As I mentioned in yesterday's blog (which is actually the end of Leg 2), last night's dinner was a repeat of the night before, as I went to the same restaurant, where my friendly waiters welcomed me with warm handshakes and big smiles, and ordered the same lamb casserole dish. It was just as good as the previous night, and a fitting last supper in Turkey.
One of the things I won't miss about staying in Istanbul is the bloody Blue Mosque Imam, who has a sound system that
I think he got from Deep Purple in the 70's. And he uses to call the faithful to prayer an hour before dawn at 4:21am,
and also to wake up any infidels who deem to sleep less than a mile away. No matter how hard he tries, he won't get
me to leave the sanctity of my bed at that, I was going to say un-godly but that might be blasphemous, ridiculous
hour. Obviously, being a guest here, I know I shouldn't complain about it, and normally I wouldn't, but I was
fast asleep and being dragged awake by the sound of someone wailing over loudspeakers isn't my favourite thing.
Especially when, just before I went to sleep (around 10pm), he did the same thing. I
know it's because the call to prayer (the adhan) is made 5 times a day - an hour before dawn, just after noon, in the
late afternoon, after sunset and before bedtime - and also that the pre-dawn adhan includes an additional line which
roughly translates to
Prayer is better than sleep. Prayer is better than sleep., but I'm an atheist and, for me,
sleep is one of the best parts of being alive!
Once the adhan was finished, I went back to sleep (one of the joys of not having to get up so early now I don't work!), but it was a fitful sleep and I woke again an hour or so later in a deep funk. I've no idea why I was feeling so melancholy, especially as I was going to get back on the road again, with my camping gear and head off into a country I've never been to before, but I was and the mood was to stay with me most of the day. I got showered and dressed and then went and loaded the bike back up, re-arranging the camping gear back into the pannier and re-packing the large roll-bag so as to put things back where they were originally and to balance out the weight. I got chatting to the hotel staff once more, chatting away like the old friends we've become. On these trips it's not uncommon for me to become temporary friends with the people I meet, and to feel a sense of loss when I leave them, knowing that tomorrow they will be doing the same thing they've done every day since I first met them whilst I move on to new experiences. It's always left me wondering if, in a few days, a week or a month, whether they think of the strange English guy on the big overloaded motorcycle and wonder what I'm doing. Perhaps the thought of leaving them was behind my melancholy mood.
With the bike loaded I went and ate my usual breakfast, sitting in the same chair that I'd sat at every morning whilst
staying in this hotel (I'm a creature of habit and like routine, despite appearances!). I had a bowl of cereal, two
boiled eggs and 4 small slices of french-style bread with strawberry jam. Only this time I had coffee, not tea, as the
tea from the urn looked decidedly green and weak. I then went back to the room, got changed into my bike gear and
packed the remaining bag, taking it downstairs and strapping it to the bike before heading back inside to say my
goodbyes, settle the bill and ram most of my remaining Turkish Lira in the Tip Box. After shaking hands with the staff
and muttering the terribly British phrase of
I'll no doubt see you again in the future (no, I probably won't, but
it's not polite just to say goodbye and leave), I got on the bike and rode out of Instanbul. The route out of town
was new to me, as I headed North West, having arrived from the West, and soon found myself on a very wide dual-carriageway
with little traffic. I passed through a toll booth and took the ticket, just 500m before my exit, which annoyed me
somewhat (why couldn't they stick the toll booth 500m further up the road and so not charge me the 5.60TL?). My route
then took me through more rolling countryside, the farmlands giving way to tree-covered hillsides as I headed towards
Saray and on towards Kirklarelli. As I neared the latter, there were lots of signs with pictures of tanks on them, I
think to notify drivers of the presence of several army bases, as I passed by at least 4. I also saw a number of
empty tank-transporters heading the opposite way down the road - just as I had done when I arrvied in Turkey nearly
3 weeks ago. It seems the Turkish army has a large presence close to its Western border - I know it definitely does to
its Eastern and South-Eastern borders. I filled up with fuel at Kirklarelli to use some of my remaining Lira, and then
continued on towards the border. I knew I was going in the right direction when I saw the signs for Bulgaristan...
The road leading the last few Km to the border was an absolute delight, a smooth surface, an extra lane for overtaking
(not that it was needed much, I only saw 3 cars on the whole stretch!) and wide, sweeping bends. At the border I stopped
to remove my earplugs and the 3 cars I'd overtaken passed and joined the queue ahead of me, but I simply dropped into
my normal border routine of being relaxed and patient - the process always takes as long as it takes, so there's no
point in trying to hurry it up or push in front. I was soon stamped out of Turkey at both passport control and customs, then
waved through the final passport check into no-man's land. Then on to the Bulgarian side, with its welcoming EU symbol. I
was quickly processed at a single counter for both passport and bike V5 check, then waved to the customs area so they
could check I wasn't smuggling anything I shouldn't be. The customs guy tapped my right pannier and said
I had to fiddle with the roll-bag straps so I could move it out of the way, then opened the pannier lid to reveal the
tightly-packed camp-cooking equipment therein. He didn't bother to get me to take any of it out, just told me I was
good to go, so I closed the lid, re-tied the roll-bag and did just that, riding into Bulgaria - another country I've
never been to before!
The road away from the border was narrow and twisty, winding its way through a forest and out towards a town called Malko Tarnovo. As I didn't have any Bulgarian currency, and my Post Office Travel Card doesn't seem to recognise the Bulgarian Lev, I rode into town to look for an ATM. Finding one was easy, but it wouldn't let me draw out the 600 Lev I thought I'd need for my 6 days in Bulgaria, only letting me have 400. Then I tried to get out of town, the GPS first trying to get me to ride up a steep set of steps (I didn't try) and then onto a road that was closed for resurfacing (I ignored the road closed signs and rode over the fresh tarmac, then had to turn round as the whole width of the road was blocked by a tarmac-laying machine - no sign of any workmen anywhere, though). Eventually I retraced the route I'd come in on and found the correct road out of town towards the coast. Only this road was probably in the worst condition of any paved road I've ever ridden, with potholes everywhere, some large enough to put a dent in a wheel if I didn't take care. That was a pity, as it was twisty as a twisty thing and ran through a forest, so if the surface had been good it would have been a great road. As it was, the sun-shade-sun caused by the trees made it hard to spot the potholes, so I was down to 2nd gear with occasional sprints into 3rd when I got clear sight of the road. There were even odd sections of lovely, smooth tarmac randomly distributed along its length, lulling me into thinking the worst was over, only to discover it most certainly wasn't, just around the next corner. With over 50Km still to go, I thought my poor bike was in for a battering, to say nothing of my arse which was also taking a pummelling. Then the smooth tarmac re-appeared again and this time it lasted a good few Km before a stretch of crap road, then finally it was smooth again as we neared the coastal town of Tsarevo. From here the road up the coast was at least in reasonable condition, and with the sun shining and the Black Sea visible on my right, things were looking up. I was heading for a campsite I'd found details of during yesterday's research - which kept telling me that campsites in Bulgaria were not up to European standards as camping was largely unknown back in the dark days of the USSR rule. But now part of the EU, there's a number of new sites emerging and the one I'd chosen was one of these.
I found it easily enough, in the little town of Kiten a few Km south of the main resort town of Sozopol (I like trying to find more remote places, away from the masses). It's a lovely site, run by a young couple (the guy dealt with me as he speaks excellent English) and their young team. On site there are two new toilet/shower blocks which are very nice, a shop and a restaurant (where I'll go for dinner later). It's next to a big sandy beach, although as my ankles are still sunburnt I'm sticking to the camp area, and has some shaded areas for tents. As it's still out of season, there are only a few motorhomes and some permament caravans on site, so it's lovely and peaceful too. Once I'd pitched the tent and got changed out of my bike gear I did some basic checks on the bike (I had intended changing the rear brake pads as they've done 3,000Km since the service in Istanbul when they recommended changing them, but they're fine for another few days), tightening a loose spoke and generally giving the bike a once-over. It's not needed anything so far (touch wood), and now has over 13,000Km showing. I then went for a wander and bought some snacks for lunch from the shop, before sitting in my camp chair and reviewing the route for the next couple of days, now I know what to expect. It should be fun - tomorrow is a short ride up the coast then across country on the motorway before heading into the mountains, the day after is on even smaller roads as I continue west along the mountains. It's nice to be back camping again, as it gives me a lot more flexibility should I need to change things.
After completing the blog yesterday, I wandered over to the campsite restaurant for something to eat. Ordering a
beer was easy - there was a draught beer pump on the counter - but the menu was a tad more challenging (see below).
The Bulgarians not only speak a different language, but their alphabet is different too, being Cyrillic. The Cyrillic
alphabet was an indirect result of the missionary work of the 9th-century
Apostles of the Slavs, St. Cyril
(or Constantine) and St. Methodius. Their mission to Moravia lasted only a few decades, and their disciples went to
South Slavic regions of the first Bulgarian empire, including what are now Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia,
where in the 900s they constructed a new script for the Slavic language, based on capital Greek letters, with some
additions; confusingly, this later script (drawing on the name of Cyril) became known as Cyrillic. It's similar to the
Russian version, but that doesn't help me, as I don't read Russian either.
Fortunately, they had an English version, so I didn't have to resort to Google translate, although there was very little choice except burgers or fish, so I opted for a burger with cheese and some chips. When it came it was most disappointing, as it wasn't a hamburger at all, it was a slice of ham and cheese, toasted, served with chips. It was actually quite disgusting. After managing to eat at least some of the meal (mostly the chips, smothered with weak tomato sauce), I retired to the tent where I sat reading and being eaten myself by all the flying and crawling things that seem to congregate around my tent no matter where I pitch it. I then crawled inside the tent and closed the flyscreen to keep them at bay, before covering my bites with insect-bite cream. In the nearby town there must have been some sort of public gathering as I could hear a large speaker-system blasting out music and a DJ asking questions and the cheering of an audience. It was some distance off but still very loud, so up close it must have been dreadful. I was concerned that it would go on until really late, as it only started up around 8:30pm, but it stopped just after 10pm and the site went quiet, allowing me to fall asleep quite easily.
I woke early too, but wasn't in a hurry to get going as I wanted to get something for breakfast from the camp shop which didn't open until 8:30am. I packed away slowly, then read a litle before it opened and I could buy a large bottle of cold water and some filled croissants (which were very nice). Once I'd scoffed those, I finished packing and rode out of the campsite, waving goodbye to the staff as I went. My route initially followed the coast north, past the large resort hotels and sandy beaches, bypassing the resort town of Sozopol and on to Burgas, where there was a large traffic jam caused by an accident. That's the 3rd one I've seen on this trip, the first two also having just happened prior to my arrival, including one that was particularly bad with a car smashed into the central reservation and with part of the barrier having pierced through from the windscreen right out the back. Once I was clear of this latest one (a car that had been rear-ended and was all crumpled up, the Police directing traffic around it), the road turned into a motorway and began heading West. It passed across a large, scorched, flat plain with huge fields of golden-brown grasses stretching for miles to the north and south. In the distance I could see some hills, shimmering in the heat haze. The temperature hit 32degrees and it was only the air-flow through my jacket and pants at a steady 120kph that kept it bearable. Even then it wasn't pleasant, like sitting in front of an open oven door with the fan on, dressed in scuba gear. I drank the cold water from my camelbak that sits in a pocket above my tankbag as often as I could, but could still feel the heat sapping my concentration. I put on some music and sang along to help me stay focused, then after about 2.5 hours stopped for fuel and a break. I needed the iced coffee to give me a boost to see off the remaining motorway miles before I turned off into the countryside, heading south-west at Cirpan, just east of Provdiv. Now the road was a little more interesing, as it arrowed towards Asenovgrad. On the outskirts of town, on a hill overlooking the river and the road, lies Asenove Krepost (or Asen's Fortress). There was a fortress here in Thracian times, but it was extensively renovated in the 13th century, during the rule of Bulgarian tsar Ivan Asen II to serve as a border fortification against Latin raids. It also contains the Church of the Holy Mother of God which dates from the 12th-13th century and is the 2-storey domed structure visible in the photos below. I didn't bother trying to work out how to get up to have a closer look, as it was so damned hot and I was keen to keep moving.
From here the road got much more interesting, as it followed the path of the river Cepelarska south. With a great
surface and bends constantly it was a joy to ride. Especially as just as I was leaving having taken photos of Asen's
Fortress, I was passed by a couple 2-up on a Fireblade. They weren't hanging about, but I managed to stay with them,
keeping a respectable distance, for quite a while until we caught up with a queue of traffic entering a town and they
didn't slow down as much as I did... Regardless, I still had a lot of fun carving my way down the road, taking in the
view of the river and enjoying the breeze through my clothes. I was expecting the road to rise up and head into the
hills (and therefore the temperature to drop), but it didn't, it was still very warm. Then I noticed a brown roadsign
Wonderful Bridges 17Km and pointing off to the right. As it was still quite early, only around 2pm, I
thought it was worth investigating and took the turn, onto a narrow single-track road that was in a very poor
condition with potholes, gravel and sand liberally dispersed across its length and width. This did wind its way
up into the forest, and it took quite a while to do the 17Km due to its condition. Eventually I arrived at what
was obviously the place, as there was a small shop and a car park with a few cars parked up. I parked the bike and
walked over to where a path went up the hill opposite the car park and where I could see green metal barriers at
each side of the ridge, there to prevent wandering tourists falling into the abyss below. I looked to the right and
tried to see some
Wonderful Bridges, but all I could see was a sheer rock face rising from the depths
surrounded by massive pine trees. Looking to the left I saw the same, but this time, towards the bottom of the rock
face was a huge gaping tunnel. Not a man-made one, this was entirely natural, carved out of the rock millenia ago
by water and ice. Known as Chudnite Mostove (The Wonderful Bridges) there is one underneat where I was stood, and
they once formed a single cave but is now 3 separate arches, the tallest being 45m high and 40m wide.
Having admired the scenery and been surrounded once more by annoying flying insects, I retraced by route back the 17km down the pot-holed road back to the main road and continued on south towards my chosen destination, a campsite I'd found on a Bulgarian camping website, in the ski-resort town of Pamporovo. Just before arriving I stopped at a petrol station to fill the tank and to buy a drink and an ice-cream, opting once again for a Magnum. Only this one was different - not a Walls Magnum, but a Nestle Magnum. It wasn't as nice.
The road finally climbed a little, before passing by dormant ski-lifts and becoming a dirt road alongside some delapidated and closed multi-storey hotels. The reception building, a long, low, dark wooden structure, doubled as the ski resort kit shop and looked like those I'd used many years ago when I went skiing. Except now it was summer, there was no snow, the hotels were closed and so was the reception building. There was no sign of anyone, anywhere. I had a mooch around and could only see one caravan, and that looked like it had been stood in the same spot for a good few years and was uninhabited. Damn. I took out my phone and did some quick research, looking up the one campsite that was shown on the map (it closed 2 years ago), then another in the same resort (also closed), then the last resort, a potential campsite some 100Km back up the road I'd ridden down. I tried to find more about this campsite - which showed on my GPS but not on the map - and couldn't. It didn't come up in any google seach. This left me in a bit of a dilemna; should I take the risk and ride back 100Km (2 hours) the way I'd come on the off-chance it really existed and was open, or, should I try and find cheap hotel where I was? In the end, I decided on the latter, feeling cheated as I was looking forward to sleeping under canvas again. I did consider getting something to eat and then wild camping, but where I was was thick forest lining deep gorges, the only flat bits of land occupied by housing or closed hotels.
I found a cheap hotel (23quid) in Smolyan, the next town along, and booked it, then rode the 22km there. As I arrived, it was obvious that the lady who was stood in the hotel car park had also just arrived and had come to open the hotel up having received an unexpected booking via Booking.com. Yours truly. She opened the hotel, a large alpine-style building with several floors and lots of rooms, checked me in and took my cash. Then she gave me a key and showed me to my room - all the way at the back of the hotel and then up 4 flights of stairs right to the top. Why do hotels insist on giving their only guest the room farthest away from reception (and the car park)? I dropped my jacket in the room then went all the way back down and to my bike in order to get my bags and then carried them all the way back up to the room. The room, and the hotel, leave a lot to be desired, with dirty, worn, carpets and rock-hard beds. But at least I've somewhere to stay. I took a shower in luke-warm water, washed my socks and underwear and put everything electrical on charge (there has to be a benefit of staying in a hotel). Then I changed and went out for a walk to try and find a restaurant as the one at the hotel, unsurprisingly, was closed. I wasn't expecting to find one open, and had already scoped out the local supermarket as a last resort, but I found one overlooking a small lake and went inside. There were other people drinking and eating so the signs were good and even though the waitress didn't speak English, they had a menu with English subtitles. I ordered a beer and a dish of Chicken and Wild Mushrooms served with Saute potatoes and my expectations were exceeded, it was very good indeed. I finished off with a peice of ice-cream cake that was also delicious, and an espresso coffee, that wasn't. I bought a large bottle of water too, and the bill came to just 20Lev, which is less than a tenner. Not bad at all!
Back at the hotel the woman who'd checked me in saw me return carrying a bottle of water and in broken English
explained that the water in the hotel is
very good!, which I'm sure it is, but I'm not taking any
risks. I've got a day of riding west through the mountains planned for tomorrow and the last thing I need is the
runs! I just hope that the campsite I'm aiming for is open, as it's not exactly near any major towns and the only
other site I know of in that area is much farther north, the other side of Sofia!
With no breakfast available at the hotel-for-one, I was up early, packed and on the road by 8am, but only as far
as the local supermarket where I bought some chocolate-filled croissants and was stared at by the locals. Despite there
being a ski-resort very close by, it would appear that the local, most of whom look like neither they, not their
parents, grandparents or great-grandparents have ever left the village, have never seen foreigner before. Especially
one riding a large, overloaded motorcycle. I wonder what Bulgrian for
a local shop, run by local people, for local
people is, and whether that's what the woman behind the counter was saying to me as I paid for my croissants...
I packed the croissants away for later and got on the bike, riding out of the village and away from the unnerving stares
of the locals, who watched me ride off. The road I took was simply beautiful (864 becoming 866 then 197), passing through
thick forest and twisting to follow the contours of the mountains. It wasn't long before I saw another tourist road sign,
this time proclaiming the site of the
Devil's Throat Cave, which sounded interesting, so I turned off onto another
single-track, pot-holed road that dropped into a valley alongside a river. The valley narrowed with sheer rock-faces either
side forming a deep gorge, and it wasn't long before I saw 2 guys stood next to some Mercedez 4x4 Jeeps in a siding off the
road. They waved as I passed and I thought nothing more of it, until I realised I'd gone further down down the road than
the sign has said the cave was. So I turned round and pulled up near where they were parked, where there was a large map
on a sign. I tried to decipher the map, but it was all in Bulgarian so I had no chance. One of the guys then came over
and started chatting to me, and when I said I was English and didn't understand a word he was saying, he said
problem, wait and called a friend on his mobile. He jabbered away to him then passed me the phone. The guy on the
other side explained, in broken English, that the way to the cave involved a ride in the jeep. I answered that I wasn't
interested in that, as I was keen to get moving, and handed the phone back. I said my goodbyes and returned part-way
up the gorge road until I found a nice spot to stop and eat my breakfast.
The ride continued to be beautiful, and with the temperature a perfect 18-22degrees I was in my element. The scenery opened out occasionally, revealing Alpine hillsides with small settlements, then descended back into forest again. It was simply a lovely day to be riding and a great road to be riding on. I stopped at one point to take a couple of photos and just to admire the view, not being in any hurry.
Eventually the road left the hills and I joined the 19 heading north and then west, through Bansko with its posh hotels lining the road and then picked up the main road (the 1) heading due north in the direction of Sofia. I avoided the motorway, but the 1 was still a fast, straight road, with little traffic. I then turned off once more to visit Rila Monastery. Founded in the 10th century and named after the hermit Ivan of Rila (876-946AD), it was built by his followers and is considered to be Bulgaria's most important cultural, historical and architectural monument. It served as a centre of spirituality from the 12th to 14th century, but was then destroyed by the Ottomans during their rule over Bulgaria in the middle of the 15th century. Thanks to donations by the Sultana Mara Brankovic, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Rossikon monastery of Mount Athos, the monastery was rebuilt in the end of the 15th century by three brothers from the region of Dupnica. With Sultana Mara Brankovic's influence Ivan of Rila's relics were moved from Tarnovo into the new complex in 1469. It is still a working monastery and home to around 60 monks.
It is certainly an impressive sight. The outer walls hold the monk's quarters and open out into a large courtyard in which sits the main church and bell tower. The church was built in the middle of the 19th century and is covered in frescos on every wall and ceiling. They are simply outstanding, the colours still vibrant and the imagery crisp. Inside the church is no different, and there is a huge ornate gold chandeleir in the centre and gold lattice work everywhere - unfortunately photographs are not permitted inside the church, so you'll have to make do with the ones I took outside. I could have studied the paintings for a very long time, and just wish I'd had a guidebook so I could fully appreciate their meaning, as they were obviously there to tell stories.
After having looked round the monastery, I went back to the bike and rode back the way I'd come to rejoin the main
road. The temperature had risen to 33degrees now and it was starting to get a little uncomfortable, but I made good
progress and soon turned off the 1 and onto a smaller road heading up into the hills towards Sapareva Banya, where
the campsite I'd chosen was located. I found it down a narrow dirt road, but at first there was no sign of anyone
when I rode through the gate. Eventually I found someone at the small wooden reception building / restaurant in
the middle of the campsite and asked if they had room for a tent for 2 nights. She agreed and walked me round the
site, pointing to where she wanted to put me - but the ground was uneven and sloping and so I said that it
wasn't suitable, so we walked around some more. I pointed out a suitable spot and was told that it was booked for
a caravan, and was then shown into a far corner which looked OK. Having settled on where she wanted me, I asked
about the restaurant being open for dinner, and she range someone on her phone then passed it to me. On the
other end was her daughter who spoke English, who explained the restaurant would only be open until 5pm (it was 4pm
already) today but would be open all day tomorrow. I asked about the wifi too, and that's only available by
reception. So I quickly pitched my tent and went to the restaurant to get something to eat. It took a while to
find anyone there, as the only person around was the cook and she was hiding deep in the kitchen. I'd already
found a menu, so pointed to a salad and was told
Neyet so I asked what they did have and she pointed to
a different salad so I said OK even though I had no idea what it was. I also asked for the cooked chicken and a
beer. The salad came and was delicious, with bits of cheese and ham, and the chicken was a flattened breast fried in
oil which was also rather good. The beer was OK, but not good enough to warrant a second.
