Crossroads

6 Dec

It’s been a while since we updated y’all on our comings and goings. As we unwind after a challenging few months on the road and try to decide where we’d like to settle, we’ve been enjoying warm hospitality with Joep and Liesbeth in Holland, and we’ve also spent some time with Christian and Michelle in London over the last couple of weeks. Both parties are doing a great job of marketing their respective territories!

Haring!

Dinosaurs in Crystal Palace

The truth is that right now we don’t really know where we want to be or what we want to do. After travelling for so long, we’re equally parts anxious to get stuck in to ‘real life’ again, and unsure of what we want to do next. We do know we want to continue to travel through Europe, and there’s so much more to explore, but we need to find work to finance this folly.

It seems that no sooner do we agree on a plan and start enacting it than we take a complete 180 degree turn and start following an alternative. We were set on living in Holland and immersing ourselves in Nederland-life – the idea of living in a smaller city, cycling around, and learning to speak fluent Dutch really appeals to us – but the paperwork required for me to get a residence and work permit is a hurdle. And because we’re living in a smaller town at the moment, we haven’t had much opportunity to find ‘our people’.

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Appel gebak and koffie!

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Pannekoeken

On the other hand, London has lots more work opportunities and it’s a relatively straight-forward (and inexpensive!) process for me to get legal for work. And we have loads of friends there who can help us get established. But I have a mental block about London. It’s silly, but in my head, I wasn’t going on an overseas adventure to end up living in London with however many other New Zealanders. We were kind of decided on London, and then we landed back in Schiphol and promptly started reconsidering Holland again!

And of course, Stockholm has lots of things going for it too!

We know that we can make what we want of our lives, regardless of where we leave our figurative hats. We lived in Hamilton for years, for goodness sake! We just need to decide where the best place for us is right now, and commit to it.

We’re waiting to hear back about some jobs in London, and I’m trying out for London Roller Girls derby league, so I guess if those things come together the decision will be made for us.

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As an aside, it snowed this morning! For about five minutes anyway… but it was really exciting for the short time it lasted.

Day 156-157: The End of the Road

30 Oct

We left Koln on Monday morning, knowing that it would be our last day on the road. While we were elated that we could soon give each other a huge high five, it was bittersweet. We knew it was going to be strange to stop and stay still for a while, as we figure out what to do next.

You’ve probably seen that north-west Europe was hit by a big storm on Monday. And that’s what we were riding in. The wind was nuts, with gusts that test even a Wellington motorcyclist. But we pressed on, knowing that we would have a warm place at the end of the day. Later we saw on TV that the storm brought down trees and disrupted public transport all over the country, and even caused some fatalities in Amsterdam as trees landed on people.

Postponing our arrival just a little longer, made a detour to Essen to visit Edelweiss motorsports, a company that specialises in tuning BMWs like ours to get the best out of them. Dirk is a really enthusiastic guy, with such obvious passion for these bikes and what they’re capable of.

We crossed the border into Holland, and shortly afterwards pulled up to our surrogate home in Nunspeet with Igor’s extended family. Joep and Liesbeth are on vacation at the moment, but their son JP and his wife Mirella welcomed us with open arms (and delicious Indonesian food!)

It’s going to take a while for us to work out what we want to do next. It would be easy to slot back into ‘ordinary’ life, but we both know we are different people to those who set off over 5 months ago (although one of us still has a thing for shoes and roller derby…). We’re not sure where we’ll settle yet, or even if we will settle. For now, we’re doing laundry, giving the bike a thorough check-up and looking at work opportunities through contacts we’ve made along the way.

We’ve become a really tight unit, able to sustain days in a row in constant company of only each other. We always said that if we made it here still married, we’d be together for life. And here we are.

Thanks for sharing the ride with us.

x

Stay tuned for our potential new expat blog – Oranje is the new Black.

Day 152-155: Travellers Meeting in Germany

30 Oct

Thursday seems so long ago now…

After a really comfortable few days visiting with Michael in Bensheim, it was time to say goodbye. We packed up all our belongings and got the bike ready to ride to the Horizons Unlimited traveller meeting. And just as we were about to pull out of the driveway, we noticed some oil dripping. We have a slow leak where a bolt for the oil filter cover has been stripped, and under pressure we sometimes get a drip. It’s been like this since Svobodny, way back in early June, and Igor just keeps adjusting and tightening it whenever it starts leaking. There’s next to no thread left, and we know we’re going to have to get it fixed, but we just had to make it last a few more hundred kilometres…

It’s only about 20km to the site for the Horizons Unlimited meeting, so we were there nice and early, with our pick of camping spots.

