop the bike on the hard shoulder. Start it again. Nope. Still there - glaring at me through the rain. Shit. Now what? One day from Vienna and the bike's letting me down again... Is this another omen? Call BMW Bristol. Mike will know'.
"Funny. Doesn't usually happen." he reassured me (again) down my mobile phone." Could be the diode board..." The diode board? What's that? Luckily Budapest had a BMW dealer. The last one before Istanbul. Could have been worse. This could have happened in the mountains of Transylvania. Rabid dogs. Mad axemen etc etc.
A garage owner..a taxi driver..and a man at a bus stop directed me to the hallowed ground that is BMW Budapest, who were straight on to the case. Well, nearly. The problem was indeed the diode board - but they had no spares. However, the lovely Heidi at BMW Vienna, who's card I'd kept, did and could get the parts to me - the next day. 'Vorsprung durch Technik', as they say. Raised eyebrow and wry smile.
Friday found me on the boat north to Szentendre. A pretty village steeped in history but my thoughts were with BMW Heidi and her spare parts...
Saturday morning. Yes! Part had arrived. Job done. Hands shaken. Large sums of money handed over and I was on my way through sunlit hills to the vineyards of North East Hungary. 'Perhaps try some 'paprikas esirke' tonight (paprika chicken served with tiny dumplings) followed by a glass of Tokaji Aszu - "The king of wines and the wine of kings"........'
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Who said that? Find out the answer and more fascinating facts by clicking MORE, below. How am I doing, dear reader? Like the cartoons? Rubbish? Email me at email@example.com
Louis XIV of France........
'Tokaji Asnu is a very sweet golden-white wine of an almost liqeur consistency'. Available at all large branches of Sainsbury's. So there you are.
Looking through my Journal the failure of the diode board on the autobahn to Budapest had worried me. " Am I destined to do this trip without my bike?" I'd written. " Had first thoughts to say it would be OK to do it without". Next line shouted in capitals - " NO WAY!!" But I knew I wouldn't go back after 10 days if the bike packed up.
The campsite at Tisza was my first. Setting up was laborious but somehow was an important milestone on my journey east. Despite having cooking equipment with me the campsite bar lured me.... It was my duty, I felt, wherever possible to sample the local cuisine. So, with journal - and guide book - in hand, I made my way to the lights- and delights- of the restaurant. A good choice.
I was surprised to find that I was only 100 kms from the Ukranian border next morning, but my route lay south east - to Romania. It was with some apprehension that I rolled to a halt at the border.
"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write... hum...hum..."
Well, dear readers, it's that time of year so here's a card wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, prosperous - and accident free - New Year!
Right, back to Transylvania...the next page - coming soon.
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This was going to be the stuff of real adventures. Dark, impenetrable pine forests...mountains shrouded in mist...medieval villages suspiciously devoid of people...murderous looking men and their murderous looking dogs...
I'd grown up with images of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing grappling with wooden stakes, garlic and each other in the Hammer film of 1958, 'Dracula' and I was now crossing into the film set. I pulled up my collar and eased the bike into first gear...
Yes. It was all here - together with communist architecture and pollution. Over the next few days, I steered my way around horses and carts, wild dogs, pot holed roads, ancient cars and trucks belching out diesel fumes - enough to drive a man to drink. It did.
I crossed the Fagaras mountains in thick fog and after a long forested descent I rode into sight of Dracula's castle......
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Dracula. Gypsy folklore or fact? Click on MORE below to to read some chilling tales.....stories that will make the blood drain from your neck - and other parts.
So, who was Dracula? Fact or Fiction? Had he existed or was he merely a figment of Bram Stoker's vivid imagination? Thumbing through my 'Rough Guide' (Highly Recommended) one dark and stormy night my attention was drawn to the section entitled ' Dracula and Vampires'. I read on...
The early 1800s. Now that was when REAL travelers were journeying to the darkest corners of Europe. Incidents of Vampirism were rife at that time and lurid accounts abounded. Apparently, the first 'respectable' piece on the theme was Goethe's 'The Bride of Corinth' (1797). Polidori wrote 'The Vampyre' while holidaying at Lake Geneva, Switzerland and on the same trip, Mary Shelley had penned 'Frankenstein'. Obviously something in the water....
Later that century, Bram Stoker, an Anglo-Irish civil servant(!), was inspired to write his classic novel 'Count Dracula'.
Perhaps influenced by stories of Vlad the Impaler (1431-76) a successful but cruel ruler who's victims once bound spreadeagled had a wooden stake hammered into their rectum before being hoisted aloft to die painfully. Brought tears to their eyes - it did mine.
The most horrific tale was in 1462 when Vlad's armies defeated a Turkish army and had over 20,000 Turkish and Bulgarian captives impaled. I suspect Tourism was down in 1463.
In 2005, I saw no examples of impaling on my travels and the people I met were genuinely friendly and helpful. Admittedly I didn't meet many as I was still on 'Stop? No, ride on' frame of mind. I will come back to this fascinating country again and explore it more slowly. Meanwhile 'on' ...to Bulgaria.
'Hey, Si. What about the last frame of the comic strip?!'
All will be revealed in the next exciting episode!
Ah. Dracula's Castle. Should have known better.