I read my book whilst eating and then a young guy turned up and asked if I wanted to settle the bill (in English), so I did and paid for the 2 nights camping as well. Then I retired to where I'd pitched up and sat on my chair reading and enjoying the peace and quiet. Which was then interupted when a couple turned up and pitched a very large tent between mine and the toilet block, arguing the whole time it took to pitch it. They've strung lights all along the outside, too. A little while later, their friends turned up in a caravan and parked in front of my tent, so now I'm hemmed in the corner surrounded by strangers. But only time will tell if they're good neighbours or not, and as I'm here for 2 nights I hope it's not the latter! Tomorrow I plan on leaving my gear on the site and riding the 70Km to Sofia for a look around, but with my laptop battery about to die on me, don't expect an update any time soon...
When I left you last, I had remarked on how the campsite had put me in a corner, and how 2 couples had come along and
pitched their tent (couple #1) and caravan (couple #2 with small child) close to me, boxing me in, and making it so I
had to walk through their camp in order to get to the toilet block. I remarked that they had decorated their tent with
what looked like LED fairy lights, and how they were sat at their camp table, strategically positioned in the middle of
the camp formed with their tent on one side and their caravan at 90-degrees to it on the other (my bike and tent were just
behind the angle formed by their tent and caravan, in a corner between two trees). I hoped they would be good, quiet,
neighbours. But they weren't. Not the first night anyway. Having had an argument whilst they erected the tent, couple #1
continued this all evening and into the small hours. Her voice was loud and I thought that by midnight, when all other
noise on the campsite subsided, they'd be quiet. But no. They kept going, on and on and on and on. I dozed but was
frequently woken up again by her voice. Around 4am, I shouted out
For god's sake, shut the f*ck up!, having
finally lost my patience. It went a little quiet, then very quiet after that. But that wasn't the end of the weirdness,
as when I got up to go to the toilet - which I did several times that night as by now I couldn't sleep anyway - she was
sat at their table, smoking. He was in their tent, but she sat there all night, and was still there when I got up for
good at 6:30am. I just wondered if my shouting out had chastised them sufficiently to make them quiet for the
following night. Only time would tell.
Once up and showered, I got into my bike gear and rode off to go and have a look around Sofia, which was just 70Km up the road from the site. Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, and as such, it's a big city with the usual city traffic issues. It was also very hot once more, which made riding through the city to try and get to have a look at the sights not the most pleasant of experiences. But with the GPS programmed for the cathedral, and my city-riding style set to highly defensive, it wasn't a problem. The city is not the most beautiful one I've ever ridden through, with plain concrete multi-storey office and residential buildings being the predominent architectural style. There didn't seem to be any old or interesting looking buildings anywhere. Towards the centre of the city the road changed from normal asphalt to cobblestones, so once again I was thankful for the excellent suspension on the GS. I rode to have a look at an old church, but as soon as I stopped to get off the bike and get my camera out, a couple of guys turned up in an official looking van and started clamping a car next to me. I decided that the church wasn't that important to photograph and made my escape, wondering how they would go about clamping my bike, but not prepared to risk finding out.
I made my way to the cathedral, where I took the risk of parking up in the wide expanse of space around it and went for a closer look. The St. Alexander Nevski Monumental Cathedral was named after the man responsible for the victory over the Teutonians near Lake Ladog and is known as the tsar-liberator. After the liberation, the Constitutive National Assembly, meeting in the town of Veliko Turnovo (where I'm camping next) made the decision to build a new cathedral. It occupies an area of 2,600 square metres, and the fist stone was laid in 1882. Construction proper started in 1904 and it was finished in 1916, and consecrated in 1924. So it's hardly ancient. The shape of the church was based loosely on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It's an impressive building, as you can see from the photos below, more so because the area around it is clear of other buildings, being a large expanse of cobblestones. The interior, of which I wasn't allowed to take photographs, is impresive, with every surface covered in typical Orthodox Christian paintings like those on other churches I've seen. There is also a very ornate, gold-coloured chandeleir and gold is the predominent colour.
After the cathedral, I rode around a little bit more, but didn't find anything else really worth stopping for,
especially given the heat. I did find a McDonalds, though, and as it would be air-conditioned and I was hungry and
needed the loo, I stopped. I reasoned it would give me chance to check the internet for anything else I should try
to see whilst in Sofia. I went to the counter and discovered that
Fast Food clearly doesn't translate into
Bulgarian. I waited 10 minutes behind one other person (who only ordered 2 burgers) before I could place my order,
which was two bottles of water, a coffee, a burger with fries and a Snickers McFlurry(tm). I waited a full
15 minutes for the one person behind the counter to prepare my meal, and he put out the McFlurry(tm) first,
so it was mostly melted by the time I came to eat it. The air-conditioning wasn't working terribly well either, so
I just stood there, dripping with sweat, trying not to laugh. The food was typical McD's, but it filled a hole and
made up for me skipping breakfast. My research failed to turn up anything else worth riding around Sofia for, so I
rode off towards camp and looked out for a supermarket. I found one and bought a jar of tomato-based sauce and some
tortellini for my tea, and some chocolate-filled croissants for breakfast, then rode back to camp. My noisy neighbours had gone out for the day, so I had some peace
and quiet to sit in the shade and read. My tea was good and it was nice to be cooking again rather than eating
in the campsite restaurant - at least this time I knew what I was going to get!
I had the best night's sleep I'd had in the tent for a while, partly due to being very tired having not slept the night before, but mostly because it was very quiet after 11pm. I future, I won't wait quite so long before shouting out to people who are being noisy! I still woke early, around 6:30am, which is normal for me, and had a shower before putting a brew on and then enjoying the delicious chocolate-filled croissants I'd bought. I saved one for the following day (they last 7 days according to the packet) and then packed up camp. My neighbours were just waking up as I started the bike and rode out of camp, so I didn't feel too guilty about making a noise - not that I would have done given how loud they'd been that first night!
My ride for the day was designed to give me a chance to see a fair bit of the Bulgarian countryside. From Sapareva Banya I rode east towards Pazardzik, then took a small road from Septemvri across to join the 37 north to Panagjuiriste. From here it was more small roads north to the 6, then east before taking the 35 via Trojan and then on the main road (4) east to Veliko Tarnovo. The riding was superb, through forests and up and down hills, twisting this way and that on roads that offered the extra challenge of varying road surfaces. Sometimes very smooth grippy tarmac, at other times big potholes, cracks and bumps, or scattered with patches of gravel or deep sand - the latter with no prior warning and no obvious reason as to where it had come from. The small road from Septemvri was particularly interesting, as it was cobbled for almost its entire length, with patches of sand thrown in for good measure. The weather was perfect, the temperature a comfortable 25 degrees and the skies a bright blue. On the cobbled road I stopped to take some pictures, and watched as an old battered red golf made its way slowly down the road, bouncing around on the bumps, then it stopped alongside me and the young guy driving it shouted across to me, asking me whether I was OK. We got chatting, and he told me he'd lived in various parts of the UK - Peterborough, Dumfries and Northern Island - over a 7-year period whilst studying, with 6 months in the UK and 6 months back in Bulgaria at a time. His English was understandably excellent and we chatted about the bike, where I was heading, as well as general chit-chat. Then he was off on his way, and so was I.
I eventually arrived at the campsite at Veliko Tarnovo, which is run by a British couple, and was simply wonderful. It was very hot when I arrived, so the young girl on reception, who spoke excellent English (as did all the staff, who were all pretty young girls), suggested I go pitch up and then come back to sort out checking in. I gratefully accepted the invitation and chose a corner of the campsite to pitch up. The only criticism of the site is that there is no shade at all in the main camping area, so I had to pitch up in bright sunshine, the interior of the tent getting very hot in the time it took me to erect it. But first I'd changed out of my bike gear into my shorts, so at least I wasn't quite as uncomfortably hot as I had been when I arrived. I went back to reception to check in and they explained how everything worked - they simply allocated me a camp number (1) and then every time I ordered any food or drink or any other service (like laundry) it would be added to my bill and I would pay once when I checked out. Perfect. I ordered a beer and sat on the restaurant terrace, where there was some shade and a gentle breeze, and relaxed. I'd checked in for 2 nights and with a swimming pool and loungers with umbrellas, decided that tomorrow would be a full day off - I wouldn't even try to catch up with the blog despite having charged the laptop in the campsite reception. I finished off my current book, Jack Reacher book 5, and ordered the next in the series ready for the following day, then had an excellent evening meal of Chicken salad before retiring for the night.
As I'd promised myself a day off, that's exactly what I had. After a brew and the remaining chocolate-filled croissant from yesterday, then handed my laundry in to have it washed for me, and went up to the swimming pool where I chose my position for the day. I asked one of the young girls to put the umbrella up for me, explaining to her that the last time I'd tried to do it myself somewhere else, I'd broken it! Once I'd got the shade I needed, out came the kindle and I settled in for a day's relaxation. I sat and read for most of the day, surrounded by young guys with six-packs, young mothers in bikinis and kids playing in the pool - all locals as the site allows them to use the pool for a small fee. At one point I went for a dip in the pool to cool off, then slipped whilst hauling myself out, scratching my shin and cutting my hand in the process. I hid my wounds and my embarrassment from the lifeguard and hoped that no-one had noticed. At least no-one started laughing at the fat white Englishman who can no longer climb out of a pool with the grace he once did...
I had a salad for lunch with a glass of homemade lemonade, both of which were excellent, then returned to my book. Later in the afternoon the sky darkened and the wind picked up, the temperature dropping a couple of degrees. Fairly soon the pool area was clearing and the family groups packed up and left for home before the storm arrived. I went and reclaimed my clean clothes and returned to my tent to get changed out of my swimming shorts ready for dinner, then stayed in the tent as the rain came. It didn't last long, maybe half an hour, and then it was clear skies and warm again. I went back to the camp restaurant and ordered a burger and a cup of tea for dinner, before returning to the tent and finishing my book before turning in for the night, a full day of doing very little but relaxing in the sun, reading. Just what I needed!
As the campsite is run by a British couple, one of the items on the restaurant menu is a Full Cooked English Breakfast. I'd avoided it yesterday, saving the treat for today so that it would keep me going until I arrived in Bucharest. I packed up most of my gear and then went and ordered it, with a cup of tea, and it was everything I had hoped for. 2 rashers of British bacon (nice and thick), tasty sausage, 2 fried eggs, mushrooms and toast. A perfect way to start my last day in Bulgaria!
With my stomach full, I settled my bill (a very reasonable £53.25!), left a nice big tip of most of my remaining Bulgarian Lei, then finished packing up, got changed into my bike gear and left the campsite. I'd planned a couple of options for the day, as direct route to Bucharest would only take a couple of hours and I'd arrive too early. One was a sight-seeing trip to Tsaravets fortress (a ruin 13Km from the campsite) and Krushuna waterfall, a further 65Km away. The other was a long route that went south, east and north through the countryside before heading for the border at Ruse and into Romania. I'd programmed the former into the GPS and set off following it, but then decided I'd prefer another day of riding, so pulled into a lay-by to change to the latter route, modifying it slightly as it was too long. Whilst I was stopped and fiddling with the GPS, a young woman rode up on an old Honda Hornet and stopped partly in the lay-by. Then promptly fell off her bike as it toppled over. I got off my bike and helped her pick it back up again, then pushed it fully into the lay-by and away from the traffic that was passing close by. We got chatting and she had stopped to see if I needed any help (this is a normal thing for motorcyclists to do, if we see another bike that looks like it's in trouble, we stop to help). I explained what I was doing and she offered to help me choose a route, but I said I was just going to go exploring, then we checked her bike over and she rode off. Once she'd gone I could afford to have a bit of a giggle at what had happened, the irony of her stopping to help me, and me helping her, was not lost on me.
Once I'd reprogrammed the GPS, I set off again, heading back and past the campsite and then south east on the 53, towards Sliven. Approaching here I was running a little low on fuel, so pulled into a petrol station and asked the middle-aged woman to fill the tank. Once that was done I went to pay, getting out my card as I now only had 10 Lei left (the bill was 37 Lei). Only she told me they don't take cards (in Bulgarian, as she didn't speak English)! I was incredulous. I've never, ever, been to a petrol station anywhere (and I've been to some very remote ones) that didn't take card payments. We had a chat - her babbling in Bulgarian, me babbling in English, as I explained I'd only got 10 Lei. I showed her my wallet. I offered Euros (I had some in my bag) but that was no good. It was obvious we were at an impasse - she got on her phone and started explaining what was going on to someone else, so I went out to the bike and used the GPS to locate an ATM. The nearest was 11Km away as the crow flies (17Km by road), so I went back into the office and explained that I'd go and get some more cash and return. To guarantee I would, I left my passport with her - and the 10 Lei note as she insisted I leave that too - and off I went. The road to the ATM (488) was a belter - up and over a big hill an with a great surface for all its length bar one particularly bumpy corner, so I had some fun and got there, drew out 100Lei, and got back again in record time. Having settled my bill and got my passport back, I bought a drink and an ice-cream, and consumed them before setting back off again. My original route included the 488, so for the 3rd time I rode that great stretch of road, now familiar with it and what to expect in terms of road surface, so I could have some fun.
The ride continued through some great countryside, through forests and over hills, following the 48, then 4 and 49 via Targoviste and on to Razgrad, where I joined the main E70 to Ruse and the border with Romania. On the outskirts of Ruse I stopped to fill up again, buying some more chocolate-filled croissants and an iced coffee to use up most of the remaining Lei. Then it was on to the border. The border is actually in the centre of the Danube, and at Ruse there is a bridge over the river, which is a toll-bridge but free for motorcycles. On the far side of the bridge is Romanian passport control and customs. Both Bulgaria and Romania are in the EU, but there is still a border and there was a long queue of trucks waiting to pass through it. The car queue was smaller, as each person had their passports checked. Mine was scanned and handed back to me without a word, then the border guard starting messing with his phone, so I assumed that meant I was free to continue and ride into Romania proper.
The first few miles were on narrow, bumpy, pot-holed roads, then I joined the main highway into Bucharest, a very
fast motorway like road with fairly light traffic. By now it was getting on a bit, and by the time I arrived on the
outskirts of the city it was gone 5pm. The traffic was typical city traffic and once again I was grateful for the
excellent BMW GPS and the
wonderwheel that allows me to zoom in and out without taking my hands off the
handlebars or my eyes off the road. I negotiated the traffic and the remaining 20 or so Km were slow going and very
hot, but I found the hotel without problem, and parked outside whilst I went in to start the check-in process. One of
main reasons I'd chosen this particular hotel - the Euro Hotels International - was because it has an underground
car park. They opened the door and I rode down inside and parked up - a perfect spot for me to replace the rear brake
pads tomorrow morning. I then completed the check-in process, which involved paying for the hotel immediately which
meant using my credit card as I've not yet been to an ATM and drawn out any local currency. Once again I was sweating
profusely and desperate for a shower. I went directly to the room and dropped off as much gear as I could before
returning to the bike for my bags, then I stood under the shower and washed myself and my t-shirt and underwear.
Once clean I checked Google maps to find an ATM and a restaurant and then went out for a walk. The ATM was easy to find but the exchange rate was rubbish - unfortunately I needed cash and so had to accept it - then walked for about 15 minutes to an Italian restaurant near a park close to the Arch of Triumph (more of which tomorrow). Here I ordered a beer, some gorgonzola-filled mushrooms to start with and a ham and mushroom pizza. Both courses arrived at the same time, which wasn't ideal, but the food was good. What wasn't good was the mosquitos. I didn't know beforehand (it hadn't come up in my research) but Bucharest has a mosquito problem. They are everywhere and they just love my anti-platelet thinned blood. The little bastards feasted on me as I feasted on my mushrooms and pizza. I already have a swollen left forearm following a particularly nasty bite the other day, and by the time I returned to the hotel room, I had bites all over my feet, ankles (despite wearing shoes and socks), arms, neck and back. I look like I've got the measles, and am probably short a pint or two of the red stuff.
I slept well, despite the itchy bites, and woke once more at 6:30am. With the hotel booking not including breakfast, I ate the last of my chocolate-filled croissants then did some more research on how to get around the city and what to see. But first job on my list was to attend to the rear brake pads. Back in Istanbul, some 4,000Km ago, the dealership had told me they wanted to replace the pads, but I'd said not to as I have a spare set with me. Rear brake pads on the GS seem to wear quicker than the front, which is odd given the fronts are used more, but I'm familiar with the situation so carry a spare set of rears when I go on a long trip. I checked them in Istanbul and concluded they were fine, and since then I've kept an eye on them and decided to change them here as I've an underground car park to work in, which theoretically should be cooler. I went down to the garage and laid out my beach towel to work on, then got my tools out and removed the rear mudguard, then removed the rear caliper bolts so I could move the caliper out of the way to get at the pads. Once I had the caliper moved I could inspect the pads properly and I was surprised to find that they were only about 50% worn. So no point in replacing them as they'll probably last until I get home, or at least for a good few weeks yet. I replaced everything leaving the original pads in situ and will just monitor them as I perform my regular checks.
It wasn't as cool as I'd hoped in the car park, and by the time I'd finished and put my tools away, I was once again
dripping with sweat. So it was back to the room for my second shower of the day, then I sat around trying to cool
off while I finalised my plans for the day. First on my list of must-see sights is the
People's Palace or the
Palace of the Parliament as it's now known. This massive building is the world's second largest administrative
building (the largest is the Pentagon). It's also the world's heaviest building, and was built using construction
materials produced in Romania, amongst which: 1,000,000 cbm of marble, 550,000 tons of cement, 700,000 tons of steel,
2,000,000 tons of sand, 1,000 tons of basalt, 900,000 cbm rich wood, 3,500 tons of crystal, 200,000 cbm of glass,
2,800 chandeliers, 220,000 sqm carpets and 3,500 sqm leather! It was built following the orders of the Romanian
dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, during a period of high economic hardship for the country. The dictator’s idea was to
focus all the main bodies of the state in one building, whilst at the same time creating an opulent home for himself
and his family. Causescu wanted a safe place to live under a seismic risk, and one that would hold up to a nuclear attack.
The result is very impressive, particularly from the inside, which unfortunately I couldn't see. In order to get inside
you need to book well in advance and as the building is used as an administration centre still, not all dates are
available. By the time I looked, all of May and June were booked out. Disappointed, I decided to go and look at the
outside anyway. I walked to the nearest Metro station and bought a day ticket, then used the Metro to get close by,
a journey involving 2 separate lines. I like Metros as a way of getting around an unfamiliar city, as they're very
easy to use and to follow. Once I'd arrvied at my final stop, I walked through the park and at the end was a large
building. I was initially disappointed, as it didn't look that impressive, until I realised I was actually looking
at the left side of the building and not the front! I walked on and round to the front and then I could understand
what all the fuss was about - the building is HUGE! It was modelled to some extent on the big old European palaces
like Buckingham Palace and the Palais of Versailles. It's very impressive, but a testement to the corruption of
power - whilst it was being built at great expense, most of Romania was suffering with great poverty. Causescu didn't
even get to see it finished as at the time of the Revolution in 1989 it was only 60% complete (he was executed on
Christmas Day 1989). Building work was restarted in 1992 and finally completed in 1996.
You will notice from the signs draped across the buildings that Romania holds the Presidency of the EU Council starting at the end of June 2019, something they are obviously quite proud of. The country is now firmly part of Europe, and no longer aligned with Russia as in the past. From the Palace I went walking to the Old Town to have a look around, first crossing the Dambovita River which runs through the city, then walking several city blocks, past drab looking concrete buildings daubed with graffiti. As the name implies, the Old Town has a number of older buildings, more ornate and interesting, and it is also home to a large number of restaurants and bars (and strip clubs but they were all closed). I wandered around taking in the sights, until my knee was giving me serious grief and I was in need of fluids. I found a nice restaurant and stopped and ordered a beer and a chicken salad. The beer was a mistake, as I should have ordered some water instead, the alcohol making me feel queezy due to the heat and dehydration. But the salad was good, and I followed it with a bottle of water and a coffee.
After a long break in the restaurant I continued on and took the metro back towards the park near the hotel so I could explore a couple of other sights. The first was the Arcul de Triumf, or Arch of Triumph, similar, but smaller than the one in Paris. The first wooden triumphal arch was built hurriedly, after Romania gained its independence in 1878, so that the victorious troops could march under it. Another arch with concrete skeleton and plaster exterior of elaborate sculptures and decoration was built on the same site after World War I in 1922. The arch exterior, which had seriously decayed, was replaced in 1935 by the current much more sober Neoclassical design, more closely modelled in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The new arch is built from stone and was inaugurated on 1 December 1936. It is still used for military marches and ceremonies today.
From here I walked further round the park to the final sight I wanted to see, the Village Museum. Created in 1936 it contains over 270 authentic peasant farms and houses from all over Romania. These buildings have been taken down carefully from their original locations and brought to a large area in the park, where they have been faithfully rebuilt as an outdoor museum. Each house is as it was in the Romanian countryside, and most also feature their original internal fittings, fixtures and decoratons. This is a place I could easily have spent half a day at, but as it was already late afternoon, and my knee was very sore from all the walking, I only spent a couple of hours there. I did take rather a lot of photos, though, so here's a selection...
Before leaving the Village Museum, I went to the on-site café and bought a bottle of water and an ice-cream, then sat and enjoyed them, plucking up the energy to continue walking. Leaving the museum I walked for another half mile or so to a supermarket where I bought some humous and salad for my tea, and a couple of big bottles of water, then walked the remaining half-mile or so back to the hotel. By now I was very hot and sweaty again, so it was time for yet another shower before starting the mammoth task of writing up the blog for the last few days. With that done, it's time to enjoy my supermarket bought tea and to relax before I set off into Romania proper tomorrow. I just hope the temperature drops a couple of degrees!