We spent the rest of Thursday chatting with other travellers, admiring each other’s bikes and set-ups, and telling stories from the road. There were people there on shiny new bikes, side-cars, bikes with interesting tuning, a few older BMWs like ours, and even a couple of bikes that had been converted to diesel. Everyone had interesting stories to tell about why they travel by motorcycle.

Only after introducing ourselves and relaying our route a few times did we realise that we’d actually come quite a long way, and that what has become relatively normal to us is still brave and adventurous to many others. While there were lots of people who’d ridden interesting trails across the world, few had chucked in their job, packed up their life, and headed off with a one-way ticket. Despite that, we still feel like novices in this motorcycle travelling thing.

On Friday, we woke to learn we were being billed as the closing act for the meeting. Eek! We were scheduled to present for an hour on Saturday night. Now that the pressure was on, we spent some time thinking over how we might tell our story in an engaging way. There were other people making presentations about their travels through Russia, Mongolia, the Silk Road and the Balkans, so we were painfully aware that we didn’t want to bore people by covering the same material and doing a ‘then we went here’ kind of presentation. We agreed that the thing that has really stuck with us is the incredible warmth of strangers and the generosity of spirit we’ve encountered absolutely everywhere. You’ve probably noticed that we’ve had people sign our panniers as we’ve travelled, and we decided to tell the stories of those people who’ve left messages on our luggage.

With some kind of plan in mind, we headed out on a ride with a bunch of other travellers, winding through beautiful autumn landscapes as a BMW gang.

Autumn

Taking the long way

It turns out that even the Germans have traffic management problems sometimes….

We visited the NSU Museum in Neckarsulm. There were hundreds of bikes on display, from 1885 right through to some of the newest innovations.

Igor salivated over many, but the BMW Paris-Dakar rally bike stole his heart.

True Love.

The dream bike.

Human scale – this is a tiny motorcycle with a side-car. Maybe for monkeys?

These bikes were ridden by a father and son in the ’50s. Amazing to think they did it all without google!

Much of Saturday was spent trying to filter down our thousands of photos into a selection that made narrative sense, as well as adding to what people had already seen in previous presentations over the weekend. We figured we’d wing the story-telling part of it… and it went really really well. People seemed to thoroughly enjoy our tales, and we feel like we did a pretty good job as a presenting team. (I guess 15 years of making sales pitches comes in handy sometimes!).

Afterwards, we have lots of offers of places to stay, workshops where we can service the bike, and suggestions on where we may be able to find work. We are overwhelmed yet again by the incredible generosity extended to us by the motorcycling community. It’s very humbling.

It’s a long way when you look at it like this!

Saturday night was a late one involving yet more story-telling and wine-drinking, cut short only by an intense lightning storm and heavy rain. Come Sunday morning, we pack up, but we’re interrupted every few minutes by another traveller who’s offering a bed, a place to service the bike, and even a potential job opportunity. We’re so grateful to everyone for the way they’ve welcomed us. We’d love to take up every offer if we hang around in Europe for a while.

Over the weekend, we met Claudia and Werner, a German couple who’ve just returned home after being on the road for about 7 years. They’re heading in our direction so we decided to ride with them. We’d intended to ride straight to the Netherlands from there, but rain and sightseeing made our trip a little slower. Near Koln we said goodbye and Werner and Claudia headed on to their home. For now. They’ll be off again soon enough.

Following the Rhine – fairytale castles and Hansel and Gretel houses along the river’s edge.

PS: We’ve discovered that Comic Sans is popular in Germany, which I have to admit is tainting our otherwise very positive experience here…

Day 145-151: From Italy to Switzerland and on to Germany

23 Oct

Another milestone day – it’s exactly 5 months since we flew out of Auckland.

And apologies for the delayed posting here…. we’ve been kinda busy enjoying amazing hospitality and spending time with great people over the last week. But let’s reprise from when we left Monselice in Italy last Thursday.

Leaving the Venetian Hostel

Setting off for Milano, we took a scenic ride around Lake Garda in northern Italy. On the eastern shore, we were flanked by vineyards.

Castle

Near Verona

Castle near Verona

Eastern shore of Lake Garda

We noticed that there were quite a few sports bikes on the road and parked up at cafes. When we filled up at a service station and sat around drinking coffee for a while, it seemed unusual to us that none of the other bikers there made any contact with us at all. They all had shiny bikes and spotless leather suits.