I rounded the corner in the shadow of the legendary castle, possessed by the spirit of Van Helsing, to be met by... Dracula's Bazaar. Stall after stall of Vampire merchandise: rubber bats, false fangs and masks. And to top it all, the castle was shut. I drank an instant coffee and eased the bike between the tour buses and rode on in search of the 'authentic' Transylvania...Once again I'd let my imagination run away with me.
The further east I rode the more I found. I found it, yes, but couldn't bring myself to stop in it. Through enchanting villages, passed picturesque pensions...but I kept riding, searching for that perfect location. Needless to say, I ended up in the communist built Hotel Venus. You live and learn.
The Hotel 'Venus' (I'd ridden passed it several times thinking it was a brothel) didn't do breakfast so I pulled into a roadside Service station and was met by some very 'friendly' locals....(see comic strip)
I declined the gentleman's offer, straightened my tie and rode purposefully to the Bulgarian border.
Romania. Worth a visit, Si? Definitely. Click on MORE below for Romania tips and advice and how to make your own Dracula mask. Got a question? Email me at email@example.com
My Advice? Buy a large motorcycle, sell the house and kids and get out there before it's too late. Go for a month or three - this country needs exploring.
My Tips? 1. Get a good map, turn off the main routes and head across country - Medieval Europe awaits. 2. Stop. Drink a beer with the locals. Show them a picture of your Grandma. Maybe they'll introduce you to theirs.
The countryside looked different. People looked different. They drove differently. An old Lonely Planet guide states "...since the revolution many drivers lack discipline. On the other hand, you'll find the Romanians eager to meet foreign motorists". I just hoped that didn't mean 'head on'.
It's a cliche, I know, but crossing the border into Romania was a culture shock. I hadn't expected this kind of change until maybe eastern Turkey. This was where the motorcycling became 'adventurous'.
I regret not spending more time there...but, I will go again.
And finally, as promised, the Dracula mask. Simply copy this picture onto some card and get an adult to cut it out for you. Then scare the hell out of them...
Applications for publishing deals (for the book) are now winging their way to the Literary agents of London town. Don't hold your breath - this could take some time. Got any tips? Advice? Queries? Like to be added to mailing list? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Right. Where were we? Bulgaria.
After a bedbug-ridden night in an overpriced hotel in the border town of Giurgui, I left Romania and crossed the Danube for the last time into Bulgaria. Monday and another new country. I liked that. This is what I'd come away for.
Clear blue skies and sunshine. Perfect motorcycling weather for a fair-weather biker. I took the road south east to Varna, then on towards Burgas. After miles of high plains the horizon suddenly dropped away and the sparkling blue of the Black Sea opened out before me. Another 'Made it!' moment.
The campsite at the beach resort of Sozopol was my kind of campsite. Shady, a few metres from the beach, a fine cafe/restaurant with an attractive waitress. Perfect.
I chatted to her about my trip - the route, the drama, the excitement, the dangers...She was impressed. So impressed that she introduced me to her father, the owner of the cafe, who didn't seem quite so enthusiastic.
I left early the next morning, after a non-existent holiday 'romance', heading for the Turkish border.
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'Green card?' demanded the surly border guard.
'No. This is the new insurance papers' I smugly replied handing him my white paperwork. 'I was told there was no longer a need for a green card.'
'No green card. No Entry into Turkey', said the guard looking for the next in the queue.
'What?!' A cold shiver went down my spine. This is serious. These guys are not going to let me in. My trip is over. I sank onto a wooden bench in the office. What the hell was the next move?
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I talked and pleaded with any official who would listen. An hour passed. Phone calls were made and heads were shaken. Finally, having worn through the knees of my biking jeans, they came to a settlement whereby I took out an 'additional' insurance for Turkey. I kissed the official's shoes and paid up.
Turkish roadworks. Epic. They take the old surface off for twenty miles at a time and you're left with miles of unpredictable gravel and sand. Cars and trucks race by - on both sides - and leave you choking in their dust. Contact lenses? Who needs them.
Dark rain clouds were sweeping in from the south as Istanbul finally came into sight. My pristine 'Istanbul to Kathmandu' Lonely Planet recommended the area of Sultanahmet as the best area to base myself for a few days. All I had to do was find it.
I'd done my best to memorise the 'run' into old Istanbul at a motorway cafe where they'd tried to charge me £9.00 for a cup of Nescafe. It was with this knowledge I plunged into the ring roads of the city.
Nothing sharpens the senses more than a run into a foreign capital at the end of the day. Fast moving motorway traffic...intersections...low sun in your eyes...names of places that weren't on your map...Left...Right..Wrong. It was only a matter of time before I'd spiraled into a busy quarter of the old city. The wrong one.
At 8.00pm I gave up wrestling with the choked streets of the old town in my desperation to reach Sultanahmet. Glancing down an alleyway a neon lit 'Hotel' sign called to me...I settled for the Hotel Sleez, 'near' Sultanahmet and a tiny airless room.
The following days were spent savouring the delights and characters of Istanbul. Breakfast...The Blue Mosque...BMW...the cafes of Sultanahmet...BMW...a man who'd painted his Mercedes as a one man Peace campaign... freshly grilled fish on the quayside at Eminonu...and finally BMW again - new tyres and oil change.
There was more to see but, once again, the Dusty Highway was calling and the following morning I scrambled onto the ferry crossing the Sea of Marmara heading for the windswept town of Bandirma, the Turkish mainland and the road east. I headed south.....
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