I woke this morning later than usual, around 7:20am, still feeling tired and slightly lethargic. I put it down to the heat and the walking, and also to the blood loss caused by the damned mosquitos. Despite this, I got up and showered, which was a waste of time as I was sweaty again within minutes, despite not actually getting dressed until I'd finished packing and had my breakfast. I loaded the bike then got changed into my bike gear and checked out of the hotel, then rode the bike up the steep and curved entrance ramp, which was so curved that it was impossible to see the idiot who'd parked his car blocking the exit before I was half-way up the ramp. Fortunately, I was prepared for there being an obstruction there, so managed to keep the bike under control and ride around him, glaring at him as I went past (which was a waste of time, too, as he was deep in concentration texting on his phone). The other hazard I'd prepared myself for, was young guys on electric scooters - not the moped-style ones, but the ones like I had when I was a kid where you stand on a plank between two small wheels holding the handlebars and scoot along using one foot to propel yourself forwards (I think that's why they're called scooters - because you scoot along). Only these are electrically powered and good for about 7-8 mph, and they use them to get about the city, riding on pavements and cycle paths. I actually think they're a great idea, you just need the users to be sensible and the other pedestrians to consider them before doing anything sudden. There weren't any of these blocking my exit, so I was soon on the road trying to make my way out of the city, heading roughly north-west. This meant following the a road that had tram-tracks down the middle, as Bucharest not only has a metro, but also both trams and trolley-buses. The trams look old, a bit like the trams that were introduced when I was a kid growing up near Blackpool some 40-odd years ago. The really odd thing, though, is that all the trams and all the cars stop for anyone on a pedestrian crossing. I know we do this in the UK, except that the trams have right of way and the pedestrian crossings stop before the tram-tracks, but everywhere else I've been pedestrian (zebra) crossings have been just places where pedestrians might choose to cross but drivers ignore them. Here, they stop, so the pedestrians don't even look before crossing the road!
Once clear of the city the traffic didn't really get much lighter, as there was a constant stream of HGVs going both ways along the highway. It seems that Romania has a very big road haulage industry, and there were trucks everywhere, which meant lots of slow going until I could get chance to overtake. Overtaking has to be done carefully too, as it is not unusual to see the potential for an opportunity a few hundred yards down the road, only for a car to overtake from behind and blast past me just as I'm about to move out to overtake the truck in front. On more than one occasion, I was convinced the overtaking car was going to hit an oncoming vehicle, only for them to both squeeze past each other without slowing down at all. And then, once we were out of the city and into farming country, there was another hazard thrown into the mix - horse-drawn carts loaded high with grass, the driver hidden completely from view (and therefore unable to see behind him). The speed differential between these and the motorised traffic is immense, and it's important to check that the reason the truck in front is going slow isn't because he's following one of these as if it is, at some stage he'll just swing out in order to pass it. I wouldn't say the riding was fun, the stop-start, fast-slow nature of the traffic made it less so, but it was interesting and at times, entertaining.
The countryside was pretty, at least in parts, too. There were stretches of dull industrialisation to break it up, but in the main it was mostly green farmland, with crops growing in neat rows, sometimes very large fields and at others smaller, family-run farms. I saw large numbers of people cutting the long grass that was growing between the road and the field with hand-held scythes, loading up wooden trailers whilst the horse that would pull it stood munching on its own patch of grass. In the fields were little old ladies, hunched over and tending to the crops in old thick dresses with headscarves covering their heads. That's not to say I didn't see modern tractors and other agricultural machinery, as they were in evidence too, particularly in the larger fields. The houses in the small villages were an eclectic mix too, some white-washed stone with terracota tile roofs, others made entirely of wood with wooden roofs like those in the museum yesterday. I past one church that was almost identical to the old wooden one in the museum and in the photos I took.
After crossing a large flat plain I rode up into the mountains, still following some slow-moving trucks (at least until I got chance to get past them). The road surface was bumpy and rough, the trucks labouring up the hills and bouncing around, cutting the corners and belching out nasty-smelling fumes. At one stage I pulled over at the roadside to have a break, the concentration and the constant jolting making me feel like I'd been on a boat. I had a drink of water from my camelbak and a little walk up the hill to admire the view down into the valley below, enjoying the warmth of the sun now I'd removed my jacket for a while.
My journey took me past a couple of castles, sat high on the hills overlooking the villages below, but I didn't stop as I'd got a fair distance to go and wanted to get to Bran to see a very special castle. Bran is home to none other than Dracula's castle. Only it's not, despite it claiming to be and the town being full of Dracula-related tourist tat. There is no evidence that Bram Stoker knew anything about this castle, and it only tangential associations with Vlad the Impaler, voivode of Wallachia, the putative inspiration for Dracula. Stoker's description of Dracula's crumbling fictional castle also bears no resemblance to Bran Castle. The inspiration for Dracula's castle is more likely to be the one on the Transfagarasan, which unfortunately I won't get to as the road is still closed. Anyway, despite all of this, Bran Castle is as good a tourist attraction as any, so I went to Bran to see it. Having found somewhere to park and with it now gone lunch time, I opted to eat first and see the castle later, finding a suitable road-side restaurant and ordering an iced coffee and a Pizza Diavola (it seemed appropriate). The pizza was good, the coffee not, but a bottle of water and a hot coffee helped quench my thirst. By the time I'd settled the bill and walked through all the tourist-tat shops to get to the entrance to the castle it was already gone 2pm, and one look at the long walk from the entrance to the castle and the 40Lev (£10) entrance fee had me turning round and heading back to the bike. It was still 160Km (3 hours) to the campsite I'd chosen, and I wasn't even sure that the site was any good as the information on the Internet for Romanian campsites leaves a lot to be desired.
So I left Bran and rode on, and a short distance away passed through the town of Rasnov, which has a much better castle sat high on the hill overlooking the town. I didn't stop for photos as there was nowhere to pull over and I was in a stream of traffic that included several HGVs - and the road had a number of sections of traffic-light controlled roadworks which meant it was very stop-start. From Rasnov I rode to Brasov, and went for a ride into town to have a look around. Brasov is a beautiful town, with some lovely old buildings including a Black Church, and it all looked great, except for the traffic and the lack of places to pull up and stop for a few minutes to take pictures. So once again, I rode around, feasting my eyes on the sights, but didn't stop to take any pictures. It was beautiful, though. Outside Brasov I continued on my way, heading North and NorthWest on the 13 and E60, passing a number of small villages with castles on the hills above them, and seeing small, elaborate churches with domed towers nestled in the trees on the hillsides. By now the traffic was lighter, with just the occasional HGV to get past, or the mad nutter in his car determined to overtake me. There was also a guy in a white van who decided to try and race me up a hill and past some HGVs, which was fun for a little while, but then I decided it was safer to create some distance between us and so off I went.
I eventually pulled over to fill up with fuel some 50km before the campsite, having a cold drink and checking the GPS and the map to see what alternatives there were should it prove to be unsuitable. By now it was gone 4pm and I was getting tired of riding, and with no real alternatives showing up just had to hope the site would be OK. Riding in to Sighisoara I found a sign that looked promising, Aquaris camping and with a tent logo, and followed it directly to the gate. The campsite is just fine, has a nice clean shower/toilet block and a shaded area for me to pitch the tent, wifi access and even a small terrace with tables and chairs where I can sit and write the blog. I checked in, pitched up, showered and went and had a walk round the town, where there is a lovely old church (the Biserica Sfanta Treime), some old buildings on the hills and a lovely old clock tower that looks like it's about to fall down. I went to the supermarket and bought some snacks for my tea and a big bottle of water to help me rehydrate, then went back to camp to write the blog and eat my goodies. As I sit here I can hear the thunder all around, there's been a little rain too, and the sky is a deep shade of orange. And I'm still being eaten alive by mosquitos despite having covered myself in deet. But I'm not complaining, I've got my tent pitched, and I've got another few days exploring Romania to come!
I woke having slept really well, last night's storm having past just leaving the last remnants of a rain shower behind. The sky looked promising, though, and with the cooler temperature I knew I was in for a good day, and it didn't disappoint. I packed away my gear but left the tent up whilst I made a brew and ate breakfast in the vain hope that it would dry out a little before I had to put it away. I hate having to pack my tent away wet as I know it will be wet - inside and out - when I next put it up and if it's raining then I'm going to stuggle to dry it out in order to sleep in it. But that was for later, I had some riding to do!
I left the campsite and rode out of town heading roughly north and into the countryside. It was such a joy to be
riding in the cooler conditions, the rain having finally stopped, and the traffic a little lighter than yesterday.
There were still a good number of large trucks to get past, but these weren't a problem and I was soon really
enjoying myself. The landscape was beautiful, a diverse pallet of shades of green and brown, mostly fields of crops
dotted with small villages of houses with their own smaller vegetable gardens. There were people about too, mostly
old men in their tribly hats (though I did see a few in cowboy hats too) or old women, hunched over working in the
fields. I saw very few younger people except in the larger towns, I guess they've moved away from the more remote
villages in search of a
better life. There were also lots of haystacks in the fields, not the big, wheel-like
round ones we see at home wrapped in bright plastic, nor even the old block-style ones, these were proper haystacks,
the sort that adorded the cover of children's books. They looked like those hairy troll-dolls people collected when
I was a kid. Out in the fields men and women were scything the long grass, or turning it over with pitchforks, or
piling it higher on the haystacks.
The riding was superb, especially when the road started winding its way into the hills and through the trees. I was heading in the general direction of an old Romanian wooden church, of which there are several in the Maramures region of north-west Romania. There are almost 100 of these old Orthodox Christian churches remaining across the region, most built in the 17th to 19th century, they were built of wood because the ruling Austro-Hungarian empire, which was aligned to the Catholic church of Rome, decreed that there should be no stone-built Orthodox churches. So the locals resorted to building them from wood, and the skill and craftsmanship displayed to not only create these wonderful buildings, but to ensure they were still standing nearly 400 years later is quite something. Eight of these buildings have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, for their religious architecture and timber construction traditions. As I was riding through the village of Rogoz I saw a brown sign pointing to one of the listed churches which is in the village, so went to explore.
The village dates from as early as 1488 and the Church of the Holy Archangels was built in 1663 from local Elm wood,
after the previous church had been burnt down by the Tatars in 1661 according to the inscription on the entrance. The
eaves are supported on horse-head beams which is unique, and their positioning
neck on neck represents the love
for others. Around the outside is a carved rope with carved rosettes, symbolising the connection between heaven and
earth, with the rosettes the symbol of the sun. Inside the church there is a narthex, which is a small area intended for women
worshippers, which has no windows, and a nave intended for men with 5 windows (2 to the north, 3 to the south). The
windows cast sun on the altar table directly on just 7 days of the year, between August 6th and 14th. The nave is
also where marriages, baptisms, etc are officiated. Hanging from the ceiling there is a carved wooden chandelier which represents the
tree of life. The entire inside of the church is covered with paintings, not quite as bright as those in other orthodox
churches I've visited, which isn't suprising when you consider they were painted by the locals way back in 1785 - there's
an inscription which reads
we started painting this holy church on the 10th day of June 1785 and it was finished on the
11th day of September. It's all very impressive.
Having had a good look around the church I reprogrammed my GPS to take me to another one of these amazing buildings, which meant a slight detour before going to the campsite. That wasn't a problem as I was having such a good ride, only it did mean taking a smaller road up and over one of the hills, and this road was in truly terrible condition. It was bumpier than a bumpy thing, and I was bounced around all over the place. It's a good job my bike has long-travel suspension, or I'm sure it would have bottomed out on many of the bumps. Regardless, the view was great when I could afford to drag my eyes off the road for a split second to admire it. And it didn't last too long before it joined a bigger road, past a series of deep green lakes, dotted with small houses and men sat on the bank, fishing. Sadly there was nowhere suitable for me to pull over to take a picture, so it's another memory of this trip that will only exist in my head. The road then crossed another hill before I rode to where my GPS said the wooden church was located, only it wasn't. I must have put the wrong coordinates in, as there was nothing there but a small row of houses lining the street. Undetered, I turned round and headed south towards Baia Mare and the campsite, which took me through the village of Desesti, where there was another wooden church anyway. This one is more modern, and looks very recent, but has been built in the traditional style. Standing on a hillside above the main road it's a very impressive sight.
After leaving the church I rode on and through the town of Baia Mare, which was quite busy. It's a large town
and the outskirts were not pretty - big concrete tenament blocks lining the road - but then as I got closer to the
centre it opened out and became much more interesting. There is a massive church in the centre that looks like it's
in the process of being rebuilt or restored, a really impressive sight as the road heads directly for it before
turning to pass around it. With the traffic being quite busy, and the temperature once again hovering in the 30's, I
didn't stop, time was passing once more and as always at this point in the day I wanted to make sure of my evening's
accommodation. Just south of Baia Mare is the campsite I'd found online, and I located it without too much hassle,
despite not having the exact coordinates. Tucked away in the village of Sacalaseni and called Camping Noroc, it is
run by a French couple (although I later discovered the wife is from Baia Mare originally). They moved here
permanently just 2 years ago and opened the campsite to give them something to do (he's ex-French army and can afford
to live off his pension). They have 2 young children, and the site is also home to ducks and chickens. It's lovely
spot, with a small but immaculate toilet/shower block. I checked in and pitched the tent and then took a shower, and
was sitting contemplating my plans for tomorrow when another bike turned up - a 40-year old Honda CX500 with a sidecar.
It was ridden by a German called Thomas, who speaks very good English. Also on the site is a French biker, riding a
Moto-Guzzi California (towed on a trailer behind his Citroen campervan), but he only speaks French. I enquired about
options for eating and was told about the local restaurant and the local shop
which sells everything, so
opted for the latter to go and get something to cook. The shop didn't have very much at all, and all the jars of
sauces and the like were behind the counter, which made browsing and choosing difficult. In the end, I bought a can
of tuna and a jar of what looked like tomato-based cooking sauce, some cheese and some bread, a couple of croissants
for breakfast and a bottle of water. Back at the campsite I discovered the water was fizzy (yuk!), and I didn't like
the look of the sauce I'd bought, so made do with the cheese and bread instead. I'll try the sauce tomorrow. Maybe!
Shortly after I'd finished munching my cheese butties, the owner came over and offered me a glass of the local
?uica, which is an alcoholic apperetif made from plums they grow themselves, distilled
with a little help from one of their neighbours. It's around 50% proof and actually reasonably tasty. I only had the one
small glass, though, as I'm still maintaining my low alcohol intake. A little later we all gathered around the table and
sat chatting, discussing language and travel and life in general. As the sun began to go down the mosquitos came out
in force once more, seeming to prefer my blood to anyone else's (probably because it's thinner and doesn't clot so
easily due to my medication), so it was time to retire to the tent and read a while before finally calling it a night.
Another great day!
Today was also the day that the Globebusters team reached Everest Base Camp in Tibet, a superb achievement and one I'm really pleased about, especially for Andrew, who I would have loved to have been with as he saw the great mountain for himself. This was the trip I was supposed to be guiding, before my heart problem, and it was a dream of mine to see Everest from the Tibetan side (I saw it from the Nepal side back in 2003, having trekked there). But having had such a great day on the road, and being so lucky to be enjoying riding solo around Europe, I'm not complaining. Life is good!
After yet another good night's sleep, I woke late and took my time packing up and having my breakfast. I wanted to wait until the early morning dew had dried on the tent, so it was gone 10am by the time I said my goodbyes to Thomas and the campsite owner (who's name escapes me). Then I was back on the road again, initially heading south east then, rather unfortunately, back in the really bumpy road from yesterday to pick up the road I wanted to Barsana. Once again I was glad for the extra suspension travel on my bike, the cars I passed had to go really slow as some of the bumps and pot-holes were very bad, but my bike just bounced over them without too much problem. More than can be said for my poor backside, though, getting bounced around all the time! There was also the usual hazards about on the roads, including this rather large pile of grass/hay on a trailer:
To give you an idea of the contrasting riding in Romania, here are two short video clips. The first is from the wonderful road into Baia Mare (hwy 18), the second from the bumpy road I rode twice!
The reason for heading to Barsana is it is the site of another UNESCO listed heritage site, that of Barsana Monastery. The village is recoded as having a wooden church as far back as 1391, but like so many it was burnt by the Tartars in 1717, only to be rebuilt in 1720. To avoid further desecration and destruction, it was moved to its current location in 1806, and the monastery has grown around the church. The church itself is unique, being the tallest in Romania standing 57m tall. It's quite an impressive building and the grounds of the monastery, which is home to an order of nuns, is very picturesque.
After leaving the monastery I continued heading south-east on the scenic route 18, towards a dark-grey sky. Before long the rain started to fall, lightly at first then more and more heavy until there was standing water on the road. The roads were slippery, too, so I had to be extra cautious, adding a lack of grip to the usual road-surface concerns. Then the road climbed up into the mountains, via a series of switchbacks, up into the clouds and rain. I had to close the vents on my jacket and trousers, and at one point even resorted to putting on the heated grips - quite a change from when I set off that morning! In the distance I could see a lighter sky, still cloud-filled, but no longer dark. I reached it shortly before the town of Pojorata, where my chosen campsite was, and arrived in the dry, stopping to fill up with fuel just before the campsite. This site was another that had good review on the web, and is run by a Dutch couple (most of the campsites in Romania are run by Dutch or Germans). It was very busy, with a group of 17 Dutch families in motorhomes already pitched up, but they found me space near the fence and I quickly pitched the tent before getting changed and handing over my washing to get done. I then sat in the warm sunshine to check the route for the following day, and watched as the sky grew darker. Then the thunder started, big loud crashing rolling across the sky, seemingly from directly above my head. It started raining, very gently, so I withdrew to the tent and sat on my chair in the porch with my book. Then the rain really started hammering down. It lasted only about half an hour, then stopped just as suddenly as it started, and the sun came out and it was as though it had never happened. I made myself a brew and then cooked up the sauce and tuna I'd bought the day before, with some pasta, and had a very nice meal (I added a few chillies to the sauce, as well as a lot of black pepper, and that made all the difference!).
After dinner I read some more of my book before managing catch Tracy on the phone from her hospital bed, after her latest operation. She's having another partial knee replacement to match the one she had last year. She's gradually turning into the bionic woman, bit by painful bit. She sounded in good spirits, but was very aware the anaesthetic hadn't yet fully worn off, so there would be more pain to come. I hate being away when she has to go through something like this, and have considered heading home early, but she was adamant that I shouldn't.
I woke early, around 6am, and went and had a shower whilst the other campers were still asleep, then returned to my tent and went back to sleep myself. I woke again around 7:45am, and got up to prepare my breakfast. I'd bought a couple of the chocolate-filled croissants I have become addicted to from the garage last night when I filled up, so I put a brew on and ate those whilst reading a little of my book. With me staying in an hotel tonight ready for the border-crossing into Moldova tomorrow, I needed to leave my departure as late as possible to give the tent chance to dry off from the overnight dew. I packed up slowly, went and paid my dues and collected my washing, then took my time putting the tent away. As a result, it was almost 10:30am by the time I was on the road, the temperature a very pleasant 22degrees and the sun was out, putting me in a very good mood.
My first stop for the day was another monastery, this one in Sucevita, about 60Km north east of where I stayed. The ride there was a bit stop-start, with other cars and vans to get past. One problem that's caused by the poor state of a lot of the country roads is that other vehicles have a tendency to suddenly slow right down without warning, as the driver realises he needs to negotiate a bump or two. This is very irritating, as it happens so suddenly that it's like the driver is doing an unexpected emergency stop. It makes following other vehicles a nightmare, so overtaking as soon as possible is the order of the day, trying to get a bit of empty road in front to enable me to relax a little. Once at Sucevita, I found somewhere to park, noting the group of coaches also parked in the car park. At least these were not the dreaded Asian tour groups, they were school kids (teenagers) on an outing to the monastery (on a Sunday, they must be keen!). I was surprised to have to pay to enter, the previous monasteries and churches all being free to enter, but with the ovbious renovations underway perhaps it wasn't surprising. Although having to pay an extra 10Lei (twice the entrance fee) to take photos of the exterior of the church (no photos inside) was a bit rich. Especially as most of the exterior is covered due to the renovations!
Built in 1585, the monastery houses a church, of which both the interior and exterior walls are covered by mural paintings, which are of great artistic value and depict biblical episodes from the Old and New Testament. The paintings date from around 1601 and, like the others I've seen, were done so that the illiterate population could understand the Biblical texts. The exterior ones are quite worn (hence the renovations), but the interior ones are bright and colourful, at least the ones I could see. It being a Sunday, there was a service going on in the church, and the crowds pushing their way inside were clearly there to hear the service and not just look at the architecture like me. As they entered, they crossed themselves, and as I've seen at other churches, bowed to kiss copies of some of the paintings in glass cases on stands inside the church. I felt decidedly out-of-place in the church, not wanting to disturb the devout from their prayers, so only had a cursory look around before exiting back into the courtyard.
I stopped at a shop by the car park for an iced-coffee before returning to the road and continuing my journey
east, via Botosani and on to close to the Moldovan border at Stefanesti, where I turned south towards Iasi and
my hotel. The road east was very bumpy, the road south a little better, so by the time I arrived at my hotel I
was knackered from all the bouncing around. The hotel car park was round the back of the hotel, so I unloaded
the bike out front before riding it round back and then covering it up. Once in my room I took a long shower,
using the warmth of the shower to help ease my aching muscles, before sitting at the desk and updating the blog.
As once again I've skipped lunch (I rarely bother with lunch if it's hot and there's riding to do!), I'm going
to take a walk into town in search of a restaurant, then do some research on what to expect at the border
tomorrow, as I head into Moldova, a country I only know exists because I've read Tony Hawkes' excellent book
Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (it's not as good as his other book
Around Ireland with a Fridge,
but it made me laugh when I read it!). Another new day, another new country!