At the top of the lake, we stopped at a lookout to take some pictures and have a snack. There was one biker there already, reclining on the park bench in his red, white and black Alpine Star race suit. We tried to make eye contact a few times, but he didn’t seem interested. Fair enough, I guess.

Sports bike

Resting

The jaw-dropping view

As we sat and enjoyed the view, lots of other people stopped in to snap a photo. A van-load of Russian tourists spilled out, and they seemed amazed to see the messages on our panniers written in Cyrillic. “Nova Zealandya!”, exclaimed one… and then when I replied in Russian she came over to talk to us about our trip, relaying our route to the others in her group. After shaking our hands and wishing us well, they were off. But the other guy still didn’t care.

We continued on down to Riva de Garda – which appeared like an Italian version of Queenstown – and then down the western shore. The views were breathtaking, as we rode in and out of tunnels, stealing glimpses of the lake through gaps in the walls. Restaurants and hotels dot the shoreline, and there were loads of sailing boats out on the water.

Tunnel with a view

Lake Garda shoreline

We entrusted the GPS to take us to the Nannini’s country house, about 30km out of Milano. It’s a lovely house, tucked away in a small village. The area reminded us a lot of the Waikato. It’s flat and foggy, and largely used to farm dairy cows. Giulia and her father Sergio gave us such a warm welcome, and we thoroughly enjoyed their company over the two days we spent with them. Not to mention the incredible cheese, coffee, gelato and wine.

Friday was my birthday. Giulia and Sergio spent the day showing us around the nearby town of Lodi and then the heart of Milano. Within a small radius, you can experience the Duomo di Milano, see Leonardo da Vinci’s paper sketches for inventions and gaze upon The Last Supper, watch people pose for photos outside the Prada store and stroll past La Scala.

In Lodi

Lodi has a large bicycle culture

Art Nouveau in Lodi

Gelato testing

in Milano

Duomi de Milano – a huge Gothic church in the centre of the city. The crypt contains the body of a saint, complete with a creepy death mask.

It’s good luck to stand on this bull and turn 360 degrees on your right heel.

Leonardo da Vinci and friend

Oh, and how we ate! Sergio took us to his favourite shop in Milano. It’s a gourmet food-store called Peck. I love Moore Wilsons, but this was on another level entirely. We were agape at the delicacies on offer. Sergio ordered a bunch of things for dinner, and we searched the wine cellar for a bottle of NZ pinot noir.

Perusing the selection

Sergio makes his choice.

These wines are in 1.5L bottles and were about E300. Eeek. But tempting… how good could E300 wine taste?

We spent the evening eating more cheese than is probably sensible* and enjoying many glasses of wine. A great way to celebrate turning 36.

Giulia had fond memories of the traditional Sunday pancakes at the de Borst’s place from her time in New Zealand, so we whipped up a batch on Saturday morning. Sorry Rob, I don’t think ours were as good as yours. And then it was time for us to move on again. We were reminded of a Russian saying we’d been told by Anya in Svobodny: “thank you for your home, but now we must go to another home”.

We generally try to avoid highways. They’re great for getting you from point A to point B, but you don’t really see anything along the way, and for us, that’s the point of this trip. It takes longer, but it’s ultimately more enjoyable to wind your way through towns and villages. So we took a series of secondary roads through Italy, heading to the Simplonpass that connects Italy to Switzerland.

A few hours in, we decided to stop for our last Italian pizza in a town called Arona on the shores of Lake Maggiore. We saw a few bikes parked up near a pizzeria, so figured that would suit us just fine. No sooner had we sat down than 20-30 bikes rolled in in twos and threes…. all shiny and clean and ridden by people wearing spotless leather suits. It turns out this is quite the place to go on a ride of a Sat’dy. Very few of the bikers paid any attention to Battle Panda, until an older guy on a 1950s Ducati stopped Igor to congratulate him. He spoke no English, and Igor no Italian, but they managed to show appreciation for each other’s bikes and share tales. Some other riders started to show interest when they heard how far we’d travelled.

Ducati

Parking lot

We reached Simplonpass late in the afternoon and crossed into Switzerland. It’s a mountain pass at over 2000m, and it was chilly up there! Snow has already started to pile up on the side of the road, and as the sun dipped behind the hills we were glad to have our heated hand grips.