Despite waking up nice and early at 6am, it was still gone 9:30am by the time I rode away from the hotel, largely due to me taking too long over breakfast and sneaking a quick FaceTime video-call in with Tracy in the hospital before I even packed the bike. But not to worry, despite my GPS having a minor fit and telling me it was 170+Km to the border, it was only 14Km and I arrived there in plenty of time should it take a while. It didn't. Leaving Romania was simply a case of handing over my documents - which I did, including Passport, V5 and my International Driving Permit - and the border guard said in excellent English that he needed to see my UK Driving Licence as the IDP was only valid with that as well, so I dug that out of my wallet and handed it over too. He seemed satisfied, handed them back to me and said I then had to report to the customs windown in the next booth along. Which I did, the guy there checking my V5, handing it back to me with a nod, and then he said something about Cocaine being available (I didn't catch it, but evidently it was a joke, as he laughed, something I'm definitely not used to border guards doing!). The Moldovan border was also relatively straight-forward, too. I queued up behind the only other car there and two border guards came over, one male, one female (with the weirdest painted-on eyebrows I've ever seen, they both looked like Nike ticks!). He asked me to show him the contents of my left pannier, so I loosened the straps on the big roll bag and opened the lid, to show him it was full with my Kriega bag, but he didn't want me to drag that out, so I closed the pannier again. Then she wanted to see in the right pannier, so I duly opened that to reveal my camping pans and assorted tupperware boxes and they seemed satisfied. She then took my papers including my insurance green card, then went into the little booth to key the details in the computer. After she handed then back to me, I walked to the next window along to hand over my V5 and get the bike booked in, then the guard told me not to forget to buy a vignette - from the office behind the booths. Unlike Bulgaria and Romania, where vignettes are also needed for cars but not motorcycles, in Moldova they are mandatory for all vehicles. So I moved the bike and parked it out of the way, then walked into the building, changed my remaining Romanian Ron for Moldovan Lei and bought a vignette. Then it was back to the bike and I rode out of the border control area and into Moldova proper - another new country!
I didn't ride too far, as I needed fuel and there hadn't been a petrol station between Iasi and the border. The chap that filled my bike was very friendly and smiling, as were the women behind the counter when I went in to pay. I smiled back and thanked them in my best English. With a full tank of fuel, cash in my pocket, the sun shining and a new country to explore, I was a very happy chappy indeed.
The first few miles from the border were on a good sealed road, lined with trees on both sides affording some shade, and
looking out from both sides across flat farmland. It looked a little like rural France. The road condition soon
deteriorated to the now-familiar potholes and bumps, then it got worse, a lot worse. The pot-holes were deeper, some
around 6-inches deep and wide, covering most of the road with big holes and very little flat tarmac in between. With
the bumps, some of these were difficult to see due to the shadows from the road and also from the trees at the
roadside, which reduced my speed to a crawl. Then the tarmac ended altogether and the road became hard-packed dirt
with gravel strewn across it, swept into long lines of deeper gravel by the traffic that had come that way previously.
I rode in the clean wheel-tracks in between the deeper gravel, but there were still sporadic potholes to be avoided
so my speed was slow. I was amazed that this could have been a major road, so pulled over and checked the GPS, to
realise that it had cut the corner where Route-1 passes through Ungheni, using the dirt-road instead. I breathed a
sigh of relief, thinking that the main roads would therefore be better. And they were, for a bit. I rejoined route-1
heading north-east, then cut across another dirt road to pick up M14 heaing south-east and then R20 east towards
Orhei. R20 is marked on the map as a main road, but it was actually a wide dirt road for most of its length. Despite
this I was still very early when I arrived in Orhei around noon, so I went for a ride round town. I came across a
new-looking church with beautiful windows - they looked like stained glass but weren't as there was no lead between
the colours. I stopped to take a couple of pictures, and as I was walking back to my bike I heard a shout behind me.
I turned and there was a guy in a white open-necked t-shirt and jeans walking towards me. I called back
and as he approached he asked me where I was from, so I replied England and we got talking. He spoke good English and
asked about where I was heading, then proceeded to tell me a little about the winery nearby, the town and old Orhei,
which was my next port of call. Then we shook hands again and he wandered off. I had already decided I liked
Moldova at the border, but this just confirmed it for me.
I rode around town a little more then pulled over outside a shop so I could get something to drink - there was
little choice so I opted for water and an ice-cream. Whislt stood by my bike in the sun I discovered I could use
the free wifi from the pizza place next door, so I looked up some details of Old Orhei and discovered it was
right next to where my campsite was. So I rode over the 20Km or so over there, and was a little disappointed. There
was a monastery building on a ridge above the river, with a bell-tower nearby, and some caves in the rock face of the
ridge, but no way to get to the monastery apart from walking up the hill. I decided not to do that in the heat and
whilst wearing my bike gear. Instead I opted to ride the dirt road around the ridge, which looked like it might take
me closer or at least past some other points of interest. It didn't do either, it just went between some run-down
houses and past a couple of
eco-lodges, which looked like poor-quality hotels. I got to the far end of the village
before finding somewhere to turn round, then road back out of the dirt road and stopped on the bridge to take a
couple of photos.
It was still only just 2pm, so I thought I'd have a ride into Old Orhei town and check out the campsite. This was another one I'd found online, and is really a guest-house that has a garden for tents. But it looked OK on the web, so I went for a look. It was closed. I rode through town on the main street, which had houses on both sides, set back from the road and with small kitchen gardens growing between the houses and the street. I turned round at the far end and rode back the way I'd come, passing Vila Roz slowly to see if there was any sign of life, but there wasn't. So I rode just out of town to inspect the old Tartar Baths ruins that are next to the river. These date from the 14th Century, but only the low walls remain and they look like they've been rebuilt fairly recently.
Whilst I was there taking photographs, the sky darkened and it started raining. Lightly at first, then heavily,
so I hastily retreated to the bike and put my jacket back on. With the campsite looking closed, and now the rain
bouncing down, I decided I needed to find a hotel for the night. So I rode back to Orhei and pulled up outside the
pizza place to use their wifi again. I found a suitable hotel in town, which has a restaurant and was reasonably
cheap, but the clincher was the free
Full English Breakfast - only time will tell, and I've been disappointed
before, but it's worth it just in case. So I booked a room via Booking.com and then rode over there. Or tried to.
The first road was blocked with roadworks, the second road took me back to the first road, and it was only
on the third attempt that I managed to negotiate my way to the hotel. I parked up and went inside to check in, then
when I went back out to my bike to collect my bags, the groundsman approached me jangling his keys and pointing to
my bike. I think he wanted me to put it in a garage, but then he pointed to a space around the back of the hotel and
to the security camera that was looking directly at the space. I went and moved the bike there, as requested. Then
I unloaded my bags and took them up to my room, before running a bath (bliss!) and trimming my untidy beard. My hair
could also do with a cut as I've now been away for 8 weeks, but that will have to wait. Having seen what happened
to Andrew when he had his cut, I'm not going to risk it!
Once I was clean and presentable, I went down to the hotel bar/restaurant to get myself something to eat. Once again I find myself probably the only guest in the hotel, as the bar was empty and the restaurant area, which was laid out like it was expecting a wedding, likewise. The blonde receptionist came through shortly after I entered the bar and went behind the counter to serve me, handing me a menu as she did so. The menu was in Romanian and Russian, so I had to resort to Google translate, and ordered a beer to drink whilst I worked out what each dish was. I ordered a bowl of chicken and mushroom soup and some stir-fried pork with broccoli, only to be told that the latter wasn't available, so opted for spaghetti carbonara instead. A short while later the receptionist/bartender/waitress came over to show me her phone - Google translate was telling me there would be a 40 minute wait as the cook was preparing my food fresh. I said that was OK with me and settled down to my beer and my book. When the soup came it was well worth the wait, a lovely thick mushroom soup with two small pieces of spicy chicken breast floating in it. The spaghetti was more bolognese than carbonara, but it was also very good. Whilst I was eating my dinner the cook brought two more plates of spaghetti out and the receptionist/bartender/waitress and the groundsman sat at a table and had their dinner too. When I'd finished, the receptionist/bartender/waitress had disappeared, so I left the empty bar/restaurant and went to the hotel reception where I found her and settled my dinner bill. It's not that the hotel is short staffed, they have at least 3 people working - the receptionist/bartender/waitress, the groundsman and the cook - all for just one guest. Perhaps the hotel will fill up overnight. I'll find out in the morning when I go down for my full English breakfast...
The exciting prospect of a full English breakfast as promised on my hotel booking had me up and raring to go before the restaurant opened at 8am. I part-loaded the bike, my taste-buds ignited by the smell of cooking sausages coming from the kitchen, then stode confidently and hungrily into the restaurant, and sat down. I was asked whether I wanted tea or coffee (tea, naturally) and whether I'd prefer my eggs fried or in an omellette (fried, of course) and waited patiently. When she brought the plate out I almost burst out laughing:
It was to be expected, but I was a tad disappointed, especially as the sausage was really a fried hot-dog that continued to make its presence felt for the rest of the morning. Not good. Having eaten what was on my plate, I drank my tea and returned to my room to change into my bike gear, then handed back the room key and left as quickly as I could. I won't be returning to that particular hotel in a hurry.
Moldova is not a large country, and I entered it roughly half-way up, and as I'm exiting from the top I only had a relatively short distance to ride today. I decided to take a couple of detours - first to see the monastery at Tipova (which someone on the web raved about), then to see the bridge over the Dniester river at Rezina, that if I were to cross would cause me problems at the border trying to exit the country. More of that later. First I had to get out of Orhei, which meant once more riding on the bumpiest roads I've ever ridden, but that didn't last long before I was on smooth tarmac. I was amazed. It stayed like that for most of the day's riding, with just a few stretches of dirt road where they hadn't bothered to lay the black stuff, or were busy preparing the road to recieve it. Bliss!
The detour to Tipova Monastery, though, was something of a disappointment, as it was basically just a small blue church in a walled yard. And the church was in the process of being renovated so I couldn't even go and have a look round. I'm not sure why someone would claim this as one of Moldova's treasures, but then I've not seen many others so far either. Although the large fields of cultivated lavender were very pretty.
Once back on the main road I took the next detour towards Rezina, the road almost immediately reverting back to standard Moldovan tarmac, with huge bumps and massive potholes everywhere. I guess this might be to do with the reason I can't afford to cross the bridge. The other side of the Dniester river lies a part of Moldova known as Transdniester, a region that has declared independence from the rest of the country. A bit like if Yorkshire decided it no longer wanted to be part of the Great Britain (this was mooted at one stage during the Olympics, when the county was laying claim to all the medal winners. Being a Lancastrian, I'd quite happily say goodbye to the white rose county, but only after reclaiming Yorkshire Tea, and perhaps some of their breweries). Back to the history lesson. After the dissolution of the USSR, tensions between Moldova and the breakaway Transnistrian territory escalated into a military conflict that started in March 1992 and was concluded by a ceasefire in the July. As part of the agreement, a three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone, comprising twenty localities on both sides of the river. Although the ceasefire has held, the territory's political status remains unresolved: Transnistria is an unrecognised but de facto independent semi-presidential republic with its own government, parliament, military, police, postal system, currency and vehicle registration system. Its authorities have adopted a constitution, flag, national anthem and coat of arms. It is the only country still using the hammer and sickle on its flag. However, it is not recognised as an independent state by the UN, who consider it part of Moldova, or anyone else, except for three other mostly non-recognised states: Abkhazia, Artsakh, and South Ossetia. But because it manages its own border, I'd have to enter it officially, then leave it officially and re-enter Moldova proper. Only Moldova doesn't recognise Transdniester, so the whole thing could become a problem. Either way, I wasn't going to find out, I just wanted to have a look-see. And there wasn't much to see - the road leading up to the bridge had a Police checkpoint on it on the Moldovan side, so I parked up before that and walked up the steps and onto the bridge. I didn't cross it, just wandered about a third of the way along to take a couple of photos, so I never left Moldova or entered Transdniester (even if it does exist, which officially, it doesn't). I hope all that makes some sense!
I retraced my steps back along the bumpy road to rejoin the main road to Soroca, which is where I'd chosen to stay
ready for the border crossing into the Ukraine tomorrow morning. Only last night I did some more detailed research
on the border crossing at Soroca and discovered two things: (1) it's a ferry crossing that has a very small ferry and
no regular schedule and may not even be running and (2) it's not an International Border Crossing. It's actually
what the Moldovans call an
Interstate border crossing, meaning it can only be used by people who live in either
of the two states (Moldova or the Ukraine) that meet at the crossing. So not me, then. I'll be riding up to Otaci,
about 60Km further up the road to a bridge crossing that serves as an International Border Crossing. Never trust
what it shows on your map, or your GPS, both of which show Soroca as a border crossing point. The ride to Soroca
was on a good quality road through some more undulating farmland, typical of what I've seen so far on my travels
around this country (at least, the bits I can see when I can afford to take my eyes of the road surface for a
second or two). Soroca, as well as having a border crossing that isn't, is home to a well preserved 14th/15th
century fort, that was restored with help from the E.U. (despite Moldova not being part of the EU). It's an
impressive building with 4 tall towers and a high wall, but the doors were chained shut so I've no idea what
it looks like inside. Next to it is a nice park, in which they've spelt out the name of the town in big white
letters and placed a large red heart-shape next to a white bench with a red seat, especially for those people
obsessed with selfies or posting pictures of themselves at historical landmarks on Instagram. I just took
photos of the Fort, and one of the ridiculous
make your own postcard setup. And a photo of the border
crossing that isn't - see if you can spot the ferry terminals in the photo below...
After exhausting the sights of Soroca (and most of northern Moldova), I looked at the time and it was still only 1pm. Too early to check-in to the hotel, so I decided to fill up the bike and go and ride part of the way to Otaci to check out the route ready for tomorrow, when I need to get there fairly early to cross the border. Just outside of town the road stopped being paved and became a dirt road, complete with more holes than a golf course. Per foot. It is a truly dreadful road - and this is the major Route R9, not some back road. One thing is for sure, Moldova is not a place I'd want to drive a car or a motorhome. The dirt road continued on as far as I could see, and having ridden the first 20Km of it, I'd had enough (I've got to ride it again tomorrow), so turned round and headed back into town. Buy now it was gone 2pm, so I parked up outside the hotel, had a lovely Google-translate enabled conversation with the receptionist and checked-in. Once ensconced in my room I did my washing (there's a bit of a balcony outside my room so I can dry my stuff in the sun), then updated the blog before switching my attention to researching more about what to expect when entering the Ukraine tomorrow.
Having sorted myself out ready for tomorrow, I rode in to town in search of some food. The receptionist at the
hotel recommended a place called Salat, so I went there and parked up opposite. I ordered a refreshing smoothie
drink made with lemonade with frozen strawberries and banana in, which was very good. Then I used their wifi to
allow me to translate the menu using Google Translate and chose a chicken breast in creamy mushroom sauce with
french fries and a side-salad, and a bottle of water. I had a dessert too, because once again I'd skipped lunch
and because I'm still too greedy. I also had a cup of tea. Whilst I was finishing up a couple of street kids came
by in scruffy tee-shirts, and one said to me
my name is David, so I replied
my name is Paul, but that's
as far as his English went. They hung around, obviously known to the staff, because they gave them a plate of chicken
breast too. When I was leaving David called to me and said
Hey Paul! then pointed to my bike and back to me -
so I replied
yes, it's mine and went off in search of an ATM. The hotel would only take cash, and I'd not quite
got enough, so I had to draw out some more. Then back to the bike and back to the hotel, then a quick chat with
the receptionist about where to park - I'd asked earlier and she said they had parking round the back and when I
was in for the night I should let her know and she'd show me where it was. So I rode around the block and she was
waiting for me at some brown gates at the back of the hotel, which she duly opened to reveal half a dozen topless
guys working in a big hole, cutting some metal bars for re-enforcing concrete. One was lazing on a double swing chair
next to a washing line full of the hotel's towels. Also in the big hole was a middle-aged blonde woman, who seemed
to be directing the work. I rode in and manoeuvred the bike to where they wanted it. The middle-aged woman called
Italiano? to which I indignantly replied
No, English! and she went back to directing the men to
their tasks (I suspect she'd have done that even if I'd been Italian, but who knows!). Then I walked through the
yard, being careful not to fall into the massive rectangular hole they were digging, and into the hotel. I arranged
for my breakfast at 7:30am and to move the bike straight afterwards. That should enable me to get on the road
early enough for the long day ahead, as I enter another country I've never been to before...
Wednesday dawned brightly through the curtains of my upper-floor hotel room, waking me around 6:30am as per usual,
and a good hour before breakfast would be ready, so I got up and showered and then packed away my belongings once
more. At exactly 7:30am I went downstairs to the
breakfast room which was a large square room at the back of
the hotel with one long table arranged close to the side wall, with chairs down both sides and at the head. I met the
receptionist, who looked like she'd just got up, and she pointed me to the table to sit down. Expecting I was once
again the only guest, I sat against the wall at the end of the table and poured myself a cup of tea from the pot
on the table. Almost immediately she brought me a plate with 2 fried eggs and a hot-dog sausage on, with a couple of
thin bits of goat's cheese, some sliced tomato and cucumber. The full breakfast experience again. There was some
stale bread too, to help soak up the egg yolks, although they were rock hard so that was impossible. I ate in silence,
reading my phone as usual, and in came 3 young guys who spoke to the receptionist in rapid bursts of unintelligble
gabble, then they sat down and were presented with plates identical to mine (but with better looking eggs - I could
get a complex about being given the worst serving!). Once I'd finished my breakfast I asked about getting my bike out
of the yard and she showed be through the back corridors of the hotel once more and out into the yard with the big
hole in it - there were a few of the topless builders there already, although they hadn't started work yet - and
she opened the gate, so I pushed the bike out and rode it round to the front of the hotel. Then I went back up to my
second floor room, brought my bags down, and loaded up the bike once more, all under the watchful stares of a bunch
of locals waiting for a bus (the buses are actually mini-buses, and most owuld be MOT failures back home). Then it
was back to the room one last time to change into my bike gear and grab the last of my stuff, before shouting a
goodbye, dropping the key on the desk at reception and riding off through town.
The road to Otaci and the border was as bad as I expected it to be, mostly dirt with huge potholes everywhere, but
also with some stretches of bumpy tarmac. Having left the hotel well before 8:30am, I got to the border by around
9:30am, which was what I'd hoped for. The border spans a bridge over the Dnister, with the Moldovan border on one
side and the Ukrainian border on the other. I'd been warned that the border into (and out of) the Ukraine was time
consuming, with border guards insisting on people emptying out their luggage, hence my desire to arrive early. As it
was, the process of getting across was relatively painless. I handed my documents to the first booth on the Moldovan
side and waited whilst they were checked and keyed into the computer, then presented them to the guy at the 2nd booth
who just impatiently waved me on without even taking them from me. All good, so I rode over the bridge to the Ukrainian
side, where an armed guy was stood in the middle of the road, dressed in camouflage trousers and t-shirt. I smiled as
I rode past him (my helmet chin-bar raised so my face was visible) and he just watched me go past, slowly. Then he
shouted at me, so I stopped and he walked over, then asked
BMW?, I replied
Yes and he filled out a slip
of paper and handed it to me - it had some official looking typed text and his signature and
BMW written on it.
I then rode to the first booth, where a guy dressed in black took the slip from me and stamped it, then handed it back
to me. I handed it in with my passport and V5 to the guy at the booth, who looked confused and started flipping through
the pages of my passport. Then he got on his radio and called someone else, another young guy in camo clothes, who
joined him in the booth looking at my passport and V5. Then they took someone else's paperwork and started dealing with
them (a family from the car behind me in the queue), so I moved back and leant against the booth watching the world
go by, looking as relaxed as I could. Eventually he started stamping things - a bit of paper, my passport - and handed
them back to me, pointing me to the next booth along. I pushed the bike the 20 feet to the next booth, struggled to
get it to a point where I could get the side-stand down (there was a big groove in the road where trucks had been,
making it raised where the stand would normally go), then handed my documents to the guy sat in the booth. He looked
at them and asked
any Russian? to which I replied
No - I think he wanted my documents in Russian, the
cyrillic alphabet used in the Ukraine. I just smiled like a simpleton and stood casually by waiting patiently. He
started keying information into his computer - one finger typing like he'd never seen a keyboard before - and I just
watched the world go by some more, amused by a guy carrying a new full car exhaust system on his shoulder walking
along the pedestrian border crossing (judging by the quality of the cars I'd seen in Moldova, whichever one got this
would be the most valuable car for miles around!). The guy then handed my documents back to me, including the slip of
paper stamped by the first guy, which he also stamped, and pointed me to the exit. No checking of luggage, just stamp
and go (it still took half an hour to do this bit, though!). So I rode to the exit gate, handed over the small slip
of paper bearing the two stamps, and the gate was opened and I was free to ride into the Ukraine!
I stopped a few miles down the road to use an ATM to get some local currency and put my earplugs in, and then it was onto the open road. My route followed the main road from the border at Mohyliv-Podilskyi (the Ukrainian town opposite Otaci) via Vinnystia and Zhytomyr to Kiev, a major road, akin to a motorway. Except it wasn't. For the first 120Km or so it was a straight single-carriageway road running through forest or farmland, the landscape undulating and with trees lining the road - very reminiscent of parts of France, except for the bumps. The road surface was just as bad as the roads in Moldova, and I was bounced about all over the place, which was very tiresome. Once I'd reached Vinnystia, it changed to a smooth, wide, road and my speed could increase up to a heady 110kph. The road was pretty straight and not very interesting, so there's nothing much to report, except that it was necessary to keep a close eye out for road signs with the yellow square in, denoting entry to a town, as there were speed traps just after most of them. Not a problem for me, as I saw them in plenty of time to reduce my speed to a more respectable 65kph (the limit being 50kph), but there were people pulled over at every one I saw. Not surprising, given the speed some people came flying past me.
I stopped for a drink a couple of times, and to fill up with fuel once, but otherwise it was a dull day's riding. The only other point of interest was the roadsigns, which were all in cyrillic, meaning Kiev wasn't Kiev but KniB. But having sussed that it was easy, especially as the closer we got to the capital, the more the road signs had the latin spelling too. Naturally on the outskirts of Kiev the traffic became heavier, but as the hotel I'd chosen is on the outskirts itself I didn't have to do battle with it for too long. I arrived at the hotel shortly after 4pm, having been on the go almost constantly for the best part of 8 hours. I went in and spoke to the tall female receptionist (she was taller than me) and she was expecting me, then asked if I wanted to put my bike at the side of the hotel behind the gate. She'd obviously read my email request for secure parking. I said yes, so she got one of the guys to open the gate for me. I unloaded the bike, dumping my bags in reception and parked it up in the beer garden area, like a dirty ornament (it's covered in dead insects and general road filth as I've not been able to find somewhere to wash it recently). Then I took my bags up to my room, showered and changed, then sat reading about Kiev and planning what to do tomorrow. I went downstairs to the restaurant to eat, and enquired at reception as to how to get to downtown Kiev from the hotel. The receptionist explained about buses and metro and such but it was confusing, then she said that she gets off shift at 8:30am and would show me instead. That sounded like a better idea, so I accepted and went to eat. Once again I was the only person in the restaurant, and I had a chicken breast cooked in sweet chilli sauce and fries, with a cup of tea to wash it down with. It was actually quite good, although no dessert as the kitchen had closed whilst I was eating my main course. Then back to my room to read a while before retiring for the night.
I woke, showered and was downstairs for 8am ready for my breakfast and my appointment with the tall receptionist. Breakfast was the usual fare - two fried eggs, a handfull of small hot-dog sausages, some sliced cheese, tomato and cucumber - and once I'd eaten it I went looking for my guide to getting into Kiev. Only she'd gone home. So I asked the new receptionist and his answer was simpler - get a taxi to the metro station (Akademmistechko) and take the metro to Kreschchatyk. Simple. If you can pronounce the names, that is. Anyway, I booked an Uber and the driver, Vadym, spoke excellent English having studied in Brighton, so he explained it a little more as he drove me to the first station. I arranged with him to pick me up the following morning to take me to my rendezvous with the Chernobyl tour as I didn't fancy trying to arrange that with the hotel when I need to be there at 7:30am. He dropped me close to the first Metro station and I went down the stairs and to a familiar-looking ticket hall - familiar from the 1970's perhaps. There was a long queue winding its way from the ticket booth, so I joined that and shuffled along with everyone else. Most of the people were either middle-aged or very young and very pretty. I felt decidedly put of place. Especially when one of the officials started speaking to people in the queue - probably checking they were in the right queue - then arguing with the woman in front of me. Several of the people from my queue moved to the other queue at this point, leaving me wondering what the hell was going on. So I asked, in my perfect English, whether I was in the right queue for a ticket to - and showed her the name of my target station which I'd written in my little book. That did the trick, as when I got to the counter, she spoke on my behalf and all I had to do was hand over the money. Some 23HRV, not the 8HRV I'd been told it would cost. But hey, I'd got a ticket and it worked the barrier, so I went down the stairs and boarded the train. This was not a modern metro train by any stretch, reminding me once more of the decrepit trams I used to take from home in Cleveleys to Blackpool as a kid. At first it was almost empty, so I got a seat, but by the second stop it was full. Not of commuters in suits, but of people of all ages dressed in summer clothes. They all avoided eye contact with each other like commuters everywhere, so I tried not to stare at anyone in particular, as I craned my neck to see the names of the stations as we pulled into them. I travelled for 10 stops, and found my destination easily, then headed out into the sunshine to work out where the hell I was and where I should be going.
I walked for miles. Well, perhaps not quite that far, but from the Metro stop I walked up the hill to look at the Golden Gate Museum (from the outside only), then around the back streets which reminded me a lot of a French city but with more graffiti (if that's possible) to the Sophia Cathedral. Here I paid to enter the bell tower, which was beautiful from the outside and utterly terrifying from the inside as I climbed the exposed steps to the 3rd floor (I don't have a very good head for heights and so opted not to go up to the 4th and final floor, admitting defeat was hard, but I didn't want to bring on another heart attack and walking up the steps with a clear view down and outside was too much!). I managed to get back down to earth safely and wandered around the outside of the cathedral complex looking at the old buildings and watching the group of young guys and girls who appeared to be on some sort of architectural treasure hunt, measuring parts of the buildings and writing stuff on clipboards. There was also a group of them in a hole in the grounds, obviously conducting some sort of excavation. As I was walking around I noticed the wind picking up (I'd felt it in the bell tower, which hadn't helped!), and the sky was definitely getting darker. I left the cathedral and walked some more, past St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery and through a park, passing the monument to Volodymyr the Great, as the sound of thunder started to rumble across the sky.
I made it to the
park exit before the rain started, then had to shelter close to a building as the sky turned black and the rain
turned torrential. It rained heavily for a good 5 minutes then seemed to be easing off, so I walked briskly on,
taking shelter again under the arches of a bank where I used the ATM to draw some more cash out. Then I waited
some more, taking advantage of an open wifi network to check on the location of the restaurant I'd chosen for my
treat. It wasn't too far away, so I set off walking once more, the rain persistent but light for a brief period.
Then it suddenly got heavier again, so I headed for the undergound where a whole bunch of people were taking
shelter from the storm. At least the underground took me closer to the restaurant, but I had to emerge at some
point, so I waited for a lull before making a further attempt to get to the restaurant and take proper shelter.
The restaurant that was so important for me to find was called
Chicken Kiev and it was founded in order to
pay homage to the dish that originated in the city and with which we're all familiar. The owners claim to have
spent 4 years perfecting the recipe for their Chicken Kiev and I'd promised myself that when in Kiev that's what
I would eat, so this seemed like the perfect place. It was a bit posh, but not too posh to turn away a scruffy,
wet, Englishman carrying a rucksack. I got a table upstairs and ordered their signature dish with a local beer
and a bottle of water. When it came, it was on a big plate and was a small peice of chicken in batter the size
of a chicken leg, on a bed of mashed potatoes. I had high hopes that it would taste fantastic, but the truth
is it was no better than the frozen ones we eat at home. It was re-formed chicken breast filled with garlic
butter (as per normal) but presented as though it was haute-cuisine. Most disappointing. To console myself, and
because the portion was so small, I ordered a dessert of Kiev Cake and coffee. The cake was excellent, made from
meringue with a buttercream filling and topped with chocolate. The coffee was good too.
I left the restaurant and went back into the rain, which I'd hoped had stopped, but hadn't. It had eased off a little so I tried to take some pictures of Independence Square, but had to use my phone rather than my camera due to the rain. Then I went in search of a bar to shelter from the rain, opting for a micro-brewery just around the corner. The beer was very good and I settled down with my book to see if the rain would stop. Only the beer was good, as was my book, so I had another beer. Then I was hungry again (it was several hours after my chicken kiev), so I ordered my second chicken kiev of the day (which was just as good / bad as the first one but less pretentious) and another beer. By now it was getting on a bit and I wanted to get an early night ready for the early start tomorrow, so I ordered and Uber to take me back to the hotel. Once outside the bar, the rain had stopped and the sun was out, but I was done for the day, so hopped in my Uber for the journey back to the hotel. Which took an hour, the traffic was that bad, as was the driving. I was glad to get out, having been jolted about as much by the heavy acceleration and braking as by the cobbled streets in the old town and the bumps on the main roads away from it. Back at the hotel I had just enough time to update the blog before falling asleep...
Today has been a very interesting day, as I've been on a guided tour around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a visit
I'd wanted to take ever since I found out it was possible several years ago. My first job was working for British
Nuclear Fuels Ltd, at the site where they make the fuel rods for Britain's nuclear reactors. When I applied for the job
one of the questions I was asked at interview was
How does a nuclear reactor work? and I have to confess, at
the time I didn't have a clue. It was explained to me that when the nuclear fuel - uranium rods - are allowed to
come into close proximity with one another, the radiation they naturally emit hits other atoms causing them to emit
more electrons and that generates heat. This is used to turn water into superheated steam, which is used to drive
traditional steam turbines to generate electricity. The nuclear reaction of the uranium rods has to be controlled
(they are lowered into a graphite core, which reduces their interactions), otherwise if left unchecked the reaction
would go exponential, creating an enormous amount of heat energy (it's called
Going Critical or into meltdown).
What happened at Chernobyl on the night of 26th April 1986 was that a test went wrong and the reactor went critical.
There was an explosion, caused by the superheated steam being heated very rapidly by the uncontrolled nuclear
reaction, which blew the roof off reactor number 4, releasing massive amounts of radioactive material into the
atmosphere and surrounding area. To cut a long story short, the heroism of the first responders and the engineers and
army soldiers drafted in to help get the situation under control saved Europe from almost certain radioactive
distruction. To understand why, I need to explain a little bit more history.
Back in the 1960s, Chernobyl was a Soviet city in the Ukraine, built close to the Prypiat marshlands (which extend in a belt from Poland across the Ukraine to Russia) and surrounded by forest. Situated 95Km north west from Kiev it was a remote location and ideal to build a nuclear power station as it had an abundant supply of water as well as being sufficiently remote. The site was chosen to be the location of the world's largest nuclear power generating facility, with a plan for 6 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactors on the same site. Construction on the power plant started in 1970, along with a new city (Prypiat) built to house the scientists, engineers and their families, and the first reactor came on-stream in 1977. The second, a twin of the first, came on-stream in 1979, demonstrating the accelerated nature of the building operations. Reactors numbers 3 and 4, built to a slightly improved design, came on-stream in 1982 and 1983 respectively. Reactor number 5 was nearing completion at the time of the disaster.
I also need to explain a little about radioactivity - keeping it simple to help put things into context. There are 3 main types of radiation, and all are caused by the instability of certain atoms, which emit the radiation as they decay. These are Alhpa and Beta particles, and Gamma rays. Alpha particles are dense and therefore cannot travel through objects very well - a sheet of paper is sufficient to stop their progress. Beta particles are less dense, but can be stopped by something thicker - such as a thin metal shield. Alpha and Beta particles therefore don't travel very far, but they interact with whatever they come into contact with, making that radioactive too. Gamma rays will pass directly through most things, interacting with the atoms they come into contact with, potentially damaging them. Gamma rays are the dangerous ones, as they will pass through clothing and skin and organs etc, and if they hit the nucleus or electrons of an atom as they do, they will damage it. That's massively over-simplified, but it should help put what follows into context.
I won't go into the detail of what caused the accident here - if you want to know more there's plenty of material
on the web, or watch the new HBO drama-documentary
Chernobyl, which is getting excellent reviews. Suffice to
say that underneath the ground on which the plant was built is a water-table on which the land sits, and this is
the reason it could have been a lot worse. When the reactor went critical, it started a fire, but not a fire in the
traditional sense, as a nuclear fire doens't have flames, just excessive heat. Around 3,000 degrees C, according to
the guides. The big problem, though, is this can't be extinguished in the normal way, as it's caused by a the atoms
of uranium reacting with each other - to stop it needs something to move the uraniam away from itself. As it was
so hot, it started to crack the floor of the reactor and seep down into the ground. Had it reached the water that
was in the reactor building but underneath the floors, it would have superheated it within milliseconds, causing
a massive explosion - one that would certainly have damaged the other reactors as well as blasting even more
radioactive material into the atmosphere. Brave engineers and fire-fighters pumped out the water from the building,
but the water-table issue remained. They had to stop the meltown core from continuing to generate heat and eat its
way downwards. They dumped huge amounts of material into the reactor from helicopters - including lead - which
eventually enabled them to get it under control, but at terrible cost. Most of the first responders received fatal
doses of radiation within minutes of attending the scene, dying over the course of the next few weeks from
radiation sickness. Many others followed. Again, I won't go into the detail as there are plenty of good sources, but
it's important to set the context for my visit.
The response from the authorities was confused as within the Soviet Union, the messenger of bad news was often held responsible for the news, so it took a while before the truth was out. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, claims he found out the truth only after a few days, when radioactive levels near a Swedish nuclear plant suddenly spiked and investigations there led to the conclusion something had happened elsewhere, probably in the USSR. The response from that point was nothing short of dramatic (at least in the immediate vacinity). The authorities, using a model from nuclear bomb tests, set up two exclusion zones - one at a 10km radius, the other at 30Km, with the inner one being very tightly controlled. Prypiat city was well within that zone and its 50,000 inhabitants were evacuated starting at 2pm on 27th April and they were all out of the city within 3 hours, taken on 1,200 buses brought from all over Ukraine. Considering this was just 36 hours after the initial explosion, that's pretty remarkable. At least one person refused to be evacuated, and his body was found a few days later - the level of radiation in the city was sufficient to kill within a matter of days.
The rest of the story is a long one, with an unknown number of victims as the records kept at the time are limited and
many were destroyed by the authorities. An excellent book on the subject is
Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to
the Future by Kate Brown; it's very well researched and looks at the whole story from the perspective of the victims.
For my purposes here, it's important to note that following the accident, the reactor was encased in a concrete
sarcophogus, which reduced the radiation being emitted to levels that allowed work to continue on the decontamination
of the area to the point it is safe to visit at least part of the exclusion zones. This decontamination involved the
washing of buildings, roads, vehicles, etc to remove the radioactive dust and then removing a layer of the topsoil
and burying it, along with anything that couldn't be washed. This included houses from Kopachi village (which was in
the 10Km zone) as they were made of wood - which absorbed the radioactive particles. They washed the roads (and built
new ones to avoid driving contaminated vehicles through Chernobyl city which was outside the 10km
hot zone. In
Prypiat, they removed people's belongings from the buildings and buried them, washing the buildings and roads to lower
the level of radioactivity. All of this was done not so people could return - the radioactivity was still there, in the
ground, as it can't be got rid of (it will eventually, in hundreds of years, have decayed to normal levels), but due
to the risk that rain and wind would pick up radioactive particles and spread them far and wide (as happened with the
particles emitted from the initial explosion and subsequent radioactive release).
That's enough background, let me take you through my visit to this historic place.
Vadym arrived early to pick me up from the hotel and that meant I was early to the rendezvous point, arriving at 7am
for a 7:30-7:50 meet. So I went into McDonalds for an egg mcmuffin and a cup of tea, then walked to where I was
expecting to find a minibus and guide. Only there were 2 minibuses and 4 coaches lined up, with several people
Chernobyl-Tour t-shirts rushing about holding clip-boards, and queues at each vehicle. I tried
asking a couple of the clip-board holders where the English-tour was and was brushed off with
Just a minute!
as they ignored me and rushed on somewhere else. I found a couple of other English speakers - a mother and daughter
from the US and a young couple from England and there were waiting outside one coach so I joined them. Then their
driver told them they should be at a different bus, so we all went there. This one at least had a list of names stuck
to the window, so we all checked and their names were on it but mine wasn't. So I went looking at the other buses, none
of which had a list. Back to the one with the list and when I got to the front of the queue I gave my name and was
told this wasn't my bus. I had to ask twice to get them to tell me which one was mine, and then I went to that
one and queued up again. Eventually I found the right place, paid the balance on my trip and found a seat next to
the window. The organisation of the process was very poor and it took a full hour before we were finally on our way
leaving Kiev for the 2-hour journey to the Exclusion Zone. Whilst we did this our two guides - who both spoke excellent
English - put on a film of the disaster called
The Battle for Chernobyl, which was informative but didn't
tell me anything I didn't already know. Once we arrived at the checkpoint at the entrance to the 30Km zone, there
was a queue of buses and people milling about waiting for the one security guard to check their documents and tickets.
Our guide went and got out tickets and then handed them out, then we joined the milling crowds, buying souvenirs
from the kiosk and waiting patiently for the guard to come over to our group. He eventually came, scanned each ticket
and checked it against the holder's passport and told them to get back in the bus. Once we'd all been checked the
bus drove through the gate and into the zone. Then stopped. We all got out again to get an official dosimeter, a
small USB-stick like object on a lanyard which we need to wear whilst in the zone and which will be collected when
we exit so the authorities can keep a track of the number of visitors and the radiation doses they receive whilst
in the zone. Those of us who'd paid the extra for a personal dosimeter were then issued with a small yellow device
with Geiger Counter on, which showed a background radiation of 0.12 micro-sieverts/hour (the average normal
background range is 0.17-0.39 micro-sieverts/hour according to the World Nuclear Assocation). Finally, after an hour
of hanging about at the checkpiont, and 3.5 hours after leaving Kiev, we were on our way into the Exclusion Zone.
Our first stop was the village of Zalissya, situation inside the 30km zone, which had been evacuated after the accident and just left to the elements. Being outside the 10Km zone, the area was not deemed to be in need of decontamination, but the background radiation levels were too high for people to remain living there - everyone living in the 30Km zone was evacuated. Now, some 33 years later, it is hardly recognisable as a village at all. It's just a wood with an old path running through it and some derelict houses peering out from amongst the trees. The houses are empty, except for rubble and rubbish, with no sign that they were hastily left behind as the population was forced to leave. There was a rusting children's playground, evidence that at some point in the past it would have echoed with laughter, but now there was silence, apart from the sound of camera shutters and muted conversations.
From Zalissya we drove on deeper into the 30Km zone, taking a left turn off the main road onto a concrete slab
road. We were pointed to a bus stop at the start of the road, which had a cartoon bear mosaic on the back wall, as
the guide explained this was officially a road to an abandoned childrens' summer camp. But it was really a road
to a secret military facility. Not so secret, as it happens, as the locals all knew that if the road was made of
concrete slaps it was to support the heavy military vehicles that would use it. That, and the fact that the only
people at the bus-stop were armed guards, gave the game away. Not that the locals would have breathed a word of it,
though, especially under the control of the USSR. The road passed through a man-made forest, where many of the
trees were dead or dying - not from radiation poisoning, but from being planted too close together. The forest was
created to hide the facility - which is a massive
Horizon Radar array called Duga-1 (Duga-2 was in Siberia).
This device was meant to pick up changes in the ionoshpere (upper atmosphere) that would indicate the launch of
an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missible (ICBM), to give early warning should the US launch the first strike during
the Cold War years. Built at enormous cost, it never worked properly (the ionoshpere is constantly changing naturally
so not the best way to detect a launch) and was spotted almost immediately when it interfered with commercial radio
systems in the west with a noise like a woodpecker tapping - it was even nick-named the
Russian Woodpecker. After
the accident at the power plant, the radiation played havoc with the electronic systems used to listen for changes
in the atmosphere, rendering it inoperable. It's too big and complex to take down, can't be demolished with
explosives for fear of shock-waves affecting the reactors, so has been stripped of anything sensitive and left
as a landmark.
It's big. It's 135 metres tall and stretches for over 300 metres, and is fitted with 330 cone-shaped cage antennas, each of which is about 15 metres long. It's quite a sight, but most interesting is the noise. As we approached through the security gate, past the empty office buildings and through the small wood that leads to the base, we could hear a dull roar - like the sound of a large waterfall or a distant jet aircraft. This was the wind blowing through the cage-like structure. It got louder as we approached, and when stood next to it was loud enough to require a raised voice if you wanted to be heard. We spent about 50 minutes walking around the stucture (which was about 30 minutes longer than necessary to get a full understanding), then returned the way we'd come back to the bus.
We continued on and passed through another checkpoint, entering the 10Km zone. This didn't mean we were in the area most affected by the radiation, as whilst that might be the case following nuclear bomb blast - when all the radioactive material is released in one big event - with the Chernobyl disaster the radioactive material was released into the atmosphere over several days and spread randomly by the wind, mostly to the North and West of the reactor (we were approaching from the south). My Geiger counter registered a small increase in background radiation - to around 3 micro-sieverts/hour - testement to the effectiveness of the decontamination efforts, at least on the atmosphere. Our next stop was the village of Kopachi - where the wooden houses were destroyed and buried as radioactive waste, the mounds still visible under the new growth of trees. As well as a monument, there is one building still standing, because it was made of brick and could be washed, the kindergarden. This was an eery place, with a few things still lying around from when it would have been teeming with young children, including some pictures on the walls and even some bunnies that had been lovingly made and coloured in by small hands, probably during Easter which was only a few weeks before the accident. There were also some broken dolls, but these looked like they had been posed by some keen photographers, rather than being left where they had originally been abandoned.
Back on the bus we drove on deeper into the 10km zone, towards the power plant itself. As mentioned above, there
were intended to be 6 nuclear reactors on the site, with reactor 5 being almost complete at the time of the accident and
reactor 6 only just having started construction. The long-view shows reactors 1-4, with reactors 1 and 2 the small
brown buildings behind the multiple chimney stacks (reactor 2 is hidden behind the trees). Reactor number 3 is to the
right of the arched building next to the tall chimney. Reactor 4, the one that was destroyed in the explosion, is
underneath the huge silver arched building. This is the
New Safe Confinement or NSC. Built by a French
consortium, this is the world's largest moveable structure, as it was assembled 180m west of reactor 4 and pushed
into place along slides by powerful hydraulic rams. It is huge, 110 metres tall, 270 metres long and 165 metres wide
and it weighs 25,000 tonnes. It has been built to last 100 years and is fitted out inside with robotic machinery that
it is hoped will be used to dismantle the original sarcophogus and to be able to remove the nuclear fuel elements
so they can be made safe, decomissioning what is left of reactor 4. The other reactors continued in operation after
the accident until a fire in the turbine building of reactor numebr 2 rendered it inoperable in 1991, with reactor
number 1 being turned off in 1996 and reactor number 3 finally closing the site at the end of 2000, the latter
following an agreement between the Ukrainian government and other nations to help with decommissioning activities
(including financing the building of the NSC).
We then went for lunch, in the power plant workers' canteen. Lunch was a sort of tomato soup, a chicken breast wrapped in omellette served on rice, a side-salad and a small bun-like cake. It was better than it sounds, and as it was now gone 2:30pm, we were all hungry enough to eat it regardless. Before lunch though we had to clear through a radiation machine - this was like an airport security scanner, and we stood sideways with our feet on some footboards and hands on plates either side and waited a few seconds before a light would come on and we could continue to the other side. I'm not sure what would happen if it thought we were contaminated, but none of us were. After lunch we rejoined the bus for the journey around the plant (I took the last two pictures above after lunch) and then on to the highlight of the trip, the abandoned city of Prypiat.
As mentioned above, Prypiat was built specifically to support the power plant's scientists, engineers and other staff and their families. It was no normal Soviet city, though, this was the jewel in the crown, a city built to show that life under the Communist regime was a good one. This was especially important as nuclear scientists and engineers were highly prized by both sides in the Cold War, and providing them with a great place to live was important if the Soviets were to prevent defection of their brightest and best. With Chernobyl set to become the largest nuclear power plant in the world, they were even more necessary, so no expense was spared. The city had large open spaces, a central square with an hotel, restaurant and well-stocked supermarket (so much so, that people would travel from Kiev to do their shopping there as they could get things that were not available locally). There was a swimming pool, community centre with fully-equipped gym and even a new stadium that was still under construction when things went wrong at the power plant, just a few Km down the road. There was even a fairground, complete with Ferris wheel and dodgem cars. It housed 50,000 people in 1986, but was still expanding with a target of 75,000 when the remaining 2 reactors were completed.