Top of the Simplonpass

Chalet near the pass

We’d intended to avoid the highway in Switzerland and continue on along back roads to Vilars-Burquin, where Igor’s uncle and aunt live. It’s between Lausanne and Neuchatel, near the French border. It’s only around 200km from the border, but we soon found that it was taking longer than we had planned and sunset was looming (we avoid riding in the dark whenever possible) – so we rode the highway. In Switzerland, you need to buy a vignette to use the highways. It’s about E35, and you can only buy it for a 12 month period. As we were only planning to be in the country a few days and our finances are dwindling, we chanced it, hoping that we wouldn’t be stopped and fined 200 Swiss Francs for the infringement. We were very pleased to exit the highway near Eric and Marianne’s place without incident!

Lake Geneva

Over the rest of the weekend, we spent time catching up with some of the de Borst family – it’s been way too long! We feasted on Swiss food and wine, and did our best to cover what’s happened in the five years since we saw everyone last.

Eric and Marianne prepare dinner

Morgan, Nicole, Igor, Eric, Marianne, Penny, Raphael and Elise

On Monday, we woke to drizzle and threatening clouds that made the idea of riding unappealing, especially compared with the luxurious surroundings we’d been enjoying. It seemed to clear around 10am, so we took the opportunity to get on the road.

Whenever we’ve met Swiss people on the road, we’ve been perplexed as to what the letters CH mean on their number plates. While visiting Igor’s cousin Nicole, we finally worked out that it’s the Confederation of Helvetia… not Schweiss like we’d thought!

Now that we are in Europe, we’ve noticed a more village-to-village layout. In other countries, as in New Zealand, towns are spaced out by a considerable distance, but in these lands that have been populated for so long and so densely we find ourselves leaving one picturesque village and immediately entering the next. It’s a lovely ride to pick your way through… but unfortunately for us, the weather didn’t hold, and before long we were riding in the rain.

Our friend Michael (from the side-car in Bulgaria) is back in Germany for a couple of weeks, and invited us to stay with him near Frankfurt. He’d also suggested a nice ride through the Black Forest and some camping spots along the way to his place, but looking out at the rain, we decided to go directly to his home in Bensheim instead. Of course, as soon as we passed the turn off for the Black Forest route, the weather cleared up and we were dry by the time we arrived after a 420km ride.

Michael’s indulged our gastronomic whims further – taking us out for a traditional German meal of schnitzel and kochkaese (cooked cheese), and then last night Indian. We’ve really missed curries!

We have come to the realisation that we really are in Europe now. It’s seemed a bit like a short dip into civilisation up to now, that each time we were somewhere with a big supermarket or a nice restaurant we had to take advantage of it, not knowing when we’d next get the opportunity, but we are slowly getting used to having everything available to us, being able to communicate easily, a currency that makes sense and the proximity of everything in this region. We are now just 500km from our destination in Nunspeet, the Netherlands.

The other day we were talking about how exciting it was going to be to open our suitcases – but then it occurred to us that we can’t even remember what’s in them. We’ve lived so long now with limited possessions that it’s hard to imagine what we thought was so important that we had to have it sent over. I’ll be super-pleased to be reunited with my skates of course, and we’ll both be glad to have some different (not adventure/outdoor) clothes to wear, but there’s not really that much that we’ve missed. I guess that will change when we return to the normality of urban life. There’s no way you’ll see me in that fleece jacket on the high street, even if I’ve become used to it on the road.

This weekend, there’s an adventure travellers’ meeting about 20km from Michael’s place. It’s organised by Horizons Unlimited, which is a website/forum that we used a lot while planning this trip and also on the road. They have speakers talking about various trips they’ve done, or giving advice for other people planning their adventure. We’ve been asked to speak at the meeting, so our arrival in the Netherlands has been postponed by a few days. We are eager to get to Holland, but it also seems very fitting to round off our big trip by going to this biker meeting. We’ve been putting together a brief session on where we’ve been and people we’ve met, and it’s just dawned on us how far we’ve been and how much we’ve seen. And how lucky we are to have the opportunity to do this, when so many others can only dream of it.

*A special rundown for the Cheesepocalypse crew – we had mascarpone sandwiched between two layers of brie, and peppered with slices of white truffle. OMG.

Day 143-144 – So close now!

17 Oct

View from our apartment in Split

Igor surveys the city

When we left Split on Monday morning, it was a perfect autumn day. Crisp, clear and sunny. But as we rode north along the coastline of Croatia, foreboding dark clouds developed around us. We kept a watchful eye on the sky, but it seemed to be clear around us, and rainy on the horizon all around.