Now, it's a ghost-town. An eerie place to explore, as though we've suddenly found ourselves in some post-apocolyptic
movie. Mother nature has started to make her presence felt, with trees starting to invade the paths and roadways,
surrounding the abandoned apartment blocks and breaking their way through their foundations. All the buildings look
derelict, with smashed windows and rubble strewn all about. Many of the windows were smashed during the clean up
operation, as the liquidators - the Russian name for the 500,000 - 1 million soldiers who were sent here to decontaminate
things - cleared the contaminated belongings out of the apartments before washing the buildings. As we walked
around under the direction of our guide, she showed us photographs of how the city had looked before it was
evacuated. With a population with an average age in the mid-late twenties, it must have been an idyllic place to
live. The inhabitants were given just 2 hours to gather up what they could carry and then assembled to climb
aboard one of the 1,200 buses that took them away. They were told they would be able to return in
about 3 days
but hardly any ever did. Those that did were allowed to do so only to collect anything that was left behind -
although almost nothing was as anything contaminated was buried. Most of the inhabitants of Prypiat were rehoused
by the government, but I doubt they were placed anywhere as idyllic as the one they'd left behind at such short
After Prypiat we were all a little subdued, and more so after the last stop, which was in the town of Chernobyl
itself, which is outside the 10km zone. To get there we had to pass through another radiation check like the one in the
canteen, leaving the bus and walking through a building with machines in the centre then out the other side, whilst
the bus was checked and driven through the checkpoint so we could get back on. Chernobyl town is still a working
town, but most of the buildings are empty as the plant no longer requires a full compliment of staff. Outside the
fire station is a monument constructed by the firemen themselves, to commemorate not only the fire-fighters but
also the engineers who worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, to prevent the accident getting worse. The engineers
were prosecuted by the authorities and sentenced to 10 years in prison for causing the accident, which seems very
harsh when it was really due to a number of serious design flaws in the reactor itself. On the bus I was sat next
to an old Ukrainian guy, who was accompanying a couple of people making a film about how the HBO drama-documentary
Chernobyl has increased tourism to the area (even though it's only just aired I was told the company was
now struggling to meet demand). Before we got to the monument he showed me a newspaper article about 3 men who
drained the water from under the reactor. One was his best man when he got married. Remarkably, he survived until
quite recently. The statue was therefore even more poignant than it would have been. It's dedicated to
heroes who saved the world.
After the monument we drove back to the final checkpoint at the entrance to the 30Km zone, where we were counted out and then hung around for a while whilst some people had a coffee. By now I was tired and hungry and just wanted to get moving, as it was 7:30pm and we still had a long drive to Kiev. We got going eventually and I stared out of the window for a while, thinking, then decided to read my book to prevent myself from falling asleep. We got back to Kiev around 9:15pm, and I went to the large Domino's Pizza for something to eat and so I could use their wifi to order an Uber to take me back to my hotel. After the pizza the Uber guy arrived to pick me up, then set off again in a flurry of wheelspin and aggressive shouting as I think he was offended by someone else's driving. He stopped after a few feet and I reluctantly got in - I wanted to tell him to calm down before he drove me, but he didn't speak English. He drove quickly but fortunately the traffic was light, so I just made sure my seatbelt was secure and offered up prayers to gods I don't believe in that we'd make it safely. We did, and I breathed again before heading up to my room for a quick chat with Tracy and then straight to bed. Exhausted at the end of a very long, but very interesting, day.
Following the excitement of Chernobyl, the last two days have been a little lacking in photographic opportunities, as I've been riding fairly long distances first across the Ukraine from Kiev to L'Viv and then from L'Viv to Krakow in Poland.
The 29th was my 12th wedding anniversary and only the 2nd time that Tracy and I had been apart on the day, the first being 2016 when I was leading the TransAM expedition and in Canada. I'd ordered breakfast for 8:30am, opting for the choice of oatmeal (porridge) which was actually very good, then went through the usual routine of packing and loading the bike before checking out of the hotel and onto the road around 9:30am. The ride was pretty straightforward, even the route from the hotel to the main road west only involved a couple of junctions, and then it was a steady cruise all day long. The landscape was largely flat farmland, mostly fields of brown grass. The ride reminded me of cruising down the A1, just long, straight, dual-carriageway and largely boring. I put my music on, something that I rarely do when there's interesting stuff to look at, and just rode, letting random thoughts pop into my head, enjoying the sensation of movement and the purr of the bike beneath me. I'd booked myself into the Ramada, having found a cheap room, which was 8km outside L'Viv and close to the airport, and considered riding through the city to have a look around, but when I got close it was already 5pm and hot, so I skipped that and went directly to the hotel. I checked in, did the usual unloading of the bike, shower, washed underwear, checked the route for tomorrow and then went down to the restaurant to eat. I ordered the chicken wings for starters and the steak for main, with mashed potatoes, and they all arrived at once. The chicken wings were tasty, the steak disgusting. It was a hunk of beef (I think) about 4 inches square and an inch thick, overcooked and covered in mustard (which I detest). I scraped the topping off and ate as much as I could manage, washing the taste away with a beer. I asked for the dessert menu but there was nothing appetizing on it, so just had a white coffee and then retired to bed.
I'd deliberately not set my alarm as I was still tired from the long day at Chernobyl and the ride yesterday, so woke around 8am. With a check-out time of up to noon, and a relatively short (350k) riding day I wasn't in a hurry, so I went downstairs to the buffet breakfast and helped myself to a couple of small bowls of muesli and a few cups of tea (if only they would supply mugs, I wouldn't have to keep refilling the tiny cups!). Then it was once again the familiar routine of loading the bike, getting changed into my bike gear, handing in my room key and riding off into the day. The temperature was already up to the mid-20s and sunny, but with a gentle breeze it was very pleasant and the 75km to the border was dispatched easily. Once at the border there was a small queue of vehicles, but the Ukrainian side was fairly efficient - I was issued with a slip of paper with my registration number on, which I handed with my passport and V5 to the first border guard, who entered my details into his computer, stamped my passport and the slip of paper then handed them back to me telling me to go to the next window. There I handed over the paperwork and the guard went through the same routine before handing them back to me. Then I rode to where there was another guard, who took the slip of paper and pointed me to the queue of traffic waiting to get into the Polish border point. I squeezed in behind an old blue Transit van and stopped. There were two lines of traffic with nobody moving, held up at a barrier with traffic lights. After 10 minutes or so, the barrier was raised and the lights changed to green, there was a flurry of activity and about 3 vehicles went through before the barrier came down again and the light went red. So we switched off our engines again and waited. This happened at least twice more before I got through the barrier and joined the queue to the Polish border buildings. At the head of the queue at the booth was a white car with 3 women in it, the doors, boot and bonnet all open and their luggage on a wooden bench at the side. The customs guy, dressed all in black with gloves on and a torch in his hand, was busy checking every part of the vehicle and their belongings. I thought if he was going to do the same with mine, we'd be there a week! Whilst we were waiting one of the border guards came and took my documents, commenting on the bike and asking about the size of the engine. I thought that maybe if he was interested in the bike I'd get through quicker, but it wasn't him doing the searching.
Once the ladies had been cleared the barrier was raised and they drove off and we inched forwards once more, the next
vehicle in line being another car. The same thing happened with the customs guy checking them thoroughly but more
quickly and they were through. Then the blue Transit disgorged its compliment of passengers - about 6 of them - who
sat on the bench clutching carrier bags, and the customs guy did his thing, checking everything fairly thoroughly
before finally handing them their documents back and raising the barrier. My turn. I rolled forwards and put the
bike on its stand, then got off and removed my helmet. The customs guy emerged from his office and came over, tapped
on my left pannier indicating I should open it, which meant loosening the roll bag and then lifting it out of the way,
then he wanted me to remove my bag and put it on the bench, which I did, opening it for him to inspect. He'd also
indicated he wanted to check my rucksack, so I started removing the bungee chords when he said
OK and told
me to open the other pannier. At this point I though he was going to make me empty it of all the tupperware boxes
that contain the stoves, my tea-bags, sugar, spices, etc; but he just took one look inside and said
that was it. I put everything back, was handed my documents and off I rode, into Poland and back into the EU.
As is so often the case, the landscape changed almost immediately, with rolling hills and trees and small villages, the road twisting and turning and rising and falling. I'd forgotten how good riding a bike can be, as for the past few days the riding has either been on crappy roads (Moldova and the back-roads in Ukraine) or smooth, straight, boring roads (main roads in the Ukraine). But the biggest shock was the number of other bikes. They were everywhere - lots of sportsbikes with guys wearing full racing leathers. I soon found out why, as the road went up into the hills in a series of bends just made for riding. As I crested one hill and descended through a series of smooth hairpins, I saw a police car leading a group of riders up the hill - naughty boys caught out having too much fun! The riding was excellent, but the temperature was on the rise once more. I found an ATM and took out some Zloty, having topped up my Post Office Travel Card before leaving that morning. Then I found a McDonalds where I had a rather good (yes, really!) chicken burger and coffee, whilst using the Internet to check the route. I'd deliberately avoided the direct motorway from the border to Krakow, and that had been the right decision as it took me into the hills and the good roads. A little while later I stopped for fuel, then discovered the road I wanted was closed, and with time getting on I simply reset the GPS to take me the more direct route the rest of the way. This meant using the motorway, but with the temperature now in the 30s, I needed the speed to get the air flowing to stay cool and the smaller roads were too busy and kept going through villages slowing me down to boiling point.
The motorway brought me all the way to Krakow, and I skirted the city to the campsite I'd chosen, which had good reviews online. The young guy at reception greeted me in English, showed me a shaded spot under the trees where I could pitch my tent, explained about the showers and toilets and free-to-use washing machines and said I should pitch up before checking in properly. Which is what I did, the sweat dripping off me once more as I did so. I told him I wanted to stay for 2 or 3 nights, as I'm not sure of my plans from here on in. I want to visit the old town of Krakow and Auschwitz, but I also need to replan the rest of my trip. The bike has now done over 18,000Km and so will need another service fairly soon, the tyres I had fitted in Istanbul are beginning to show signs of wear, and I also want to get home a little earlier than originally planned, so the loop up to Nordkapp I'd planned is now out of the question. So I need to spend some time working on a route that will take me home, but not directly as whilst I'm out here I may as well take a more enjoyable route back. I'll work on that tomorrow morning.
I walked to the supermarket which is close by and bought myself some salad stuff and a tin of tuna for my tea, and a couple of luke-warm beers to quench my thirst. Back at camp I ate the Emmental Pringles with the mixed-flavour humus whilst boiling the eggs, then set about the salad. I opened the tuna and it looked like cat food. It wasn't, it was tuna, but it was disgusting, so I had an egg salad instead. I didn't mind, it was tasty and I finished another book whilst the sun went down, completing it laid in the tent away from the biting insects before turning off my headtorch and falling asleep.
Having slept well I woke to the first day of July - the 3rd month of my trip - with some serious thinking to do. I'd more-or-less decided that I would skip the Nordkapp part of my original plan to allow me to get home a little earlier than planned, now I just needed to decide what the rest of the trip would look like. I got out the maps and my laptop and after eating a quick breakfast of croissants bought from the supermarket the day before, I sat down at the table in the campsite kitchen and started work. Drawing a straight line from here in Krakow to home would be boring, so I thought about what lies between here and there and what would be fun to do. Mountains, obviously, and also I've wanted to visit the BMW Museum in Munich for a while, so that made it to the agenda. I did check out MotoGP races, but this coming weekend is the German round then there's a big gap until early August for the Czech round, so that wouldn't work - I could make the German round but it would mean riding straight there and missing out on the mountains. As I'm in Southern Poland is would be a shame to miss the Tatra Mountains, as they were where Tracy and I were going in 2007 before we had our bad accident. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I spent all morning and most of the afternoon researching possible routes, looking for suitable campsites and generally planning my convoluted route home. It will see me on the road for another 2-3 weeks, but I should get home some time in the middle of July, about 2-3 weeks earlier than originally planned.
With that done and the routes loaded into the GPS ready, I set about organising my tour of Auschwitz for the following day. Only I couldn't. It seems that due to the number of people visiting there, it is no longer possible to just turn up. As I also wanted an English-speaking guide to ensure I got the most out of the trip, I tried to book one and discovered the next available English-speaking tour is 3pm on the 3rd July, the day after tomorrow, so I booked that, which means I'll be here in Krakow for 4 nights, not 3 as I thought. But such is the way of these things and I'd rather stay an extra day than miss Auschwitz.
With all the planning done, I wandered over to the supermarket and bought some soup for my dinner as I wasn't that hungry, then went back to camp and cooked it. Then I started another book and relaxed for the rest of the day, it still being very hot but with the forecast for cooler weather tomorrow. Not long after I turned in for the night the wind picked up and it began to rain.
Fortunately the rain stopped well before the morning, and I woke late, not crawling out of the tent until gone 8am. A nice, lazy start to the day, as I wanted to check what the weather was doing before deciding how long to spend exploring the Old Town of Krakow. As it was, it was another glorious day, so I made myself a brew and feasted on a breakfast of pain-o-chocolat that I'd bought the previous day, then read a while before finally rousing myself into action. My first port of call was the local car wash, as the bike is disgustingly filthy and covered in dead insects having not been washed since, well, I can't remember when but it was Turkey I think! I found the car wash round the back of the supermarket, and queued up, just as the car in front decided it needed to reverse to get into the first car wash bay. He got very close to me before I gave him a long blast of my very loud horn to warn him that any closer would be trouble - I couldn't back up as the ground was uneven and I was still sat on the bike. He was not best pleased and started shouting at me once he'd got out of his car, but I've been reading Jack Reacher novels for weeks now so just gave him a mouthful in return. Then I moved into an empty bay and began trying to work out how to use the machine. The lady who'd just finished cleaning her car in the bay before me came back to retrieve her sponge and I politely asked for help and she showed me where to pay using my card, and then I used Google translate to explain which buttons were which. I spent a total of 10Zloty (£2) and used the foam lance and the pressure wash to blast away as much dirt as I could. The bike looked loads better, not as clean as I'd like, but clean enough to be going on with. By the time I'd finished the guy with the attitude and the poor reversing skills had gone, and I made my way towards Krakow centre.
I'd done my research and found an underground car park close to the castle where I parked the bike, leaving my jacket, helmet and gloves in the panniers. As I was preparing to leave the car park I noticed a voicemail message on my phone, which turned out to be Scorpion, the tracker people, who'd called me to notify me of movement on my bike when the ignition was off - probably whilst I was cleaning it. I rang them back and told them it was a false alarm, once again impressed with the security the tracker provides. Then I went wandering. Out of the car park and left took me towards the castle, then I continued on and into the Old Town proper, just aimlessly wandering around taking in the sights. It's a beautiful city, the old buildings seeming to lean back as they're much wider at the base than the top, creating the sense that they're leaning out of the way to let the sun shine down into the cobbled streets. There are plenty of interesting buildings too, from old churches to residential houses and hotels. There are shops selling everything from tourist tat and amber souvenirs to expensive jewellery and high-end fashion. There are restaurants catering for all tastes, from a McDonald's with subtle branding so it blends in, to posh-looking steak and Polish cuisine restaurants with waiters and waitresses with white cloths draped over their arms.
The main attractions of the Old Town are found in the huge market square, where there is a long building built down the centre, called the Sukiennice or Cloth Hall. This has arches running down both sides and a central corridor in the middle filled with small shops selling all sorts of things, but mostly souvenirs (I bought my fridge magnet here). On one side of the square is the massive St. Mary's Basilica, with its two distinct and different towers. The two towers are of different heights and used for different purposes. The bugle call is played from the taller tower, while the church bell known as Pólzygmunt hangs in the lower tower. However, there are no architectural plans that give the reason for the different heights of the towers. Legend has it that under the reign of King Boleslaus the Modest (Boleslaw Wstydliwy, 1243-1279) a decision was made to add two towers to the body of the church standing by the Main Market Square. Two brothers were given the task of building them, but when the younger brother realised that his tower was much shorter, he murdered his elder brother out of envy. However, the murderer was wracked with remorse and on the day the church was to be consecrated, he pierced his heart with the same knife he used to kill his brother, and dropped dead from the top of his tower to the ground below. Regardless, it's still a lovely building!
Also parading around the Old Town are a large number of ornate horse-drawn carriages, most driven by rather attractive young women wearing black hats ringed with a white ribbon and traditional clothes. Needless to say, I didn't feel the need to be whisked around town in the back of one, looking like a lonely old bloke on holiday. Instead, I wandered around taking photos and trying not to get in their way. If it wasn't for my knee giving me some pain and the need for a wee, I could have walked round the town for hours. I used McDonald's to alleviate my bladder issues, and then chose a pasta restaurant for a spot of lunch, some Prawns with Penne and home-made lemonade. Very nice too. Then I wandered some more, walking away from the Old Town and down to the Old Jewish quarter, which as far as I could tell was just full of old apartment buildings (reminiscent of those in Paris) covered in graffiti and dirt. So I walked back to the castle and around the inside of the outer walls, as I was too tight to pay the entrance fee as well as wanting to get back to camp in order to do some washing. I returned to the bike via an ice-cream seller, then rode directly into the heavy traffic on the way back to camp.
Just before arriving back at camp I went to the supermarket and bought some washing power tablets and some more soup for my tea, then when back at camp I put all my dirty laundry in one of the site's free-to-use washing machines and then finished my book whilst waiting for it to be done. I then hung it out over my bungee chords spread between the trees next to my tent and hoped the warm weather would get it all dry quickly, especially as I'd also washed my sleeping bag liner. A couple of hours later, it was dry and so I ate my soup and wrote up the blog in the encroaching darkness, and am now sat outside my tent completing it with my headtorch on and my fellow campers all retiring for the night.
Today has been a very emotional day for many reasons, but I'm going to focus on the one that relates to
my trip, which was my visit to the Nazi concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. To
visit Auschwitz it's now necessary to book in advance, as they receive over 2 million visitors per year, so my tour
was scheduled to start at 3pm. I spent the morning reading and then rode the 65Km to the small Polish town of Oswiecim,
which is where the camps are. Following the invasion of Poland and the start of the Second World War in September 1939,
the Germans expelled the locals from this area and set up what was initially a concentration camp for political prisoners
from Poland - anyone who could have helped organise resistance or was seen as a threat to the Nazis was rounded up and
sent here - some 728 people initially. In 1940, the Nazis started the transportation of the Jews and other ethnic
groups that didn't fit in with their plans for the purification of the greater German nation, sending prisoners from
all over the occupied territories to Auschwitz. They also began planning for what they saw as the
Final Solution to
the Jewish Problem, the extermination of the 11-million Jews in Western Europe. The camps they built here - there
were around 40 of them - were not just intended to hold prisoners, but to systematically kill them. The numbers involved
are truly staggering. Between 1940 and 1945 the Nazis transported 1,300,000 people to the Auschwitz camps. Of those,
1,100,000 were Jews, 140,000-150,000 were Poles, 23,000 were Roma / Gypsies, 15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War and approx.
25,000 were other ethnic groups. Of the 1,300,000 sent to Auschwitz, 1,100,000 were killed. In just 5 years, which
equates to an average of over 600 per day, every day. To achieve this, they built a killing machine.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a larger camp than Auschwitz 1, and the terminous of the railway that transported the victims
from all over. They arrived in sealed cattle-carts, which had no windows or ventilation and would contain between
50 and 150 people, supplied with one bucket of water and one for excrement. When they were rounded up, they were told
they were being transported to a new settlement, to a better life. When they disembarked from the railway carriage onto
the platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they realised this was unlikely to be the case, because they were faced with armed
SS guards, lines of double-deep electrified barbed-wire fences and the long, low, wooden barracks of the concentration
camp. Then they were separated into two lines - men on one side, women and children on the other, and told to leave
their belongings on the platform, that they would be given them back after they had been registered into the camp. The
selection process then began, with able-bodied, strong young men or women selected to be registered, the rest, the
weak, elderly, young, disabled, kept separate. This latter group were then marched alongside the last portion of the
railway line to one of two buildings at the edge of the woods, where they entered an underground chamber and were told
to remove all their clothes ready for a shower. They were then marched into another, large, underground room which had
fake shower-heads mounted in the ceilings. The first few in would then become confused as to why there was no exit at
the far end of the room and panic would rise as more and more people were crammed into the room. It would hold up to
2,000 people at a time, and when it was full the heavy doors would be slammed shut and then the lights would be turned
off. By now the level of panic would be terrible, and sometimes the guards would switch the lights back on to hear the
cries of relief, then switch them back on again to torture those inside. A
doctor would then drop Zyklon B pellets
down the chimneys in the roof, which would lead to an agonizing death for those in the chamber - a process that would
take a full 20 minutes. The chamber was then ventilated and other prisoners, wearing gas masks, would drag the corpes
out, strip them of any valuables (jewellery, gold teeth, etc.), cut off the hair of the women and load them into lifts where they were then taken back up to ground level and into the crematorium. At each
of the two buildings at Auschwitz-Birkenau there were 5 furnaces with 3 doors on each, into which the bodies would be
put and incinerated. The remaining ashes would then be sifted through for any more valuables, the unburnt bones crushed,
and the remains transported away to be dumped in river systems or as land-fill in the surrounding area.
fortunate enough to have been selected for registration into the camp as prisoners were taken,
photographed (in the early days, the Nazis eventually gave up on this as within a month the prisoners no longer
resembled their photos), tattooed with their prisoner numbers (to make identifying the corpes easier) and given
their scant prison uniforms marked with their status. They were then admitted to overcrowded barracks which had no
real facilities and set to work, either at the camp or at nearby farms or factories. Their food rations were so poor,
less than 1,500 kilo-calories per day (the average man needs 2,500, a woman 2,000 to sustain their weight) that a
great many prisoners died of starvation. The conditions in camp were truly horrific, with regular beatings and anyone
found breaking the rules was likely to be taken away, stripped and shot in the courtyard of one of the buildings.
Before the Red Army liberated the camp on 27th January, 1945, the SS destroyed most of the documentation the camp had produced, and blew up both the extermination buildings at Auschwitz-Birkenau to try to hide the atrocities they had committed here. But the evidence remains, and on liberation the Red Army was faced with some truly shocking sights. The survivors secured the camp as a museum in 1947, and many worked here as guides following the war, telling their stories seemingly the only way they could come to terms with what had happened to them. Our tour just missed the chance to talk to one of the last survivors, one of a pair of twins liberated in 1945, who was at the camp the day I visited.
Our tour guide was truly excellent and for our tour around Auschwitz 1 we had audio-headphones so we could hear her
commentary as she showed us around the exhibitions that have been put up in many of the halls (buildings) in the camp.
With so many visitors it was very busy, with lots of groups of 20-25 people walking around, but in all my time visiting
places with tour groups I've never heard it so quiet. No-one but the guides were speaking, and everyone was subdued,
many (including me) with tears in their eyes. It was a truly, deeply, emotional experience and one that's very hard
to describe. As we walked through the gates into the camp, with their inscription
Arbeit Macht Frei
sets you free, I could barely imagine the sense of hopelessness that must have been felt by those who went through
those same gates 75+ years ago. And that was before I heard the true horror of what happened to them.
I'm not going to record the full details of everthing I saw during my visit, as it would take too long and a lot of the memories and thoughts I had are very personal, but I will touch on a few things that stood out. One was a room full of prosthetic limbs, back-braces, leg-supports, etc. I mentioned above that during selection, disabled people were excluded from becoming prisoners and sent directly to the gas chamber, as they were unfit to work (and seen by the Nazis as inferior beings). Their prosthetics were removed and stored, to be recycled or sold, and those discovered in the warehouses when the camp was liberared are on display in a large glass cabinet running down the while side of a large room. Each one represents someone who was killed here. Seeing the life-like prosthetic legs and imagining the poor soul who it belonged to, who had endured the terrible journey here, and who had already survived whatever tragedy had cost them their leg, only to die in agony in a gas chamber and whose story will never be told, was heartbreaking.
Another room housed shoes - thousands and thousands of them - each pair representing another victim. There were lots of children's shoes too, and a display case of a small child's clothes. It wasn't just men and women sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis also transported 232,000 children to the camps, but only 22,000 were ever registered as prisoners (the rest, executed on arrival). When the Red Army liberated the camp in 1945, only 650 children were left.
But perhaps the biggest shock was the human hair. The Nazis would shave the heads of the dead women, collecting their hair and putting it into bales which were then sent to factories where it would be turned into cloth. On liberation the warehouse contained 2 tonnes of human hair (the average long-haired woman's hair would weigh around 450 grammes). In one long room was a glass cabinet, waist high and very deep, containing that hair. It was a huge display, containing the hair of approximately 40,000 women. Needless to say, out of respect for the victims, photographs of the hair were not permitted. But the image of it will remain with me for a very long time.
I would strongly recommend anyone who gets chance to visit Auschwitz and see and hear for themselves just what human
beings are capable of when they believe they are better than others, or that other human beings are somehow less than
they are. The Nazis were just ordinary people who followed and believed an ideologoy that perpetuated the notion that
they were the
master race, superior to the rest of humanity. They feared the Jews because their leader did, and
they were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to try to rid Western Europe of 11 MILLION people whose beliefs
didn't match their own. Genocide and the persecution of others didn't stop with the liberation of Auschwitz or the end
of the Second World War - Pol Pot's Cambodia killed 2 million people in the 1970s, the Balkan conflict and its ethnic
cleansing and massacre of civilians killed thousands in the late 1980s and the war in Syria is still doing so today. The
only real difference is the scale - Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau were machines built to kill people in very large
numbers, and that's exactly what they did.
Below are some of the photographs I took as I walked around Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. They do not even begin to tell the story of what happened here.
It was late when I got back to the campsite so I went to the local Chinese restaurant for dinner instead of trying to find something to cook. It was excellent, so good that as I was finishing up a coachload of Chinese tourists turned up to eat, making one hell of a racket, so I made my escape before I was deafened.
I woke early to another bright and sunny day, although it was cooler than it had been, and once I'd packed away some of
my things I started writing up the story of my visit to Auschwitz. That meant it was around 11:30am by the time I rode
out of the campsite and into the traffic through Krakow. It took me the best part of an hour to clear the city limits and
get into the countryside, but it was worth it as the road got better and better the further south I went. The city
had given way to a rolling countryside of tree-lined hills, with twisty, well-surfaced, roads and light traffic. I took
the 964 through small villages of brightly-painted houses with large immaculately manicured gardens, then the 968
towards Zabrzez where the hills got bigger and the roofs of the houses steeper. I rode down to the large reservoir and
lake at Niedzica, where there was a large castle overlooking the dam, and lots and lots of tourists lining the walkways
and queueing up in the car parks. I didn't stop, I was just enjoying the ride and singing along (loudly) to Sheryl Crow.
Every day is a winding road.... Indeed.
All good things must come to an end, and eventually I found myself arriving in Zakopane and following a narrow single-track road up into the hills, where I was followed by another bike. I made an incorrect turn, then when I'd completed a swift U-turn and found the correct single-track road, which according to the GPS lead to the campsite, I encountered the other bike heading back towards me. It turned out to be another Brit, Wayne from Dudley in the West Midlands on a Suzuki 1000 V-Strom. He was looking for the same campsite, only it wasn't there. We compared notes then went our separate ways, me to find another campsite, him looking for a hostel. I rode down the hill and into Zakopane proper, then discovered the campsite I was looking for right there on the outskirts of town. I checked in with the Benny-Hill lookalike guy who ran the place, and who spoke excellent English and smiled a lot under his Tirolean hat (even though we're in the Tatra mountains, not the Tirolean). He showed me to a pitch and where everything was, then I started pitching the tent. Before I'd got it fully up, Wayne arrived on his bike, and we introduced ourselves properly, then he pitched up next to me, so I have some company for a change. We then went in search of an ATM to get some cash for Benny (who won't take card payments) and to the supermarket for a couple of beers (for me, Wayne's not drinking) and snacks, then back to camp to settle up. Benny has recommended a local restaurant for tonight, so we'll wander over there later. In the meantime, I'm writing this sat in the sunshine and thinking about tomorrow as I head back into Slovakia for the first time since the fateful events of 2007.
A short while later, Wayne and I walked to the restaurant Benny had recommended, Restauracja Harenda, which was just
around the corner and up the hill the other side of the river that runs behind the campsite. It was a large, modern,
restaurant with tables outside in the fading sunshine, but we opted for a table inside where it would be slightly
warmer, avoiding the early evening chill that had set in. The table could easily have seated a dozen people on the
two bench seats, each of which was covered with a thick sheepskin back, prepared for the ski season during which it
was probably very busy. We were given menus by the middle-aged waitress who was wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with
OK, it's time for a new adventure. I resisted the temptation to make a smart-ass remark, and simply
ordered a large pizza and a beer. Wayne ordered the vegetarian option and a beer and we settled down to enjoy our
meals, chatting about travel and life in general. He's also found the secret of true happiness, working only when it
is absolultely necessary to fund his travel habit. A kindred soul. I was most taken by the signs on the toilet doors
announcing the mens' and womens' toilets in splendid fashion, which accompanied the rather interesting feature in the
urinal at the campsite, that only a photograph could explain:
After dinner we wandered back to camp, where it was already quite chilly and for the first time in ages I had to put on a fleece jumper. I think the last time I wore it was in Montenegro, which was around 6 weeks ago. How time flies! Then I made myself a brew whilst Wayne went off to complete his daily 10,000 steps, and settled in to relax for the evening, the end of another very enjoyable day, and one much less emotional than yesterday, and probably than tomorrow, too...
I woke reasonably early, having had some weird dreams, probably brought on by the thought of where I was heading today. As I was in Southern Poland, I was just north of the High Tatras, the mountain range that separates Poland from Slovakia. The mountain range that was visible from the campsite Tracy and I stayed at in 2007, and visible from the site of the accident that changed our lives - hers in particular - just down the road in Velika Lomnica. As I was in the area, I had decided the re-visit the spot where it happened, and I really wasn't sure why. Or how I would feel when I got there. But I'm not one to stay in my comfort zone, so that was my next stop, from where I would head around the base of the mountains, taking the scenic route in a generally westerly direction.
As it turned out, it was something of an anti-climax, as nothing was the same. The campsite has long gone, been torn down to make way for a golf-course and new hotel complex. The town itself has grown outwards, with new housing estates on the northerly edge, which used to be just fields, all of which meant the junction where the accident happened was barely recognisable. But recognisable it was, and I parked up and just let my thoughts wander for a while; but I didn't take any photos because it's not the same as it was and now I've seen it again I want to forget it. The memories of that day had come flooding back and were just as raw and painful as they had been 12 years ago. So I rode on, with the hope of seeing the shop where Tracy had done her chicken impression trying to communicate that she wanted to buy some eggs, a very happy memory to replace the sad ones, but there was no sign of the shop or even where it had been. The whole town has changed significantly. I left it all behind and rode on to Poprad, where we'd stopped at a big Tesco and bought our camping wok, and where I hoped to be able to buy some more Yorkshire Tea Bags as I'm running desperately low. I found a Tesco, but it and its surroundings bore no resemblance to what I remember, and it was shut. As were all the shops on the same campus, so I checked Google and discovered today is Independence Day and a public Holiday in Slovakia. Typical. I drew out some cash from an ATM and continued on my way, my mind still wandering and trying to reconnect to the past, but in vain.
I headed back into the hills on some excellent roads, taking great care as there were lots of cars parked up at the roadside, their occupatns out hiking in the mountains or riding bicycles on the trails (and sometimes on the road). I even saw one guy on roller-blades using 2 ski-sticks to propel himself along - on the main road and just round a blind corner! The riding was excellent, but my mood wasn't. I was struggling to concentrate, my mind distracted. So I stopped at a McDonalds and had a coffee and a chicken burger thing, and gave myself a good talking to. I rode on towards the campsite I'd chosen, which was by a lake in the north of the country close to the mountains, but I arrived there just before 2pm and simply wasn't ready to stop for the day, needing to ride to restore my sanity. I continued on, selecting another campsite in Bojnice, half-way towards my next destination of Bratislava. The riding was still great, but the traffic wasn't. It was light, but hard to get past with the roads being so twisty and double-white lines everywhere. I wasn't prepared to take any risks overtaking, the thoughts of what had happened in this country making me second-guess myself at every overtaking opportunity. I must have overtaken thousands of vehicles since the accident without any problems, but today, I was being over-cautious. All of which meant I was stuck in the slow-quick-slow unnatural rhythm of following another vehicle, and most of the drivers were poor, suddenly slowing down for no reason, or speeding up when they would only have to brake again soon. It was tiresome, and I couldn't get my riding to flow whilst following them.
Eventually I arrived in Bojnice, a small town with a very impressive castle, and made my way to the campsite. Which was closed. So I rode on, not having chance to double-back and take pictures of the castle. I came to another town by a lake, and saw a campsite on the opposite shore, so round around to it and checked in. The town is called Priehrada and the campsite on the bank of the reservoir (it's got a dam, so it's not a lake), and is huge. There's a fairground and numerous bars full of people. I arrived just after a Slovak guy on another GS, and ended up pitching my tent next to his - but not before he'd thrust a can of cold Slovak beer in my hand, insisting I drank with him. It was 12% proof, but quite tasty, and now I'm trying to avoid him as I don't want to be dragged into a beer-drinking session, as I'm really after a quiet night. With the pounding euro-technic pop music crap coming from the fairground, that's already looking unlikely!
It wasn't just the electro-techno-pop music from the fairground that made the campsite noisy, there was a live band
playing in one of the bars, fairly close to my tent. They started at 8pm and took a break around 9pm, just as I was
getting ready to call it a day, having finished my latest book. I had realised I was very tired, perhaps due to the
heat, but also probably due to the stress of revisiting the site of the accident. All day I'd been out of sorts, and
by 9pm I was ready for an early night. So I crawled into my sleeping bag and just as I was settling down the band
started up again, louder than before, and now playing terrible renditions of songs such as
You're the one that I
Greased Lightning from Grease. The only time I've heard these performed worse was back in the
80's at one of our house parties, when the girls had had too much to drink. But then again, I'm not sure that was
worse... I don't know whether they stopped again or I simply fell asleep (I can usually sleep anywhere and through
anything, except if a TV is on), but I didn't wake again until the wee hours, by which time the camp was finally
quiet. I do know that the sound of people playing air-hockey, the puck bouncing off the bats and the sides of the
table, was one of the noises I had to block out in order to get to sleep.
I woke around 6am to clear blue skies and early morning warmth, so got up and started packing. I didn't bother with a shower, as I'd had a look at the shower block the previous evening. Despite being given a key for which a 10-euro deposit was required, they were utterly disgusting, with a communal block of 4 showers with tiles that were filthy and the floors were covered in scum. I'd have come out dirtier than I went in, had I bothered. So I packed and collected my 10-euro deposit back on the unused key, then rode away from the campsite as fast as I could, just wanting to put some space between me and the place. It was only 7am, so by the time I'd ridden what was intended to be my route to Bratislava, I arrived around 9:30am and ready for some breakfast. Fortunately, Slovakia has its fair share of McDonalds, so I found one and treated myself to an egg-and-bacon McMuffin and cup of English Breakfast Tea. Both were adequate and filled the gaping hole in my belly. Whilst I was there I looked at the maps and made a decision to skip Bratislava, as I've had my fill of riding through cities and whilst I'm sure it's a very nice place, it would be better as a weekend trip with Tracy than part of a motorcycle trip. Part of my rationale was my desire to get the hell out of Slovakia as soon as possible. I know my feelings about the place are irrational and based on the one bad experience, but I wasn't enjoying the riding and was still feeling out of sorts. Looking at the map, the border with Austria was just a short distance away, and there were plenty of campsites dotted around the large Neusiedler See (lake), which looked interesting. So that's where I made for.
No sooner had I passed where the border used to be (it's still there, but now only consists of an empty building and some new Euro-style Oesterich signs), than my mood changed. Perhaps it was the improving weather as the sun came out, burning off the thin clouds that had kept the temperature down, or the improving scenery, with miles of fields and the largest wind-turbine farm I've ever seen, or just the fact that eveything in Austria - roads, pavements, houses, gardens, fields, trees, everything - looks like it has just been given a clean and tidy up ready for a visiting VIP. I've never seen a country so clean and tidy, even Switzerland looks dirty by comparison. And Slovakia, well, that's positively trailer-trash territory next to the manicured splendor of Austria.
My mood continued to improve as the day went on, largely due to the roads. I got to Neusiedler See and it was still early and there were hordes of tourists everywhere, making the most of the weekend sunshine, so I rode on, heading for the mountains. I knew this was a good decision when I encountered my first group of bikes heading towards me, then more and more and more and more. There were bikes everywhere, all being ridden enthusiastically by guys and gals in leather suits (they must have been boiling as it was over 30degrees). The roads went up and over the hills and through forests, sometimes flowing with fast, sweeping bends, other times with tight, awkward, hairpins. I tagged on behind a couple, him on a KTM and her (I could tell the rider was female as she had the tiniest waist I've ever seen) on some kind of naked sportsbike. They were riding well, the pace brisk and I enjoyed keeping up with them until we hit the tight mountain hairpins when my heavily loaded bike made it hard work to get round the corners and I gave up trying to keep them in sight.
The day wore on in a blur of green scenery and great roads, with the occasional long-range view of the valleys below. I stopped for fuel and a drink, but that was about it, just enjoying the riding. My updated destination was a campsite deep the forests at a place called Wildalpen, and I got there in plenty of time around 3pm. Only it was very busy, the campsite full. So I continued on, riding further west in the mountains to another campsite, which was even worse. It was so full there didn't look to be any grass where the tents were pitched, just a mass of tents with no space between them. The caravan section was just as bad, so once again I left and continued on, but this time heading North and away from the mountains, reasoning that as it appeared the whole population of Austria was camping in the mountains that weekend, the only campsites with spaces would be away from the hills. I headed for the next campsite in my GPS, at a place I'd never heard of called Purgstall. Just before arriving I filled up with fuel again and had a cold drink and an ice-cream and bought a packet of two sausages so I'd have something to eat if the campsite lacked a restaurant, or I ended up wild camping. As it was, the campsite had not only a restaurant but plenty of space, so I checked in and pitched up, then went and used the excellent showers to freshen up. I cooked the sausages anyway, as I wasn't that hungry (just as well, they weren't that good) and made myself a brew, then caught up with Tracy at home before writing up the blog.
It's been a long day - some 10 hours in the saddle - but an enjoyable one once I got out of Slovakia. I'm also now
ahead of my revised schedule having ditched the 2 nights I was going to spend near Bratislava, so I should be home
in just over a week's time. But there are still some adventures to be had before then - I've got a couple of places
I want to visit before getting back, and there are a some great roads I want to ride as well, so I'm staving off
Destination Fever for the time being!
It rained heavily in the night, but by 7am when I clambered out of my tent it had stopped, the sky full of white and light grey clouds, a gentle breeze helping with the humidity. I made a brew whilst packing up and was on the road shortly after 9am, heading in a general south-westerly direction. My plan for the day was to simply enjoy the riding, and to visit a couple of Austria's more beautiful (if that's possible) towns - Hallstatt and Zell am See - both of which are nestled alongside mountain lakes, surrounded by tree-covered hillsides. I was then going to camp for two nights at a site near Zell am See so I could ride the Grossglockner pass on my day off, a road I drove the Globebusters' Transit van up when I was guiding the TriDays tour to Austria, but had never ridden. As with so many of my plans, this one also failed to come to fruition...
Just as I was settling in to great day's riding on the billiard-table smooth sweeping curves of Austria's finest roads, the sky darkened and it started raining. Only not just a little rain, but another biblical downpour that left standing water in any depression on the road and had it not been for the excellent waterproof qualities of my Klim riding suit, I would have been drenched and in a depression of my own. As it was, it didn't look like the rain was going to stop any time soon, and despite riding a considerable distance, there was no blue sky on the horizon. There were still lots of other bikes about, quite a lot in large groups, all giving me a wave as they approached, but they were clearly not riding with the same enthusiasm as they had been in the dry yesterday. I rode on, enjoying the riding despite the weather, then stopped at a McDonalds for some late breakfast / early lunch, it being around 11:30am and I'd been riding for a solid 2.5hours. Whilst I ate my burger I checked the weather forecast for Zell am See and was disappointed to discover it was for heavy rain all day today and tomorrow. It seems there's a weather front running east-west right across Austria and south Germany and it's not going to clear until Tuesday. Which meant it was time to re-plan, as there was precious little point in riding the Grossglockner in the rain, as it climbs so high I'd be in the clouds fairly quickly and unable to see anything at all. I checked the weather in Munich - my next scheduled stop where I hope to visit the BMW Museum, but that was the same and with the museum closed on Monday there didn't seem to be any point riding to Munich a two days earlier than planned. I also needed to find a cheap hotel, as camping in the pouring rain when already wet from riding in it is not my idea of fun. A hotel would allow me to get my stuff dry and to charge up all my electrical devices as well as attending to some much-needed smalls washing. But I'm no longer in the area where hotels are cheap, so it took a while to find somewhere within my budget, and that was outside Salzburg. So I dediced to stick to my original route to Hallstatt and then take the curvy roads to the hotel, arriving late afternoon.
I'd been using the
Curvy Roads routing option on my GPS ever since I arrived in Austria and I have come to the
conclusion that whoever developed the algorithm lived here. It has found some truly spectacular roads, often taking me
several Km away from the direct route just so I can enjoy an endless series of curves. I've fallen in love with Austria,
despite the rain, it's got some of the best biking roads I've ridden and all surrounded by scenery that just lifts the
soul - pretty little alpine houses all neat and tidy and looking like they've just been painted, surrounded by flowers
and neat gardens, clean pavements, no litter or graffiti. Even the fields, which are mostly alpine meadows, look like
they've been trimmed and combed so they look just
so. It's an achingly beautiful country.
Hallstatt is no exception and was well worth the detour and the trip through the narrow one-way tunnel to get to the town itself. There is no parking in town, but I'm on a bike and found a small place enclosed by large concrete blocks where another bike was parked up (with Czech plates), so parked up and went for a wander along the lake side. Apart from the usual horde of Asian tourists taking selfies - including one who was being photographed by her friend with her camera as she walked along, turning round and pouting so she could be captured perfectly for Instagram (her friend must have taken at least 25 pictures whilst I was walking past) - it was peaceful and a lovely place. It was a shame I was full from my late breakfast, as I could easily imagine whiling away an hour or two sat in a lakeside café over lunch. As it was, I took some pictures then bought some snacks from the supermarket in case I can't find somewhere to eat later, and rode on, back through the other tunnel and back into the mountains.
I deliberately took a convoluted route from Hallstatt to the hotel, despite the weather which was intermittently raining and not. The sheer beauty of the Austrian countryside here is worth taking the road less travelled and I certainly did that, taking several roads that were only just wide enough for one car, hoping that I wouldn't encounter one coming the other way. I didn't, just one cyclist going my way that I had to follow for a while until the road became wide enough for me to pass. These little roads took me through villages with alpine houses scattered across the hills around small flat pastureland. There was no sign of agriculture, or cattle, or any obvious signs as to how the people who lived here made a living. All the houses were immaculately kept - nothing over fancy, just clean and well maintained. As everywhere else, it was orderly and tidy and simply lovely. I wonder what would happen if a family moved in who were not as disciplined at maintaining their property - would the local Police take action against them?
All good things have to come to an end and it was the case with the day's riding, just as the rain started once
more. I filled up at a petrol station just before arriving at the hotel, the 7-Days Premium Hotel, although I'm
not sure what's Premium about it. Next door is a restaurant that has a blackboard outside with
Pizzas, etc written on it, but I'm not getting my hopes up (the thought of a curry is so enticing that the
disappointment if there isn't one would be too much to bear!). On the other side of the hotel is a car wash
station, so after I'd checked in and parked in the underground car park, I decided to replace the rear brake
pads (they still didn't need doing, so I've left them again), then took the bike to the car wash and gave it
a good clean. Now it won't look out of place in Austria, although tomorrow I'm heading into Germany...
Then it was back to the room to attend to my washing and sort my electrcial stuff out, and to update the blog. Which I won't post just yet, as it's now almost 7pm and time for me to check out the restaurant next door. Wish me luck...
The restaurant next door was open, and run by a small Indian woman and her family, which promised good things. The menu had a shrimp madras on it, and popadoms to start with. My luck had changed. They were delicious, the popadoms sadly lacking onions but they were spicy as was one of the dips they were served with. The madras was more like a masala, but spicy enough and very tasty. Probably the best meal I've had in 10 weeks on the road. When the young waitress asked me how I liked the food I told her I'd been missing my curry and it was delicious. She got a good tip, well deserved, too.
When I'd finished eating and settled the bill, I walked back to the hotel and had to barge my way through a crowd of Asian tourists leading from the lift outside and into the courtyard, all with their wheeled luggage making getting through the crowd a challenge. Reception is on the 1st floor, and they were all waiting for the lift, filling the ground floor lobby area. I pushed through and went up the stairs, then had to repeat the process to squeeze past another group - they filled the reception area and the area around the lift and stairs - in order to get to the stairs and climb up to the 3rd floor. There was no point waiting for the lift with so many people milling about. As I climbed the stairs I could hear a small child screaming, and passed its mother holding it in her arms as she went downstairs. On my floor I could hear children running and shouting at each other, all before I managed to get my room door open and enter its relative sanctuary. I put the TV on to play some music and drown out the other guests' noises, and just hope that when it comes to bedtime (it's already 8:30pm), it will be quiet and I'll get a good night's sleep. Memories of the campsite in Slovakia are still fresh in my mind, but with the aftertaste of a good curry, a kettle in my room (I've brought my tea-bags, sugar and cup up to the room), I'm set. Life is once again very good indeed...
A good night's sleep came as a surprise, given the number of people I'd seen checking into the hotel the previous evening, but I was grateful of it all the same. Waking up at 7:30am, I was faced with a very dull day, the grey clouds still emptying their contents across the sodden landscape outside my hotel window. I had bought some of my favourite chocolate-filled croissants for breakfast, and with a kettle in my room was able to make myself a brew, too. A decent breakfast to start the day. I then spent a little more time looking at campsites and routes and working out if I could change my plans once more to give me a couple of longer riding days and to get me home a day earlier. Now that I've decided I'm heading home, I want to get back there sooner rather than later, especially if the weather's not so good. So I chose a campsite to the south-west of Munich, rather than the original one on the south-east, which should enable me to have a great day's riding through Germany and to Strasbourg when I leave Munich the day after tomorrow. That puts me just 2 days from home, a long day on the back roads of France to close to the tunnel, then an early crossing and the long slog home.
With the route sorted, I turned my attention to a couple of other chores - trying to sort out my bike insurance renewal (it expires on 14th July, another reason for getting home early) and booking my bike in for a service. The latter was simple and it's booked in for the 17th, the former was a pain. For some obscure reason, Carole Nash's renewal line has a voicemail that informs the caller the office is closed and to call back during opening hours, then states these as Monday to Friday 8am to 6pm. Only I'd called at 8:05am, UK time. Then again at 8:15 and 8:25. And I got the same damn message every time. So I gave up and went and loaded the bike up then rode out of the underground car park and into the drizzle.
Despite the rain and low cloud, I wasn't going to take the direct route, opting for a convoluted route that skirted the border between Austria and Germany, and which looked to have some interesting roads. It did just that, the first of which I encountered on crossing into Germany, when I saw a roadsign warning me of a toll ahead. It was the Rossfeld Panoramic Road and the toll was 5 euro, which I paid despite not being able to see anything at all due to the low cloud and mist. The road was excellent, although as I could only see about 20 feet in front of me, I couldn't really enjoy riding it!
The rest of my ride was pretty similar - either riding in the mountains through dense clouds, or across valleys in the pouring rain. I got occasional glimpses of beautiful jade green lakes, tumbling white waterfalls and pretty painted houses adorned with flowers cascading from long balconies. I saw some old classic cars braving the elements along with other hardy bikers, dodging the deeper puddles and trying to avoid the spray kicked up by oncoming lorries. I concentrated hard on avoiding the black snakes where the roads had been sealed with bitumin, as they were particularly slippery and often appeared exactly where my front tyre would be demanding the most grip. I had to switch to a clear visor, the dark sky making my usual smoked one particularly difficult to see through. My suit got soaked in the heavier rain, but still didn't leak, and then when the rain eased off and my speed could pick up again, it dried off a little, only to get soaked once more as the rain returned. At one stage the rain eased and I pulled into a garage with a café attached so I could use the loo and get a drink, only they didn't have a loo. Why would a café not have a toilet? The guy behind the counter told me there was a public toilet in the village 500m away, so I went there instead. Then I tried Carole Nash again and had a long conversation that didn't reach a satisfactory conclusion, so I'll just have to leave that chore until I get home.
Around 3pm I arrived at Campingplatz am Bibisee, which as far as I can tell has been transplanted from Royston Vasey (a local campsite, for local people). It's just plain weird. The reception office is only open from 8am to 12 noon (who checks IN at that time?), but there is a sign saying they will be in the restaurant. Only I couldn't see that from where I was so I rode around the site, which is absolutely chock-full of permanent touring caravans. That's not an oximoron, as the caravans are the touring kind, meant to be towed behind a car from place to place, only these have been placed permanently in situ and surrounded with things like garden gnomes, permanent awnings, flowerbeds, etc. It's like a small city of ancient 70s caravans and scruffy-looking overweight middle-aged German folk. I couldn't see an area for tents, but just as I was about to leave I spotted the restaurant, which is at the back of the reception building overlooking a small lake, around which were a few tents. So I parked up and went inside, where I found a Rosa Klepp lookalike (the female villan from James Bond's From Russia with Love). She was behind the counter in the empty retaurant polishing the knives, and greeted me in German with a thick accent. I enquired about camping and we had one of those conversations where both sides think they understand what is being said, but probably don't. I pointed to the other tents by the lake and she seemed to agree, then asked for my passport but then said something about the office being open in the morning from 8am to 12noon. So I wrote down my details on a piece of paper and then rode round the site, ignoring the stares and twitching curtains behind the almost-derelict caravans and pitched my tent beside the lake. Then I went in search of the toilet block and some fresh water. I found the newly-built and immaculate toilet block in the centre of the campsite (miles from where I'm pitched) and opened the door and went inside, whereupon a very fat German lady in a dirty white t-shirt with a towel on her head, who was sitting on one of a number of pine bench seats arranged in the centre of the building shouted something in German and began waving her arms at me. I replied that I didn't understand, and she muttered something to her not-quite-as-fat male friend who was sat next to her and he came over to me and explained that I shouldn't have opened the door manually, that there was a button to press to open it and that opening it manually meant it didn't close properly. He showed me the button I should have pressed, a large silver panel to the right of the door embedded in the wall. It had no markings or sign on it. But now I'd been told how to open the door, they went back to sitting in the middle of the room, probably waiting for their washing to be done (there's a laundry in the block too), and I went to the loo, then explored the rest of the block. It's all brand new and very nice, except a tad weird, with a large central area off which are the ladies facilities to the right and the mens to the left. In the centre of this area are several wooden benches that look like they are designed for people to sit at, waiting and watching, staring at the doors to the toilets and showers...
I had a short walk around the rest of the site, trying to find a standpipe for fresh water so I could make a brew, but couldn't. It seems the only water is in the new toilet block or in the restaurant. So I gave up, and sat in my tent reading for a while, listening to the sound of the raindrops hitting the outside of my tent, and the argumnent going on between a woman and her husband - he was sitting in a chair drinking a beer and staring at the lake, and by the sounds of it, he was a good-for-nothing-lazy-SOB, only in German.
Now it's 6pm and I'm going to venture out of my tent and try the restaurant. If anything happens to me, I hope someone discovers my laptop and this file so they know what happened...
The sense that I'm staying in a place unacustomed to visitors continued when I entered the restaurant, saying
Hello to the small groups of men sat at tables outside, who watched me approach all the way from my tent
and didn't reply as I went past them and through the doors into the building. Inside were a large number of
bench tables and seats, some occupied but mostly empty. I quickly chose one in a corner and put my book on the
table then went to the loo, all the while conscious that the noise level had dropped when I entered and not
returned to normal just yet. The loo was even more evidence that this campsite is different, the signs on the doors
identifying the Gents and Ladies being dolls strung up behind the glass portholes in the doors. I wouldn't have been
surprised if they'd been attached there by nooses, but they were just hung in crucifix shapes by fishing wire.
There were no menus on the tables, just blackboards above the bar with German meal names and prices, none of which I could make any sense of. Behind the counter was a younger woman as well as the tiny assassin from earlier, and I asked if she spoke English, which thankfully she did, at least a little. She started explaining the menu, which all seemed typically German (i.e. not very appetising) so I opted for a bowl of creamy vegetable soup and the schnitzel, which I was assured was pork not veal. The soup was very tasty, the schnitzel huge and served on a mass of french fries, which meant I only managed about half of it. I had a beer, too, just so I didn't look completely alien.
After eating and drinking my beer, I made my escape away from the restaurant and back to the tent, where I continued to read under cover as the rain started once more, albeit lightly. In the distance I can hear the sound of revellers enjoying themselves in the restaurant, the sound of manic laughter drifting across the pond towards me. I think I'll sleep with my Leatherman under my pillow, just in case...
Despite the trepidation of trying to sleep whilst surrounded by weirdness, I actually slept extremely well, the campsite lovely and peaceful. I woke around 6:30am and made my way the several miles to the shower block to get cleaned up, then returned to my tent and read until the shop opened at 8am. I thought reception would open then, but I'd mis-read the sign and it didn't open until 8:30, so I bought a couple of bread rolls and a small jar of Nutella from the shop and went back to the tent to make myself breakfast. Once I'd eaten I got dressed in my bike gear and rode around to Reception, where a charming lady booked me in properly and took the 36euro fee (which is damned expensive for two night's camping in a tent, at over 15quid a night!). I then rode out of the site and onto the main roads into Munich to visit the BMW Museum and BMW Welt (BMW World).
I'd been looking forward to visiting the museum for a few days, to see the old bikes and cars and to find out a little
more about the history of the marque. Only it was a big disappointment. It's in a huge building, next to their
showroom, BMW Welt, but it contains very little in terms of the really historic vehicles that have
made the company famous. There were two Dakar bikes - an early R80G/S and a later 650cc one, but neither had won the race.
I guess I've been spoilt by attending really good museums - the National Motorcycle Museum in Coventry has a massive
collection of mostly British bikes but probably as many BMWs as the BMW Museum has; the Barber Motorcycle Museum I
went to in the States is massively more impressive, too. There were displays of some cars from the company's illustrious
history, too, but I got the feeling that there were huge gaps in the story there too. Then there was the usual problem
of the bloody Asian tourists. They seemed to be everywhere, posing against the cars (ignoring the
Do Not Touch signs)
as though they were all on a magazine photo shoot. They practically ran from exhibit to exhibit in order to drape
themselves on it without any appreciation of what it was - pouting and posing and generally PISSING ME OFF!!
I must admit I've now become a belligerent old man who deliberately wanders into shot behind the girl posing for her friend's iPhone. I walk between the subject and the cameraphone on purpose. And I don't apologise. I wait patiently for them to wander off, then take my own photo of the vehicle unblemished by posing youth. And it's definitely time for me to go home...
After wandering round the entire museum in less than an hour, despite having to wait to take my pictures and to read the signs explaining what the exhibits were, I went to the on-site shop and bought a fridge magnet and then to the café where I had a nice cup of tea and a piece of quiche and allowed my blood pressure to return to normal. I checked again on the BMW Museum App I'd downloaded in case I'd missed the main part of the museum, but no, I'd seen it all. Disappointed, I wandered across the bridge to the very elegant BMW Welt building, which has a lovely double-cone structure at its front, making it look a little like a landed Star Trek spaceship. Inside was a huge space with displays of the latest BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce cars and, of course, BMW motorcycles. I had a good look round, but I'm not in the market for a new car or bike, and I've seen all the new bikes up close already, so there wasn't a huge amount to get my attention. The 60-years of Mini display was mildly amusing, with its homage to the great classic Minis that were nothing to do with BMW, who bought the brand and gave us the new, admittedly very nice, Mini which is anything but mini. The Rolls-Royce display was mildly amusing too, just two cars on display including the huge and ugly Cullinan, with Range-Rover beating tailgate seating. One of the main selling points of the original Range Rover was that when out shooting grouse, one could sit on the tailgate and enjoy one's picnic of champers and smoked salmon sandwiches. Now Rolls-Royce has gone one better with quaint little leather swivel seats and a leather table attached to the Cullinan's tailgate. All very posh.
When I'd had my fill of the museum and BMW Welt, I went for a walk and found an ATM and then a supermarket, where I bought a jar of Arriabbiata sauce and a tin of tuna so I could make my own dinner, then rode back to the campsite. By now the weather had improved a little and it was warm and dry, so I sat and read my book before cooking my food. At least that way I don't have to brave the stares of the folk in the restaurant again. And now I'm sat outside as the sun starts to set, looking forward to a long day's ride tomorrow as I head via Germany's best roads, including the B500 (which was covered in mist and rain and cold when I rode it on the way down 10 weeks ago). That should take me to Strasbourg, then it's just one day through France and another through England and I'll be home...
I gather my remarks about the weirdness of the campsite I stayed at in Bibisee intrigued a few of my readers, so I decided to take a few clandestine photos to illustrate the points I was trying to make. First, the brand new toilet and shower block, which is a large building in the centre of the campsite, surrounded by 1970s touring caravans that have been made permanent fixtures on the site and appear to be home to some rather overweight middle-aged German folk. I mentioned that it has, as its centre piece, a large open space with some wooden bench seats placed strategically so they look across the centre and directly at the entrance to the mens' and ladies' toilets. Below is a picture to prove I'm not making this stuff up. There is also a photo of one of the CCTV cameras that adorn the building. I didn't see any that pointed into the showers or toilets, but they are there, regardless. Then I took a picture of one of the many rows of caravans, and a photo of just one that has been surrounded by the sort of garden ornaments that you only get on estates of a particular kind - you know the sort of thing I mean, the one where one house looks like it's owned by people who used to own a Bric-a-Brac shop and have put all their left-over stock out on the front lawn. I can understand the desire to create a home-from-home with your holiday accommodation, but surely there are limits?
It will come as no surprise that I was up early and packed and away from the campsite as quickly as I could, the thought of somehow getting stuck there in a Groundhog-Day or Hotel California type incident making me pack more quickly than usual. Once on the road, I took a lovely route west across southern Germany, retracing the Globebusters' Austria route in reverse. This took me on some cracking roads, and with the sun shining in a baby blue sky and the the temperature a very pleasant 20-or so degrees, I was in my element. I stopped only twice, once for breakfast at a McDonalds (this is becoming habit forming, but the convenience makes it worthwhile!) and the other time at a cafe we'd stopped at on the Austria trip for a coffee and cake. And twice to stretch my legs and take a photo whilst I remembered, so I'd have some to include in the blog.
There really isn't a lot more to report, except to re-iterate what a great day's riding it was. I found a campsite north of Strasbourg just inside France, Camping du Heidenkopf, a good example of how this part of France seems more German than the rest. The site was OK, and after I'd pitched up and paid I walked the mile or so down into town to the local Indochina restaurant. I ordered the spring rolls and a Thai duck curry with a beer. The beer was served in a tiny glass, so probably doesn't count towards my alcohol intake (even after I'd ordered a second). One of the spring rolls also had some weird tough translucent thing in it, but when I complained to the waitress she just shrugged in a typically Gallic way (despite being of Asian descent) and took the plate away. The rest of the spring rolls were good and the curry very nice, if not at all spicy, so I didn't make a fuss. I just didn't leave a tip. Then I walked the mile or so back up the hill to the campsite and turned in for the night.
I woke and packed early, the sky a dull grey and with a light drizzle, then got on my way, leaving the campsite just after 8am. I had a long riding day ahead, some 640Km, but had booked a cheap hotel so wasn't too concerned. As I wanted to avoid the toll roads as much as possible (they're boring and expensive), I took the back roads, which meant the riding was very stop-start at first as the short sections between villages were the only real chance to get a move on. Traffic was light, but seemed to consist of a lot of trucks which were very slow accelerating out of the villages and there always seemed to be something coming the other way stopping me from overtaking. I was getting a little grumpy with the constant slow speed and sudden stops of the cars in front when it started to rain. And rain it did. Within minutes the roads were like small rivers, and the traffic even more erratic. I'd just stopped for fuel and saw a McDonalds, so pulled in ready to enjoy (!) another egg McMuffin breakfast. Only it wasn't open (it was now 9:30am). So I rode on, getting even more grumpy and wet, and frustrated at the lack of progress I was making. By the time I reached Metz, around 10:30am, I was really in need of a stop to eat and chill out for a little while. I saw another McDonalds (they seem to be strategically placed just where I want them!), so pulled in and it had just opened, but at least they serve the breakfast muffins all day. With my stomach no longer rumbling and my cafeine deficiency attended to, I got back out on the road as the rain finally eased back to drizzle.
My route had been chosen to avoid the motorways and toll roads, but it was taking too long to cover any real distance and the riding wasn't great (long straight sections between villages, followed by a 30-50kph crawl through them), so I changed the route and selected motorways. I therefore joined the A26 north of Reims and this took was much better - I set the cruise control to 145kph and turned my music on and the sun came out and all was well with the world again. A couple of stops for fuel were all that was needed to dispatch the rest of the Km and I arrived in Coquelles (near the tunnel) and my Formule-1 hotel just after 5pm. Not a great last day's riding on the Continent, but it got better as the weather improved. The forecast for tomorrow isn't great, and the traffic in England is far worse than here, but I'll be on the last leg of my journey and I'm looking forward to it.
After posting the blog last night I walked across the street to a new restaurant called Poivre Rouge (Red Pepper) that's opened up since I last stayed here. It's part of a French chain and serves mostly steaks and burgers, which sounded good to me, especially as it wasn't very far to walk. I ordered a pint of 1664 and a fillet steak cooked medium rare with a jacket potato and some green beans. The beer was great, the steak average and vastly undercooked, with part of it raw and cold. But it was enough to fill me up, especially when followed by a chocolate ice-cream dessert.
I slept fairly well, apart from a weird dream that I can't recall now but had me confused when I woke up until I
realised where I was. Waking just before my alarm which was set for 6am, I showered and dressed in my bike gear then
loaded up the bike for the last time before riding around to a petrol station to use up some of my remaining euros. With
the bike full of fuel I rode around to the tunnel check-in queue and then to UK Border Control, where the young woman
checked my passport and asked me to remove my helmet so she could check it was me. I said how nice it was to hear an
English accent after 11 weeks on the road, which we then got chatting about, before she said the words I'd been hoping
Well, Welcome Home, Mr Beattie!. That made my day!
Waiting to board the train was another biker on a very heavily loaded GS - panniers with bags on top, large topbox with bag on top and a large rollbag on the pillion seat. We got chatting and he said he'd been away for 2 weeks riding around the Pyrenees and looking at his bike I didn't feel so bad about all the luggage I had.
Before arriving back in the UK I changed the settings on my bike back to Miles instead of Kilometers, something that would help me remember to ride on the left side of the road. It wasn't long before I was riding along and out of the train and back onto British roads for the first time in over 10 weeks. The first stretch of M20 from the tunnel, lasting for at least 20 miles, has been reduced by 2 full lanes which are separated by barriers, I suspect in preparation for the border chaos that Brexit is going to bring. With a 50mph speed limit and average speed cameras it was a dull reintroduction to riding back in England. I stopped for a brew at Bishop's Stortford, where I posted a picture of the brew on Facebook - and no sooner had I done so than Simon rang me to welcome me home (I last saw him in Montenegro). After enjoying my brew I got back on the road and continued my journey north via the M11/A1/M62 all the way home. I stopped once more for fuel and sent a text to Tracy to let her know my eta, then called just before arriving to ensure she'd received it. She said she was just going to pick up Quaid so there was a chance she might not be home, but as I arrived she was just heading up the steps into the house, and no sooner had I parked the bike on the drive and clambered off than she was giving me a big welcome home hug. Perfect!
Arriving home after a long trip away, or any holiday, is always a busy time, as first I had to sort out my gear and put a load of washing on, then I needed to air my sleeping bag, clean the bike (which was really filthy again) and check it all over, then I changed the rear brake pads. If you recall, the BMW dealer in Istanbul told me they needed replacing when they did the service, some 7,000 miles ago. Well, if you look at the picture below you will see that there is still plenty of pad material left on them even now, but I've changed them this time as the bike is due to go to Williams for another service next Wednesday and I don't want them charging me for new pads when I already have some (that I've carried all the way round Europe!). With my chores done I finally got chance to sit down with Tracy, only she's now got up to go and make me a curry - I suggested a takeaway, but neither of us has any cash!
And so my big European Adventure is over. It's been a great experience and over the next few days I'll be looking back over it and reflecting on the many memories I've created. I was away for a total of 73 days, just over 10 weeks, and it seems a lot longer. I covered 10,849 miles and my bike now has 13,318 miles on it, which isn't bad considering it was new on 1st March this year. My bike and GPS records other interesting statistics, such as my overall average speed over those miles was 11 mph, my fuel economy was 54.3 mpg, I made 18,236 turns and used the front brakes 19,883 times and the rear brake 21,803 times (but not enough to wear the pads out!). The lowest temperature was -1 degrees and the maximum 38 degrees. But perhaps the most intreguing stats are the lean angles - to the left my maximum lean was 45degrees and to the right 40degrees. Which means either there were better corners going left or I prefer left-hand bends (the latter seems more likely!). I also took 1,904 photos with my camera, so be thankful that I didn't post them all on the blog!
I will continue to post the blog over the coming weeks, but not as frequently as life gets back to normal and there's less new stuff to write about. In late September I'm heading off on the bike to Morocco with my friends from Globebusters (as a customer, not a guide, so I can write about what happens!), so that will be the next major travel event. Then Tracy and I fly to Australia for 3 months on the 20th October, which we're both really looking forward to. I hope you've enjoyed reading about my travel as much as I've enjoyed writing about them.