Rolling in

Eventually the rain caught up with us, and when it did, it came pouring down. We felt the telltale ‘ping’ of heavy drops hitting our helmets, and didn’t even have time to say “let’s head for cover” before the heavens gave us everything they had. Lightning flashed in the sky, and thunder followed all too closely after it. Within a minute, we were both completely soaked through our riding gear. We pulled in under a tree, but it offered very little protection – and we didn’t like the idea of being under a tree in a lightning storm. We continued on and found a tourist apartment building that was closed up for the winter that had a large verandah where we could shelter. We were thoroughly saturated. We got off the bike, and rivers of water ran off the end of our jackets and gloves. (Our feet were the only thing that was dry – these Sidi boots are a-mazing!) Water was gushing down the hillsides, overflowing the drains, and pooling on the road surface.

And then just as suddenly as it started, the rain eased. We peered out and saw the menacing black clouds heading south at a rapid speed. It was still raining lightly, but we figured we couldn’t get any wetter so we may as well get on the road while we had a reprieve.

Hilltop ruin

We decided to ride on to Senj, a coastal town another 80km on. We had researched a few accommodation options there, and knew that the town was at least open for business. An hour or so later, we rolled into town, soaked to the skin, and ready to call it a day. At least the rain had stopped. We followed our GPS navigation to the apartment we’d looked up, but there was no-one there. We eventually used the wi-fi at a pizza restaurant to book the room and get in contact with the owners. All the while, we were being followed by a guy touting tourist accommodation, insisting that we should look at his place. At one stage he got in his car and followed us. Kinda weird, but you have to give him credit for trying!

Fishing boats in Senj

We relished the comfort of our modern apartment. We peeled off our wet clothes and set them out to dry (oh my there’s a lot of stuff in my jacket pockets!), took long hot showers, made dinner and mooched about for the evening.

As we packed in the morning, we noticed dark shapes forming on the horizon. It didn’t look good. We waited a little longer, and the weather didn’t seem to get any worse, so we hit the road. We rode through Wellington-style wind up the coastline for a while but then everything cleared and we were back to the really pleasant autumn weather we’d been enjoying in the Balkans.

View from our apartment in Senj

Nek minnit…

And before we knew it, we were nearly out of Croatia. We still had kuna in our pocket, so we spent our last currency at the gas station near the border. We ate sandwiches and croissants, drank coffee, and bought water and treats for the road, doing our best to spend everything we had left.

Service-station feast

1km down the road, there’s a toll booth. And we have no Croatian currency left. Oh the irony! Fortunately they let us pay in euro cents.

We left Croatia and crossed into Slovenia without any mention of insurance or bike paperwork. And shortly after that, we rode past a sign saying “Italia”. That’s it then – we’re in Europe proper! No more border crossings or paperwork, and no more stamps in our passports.

Slovenia

There’s not much difference in the landscape or the houses we see from the road. But everything is faster. And more expensive. The motorway system is huge and trucks and cars fly along at 110km. We haven’t been on a motorway for so long – it feels weird to be hurtling along in a straight line, not able to take in the surroundings. Not that there’s much to see when either side of you is large trucks and motorway walls. We had already decided that we’d try to stay off the motorways in Europe, but today we wanted to cover some distance and figured it would be faster and more direct to take the motorway from Trieste to Venezia.

It’s disconcerting to be on the motorway, speeding past Venice. There’s not even a clue of what lies just a few kilometres from this gargantuan road system.

When we were in Italy last time, we used the town of Monselice as a base from which to visit Venice. We decided to revisit the Venetian Hostel, where we’d spent a couple of nights with Igor’s sister and her husband five years ago. The place felt instantly familiar – we remembered how to get there and the layout of the hotel, where the restaurants are, and the bank machine that threatened to swallow Loretta’s ATM card. It’s like we were here not so long ago. And yet everything is different. The town is busier, everything seems more expensive, and this time, we’re not on holiday. Caught up in the excitement of achieving another milestone, we splurged on a really nice meal and a bottle of wine – we’ll call it an early birthday celebration.

From here on in, we’re in largely familiar territory. Had we more time, we’d explore the region, but we are keen to get to Nunspeet by the end of next week and as we intend to live in Europe for a while, we hope we can travel more extensively in the future. Today we’ll go to Milan, where we will visit Giulia and her family. Giulia lived with Igor’s parents as an exchange student a few years ago. She’s going to show us around the city tomorrow – spend my birthday in Milan? Don’t mind if I do! – and then we’ll ride on to visit friends and family in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.

Our suitcases – and my skates – have arrived at Joep & Liesbeth’s place! I can’t wait to ditch the Icebreaker for a dress. And some tights. And some nice shoes. And a haircut would be good…

 

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Day 141-142: More of the Balkans

14 Oct

After bidding ‘auf Wiedersen’ to Sr Christina, Sr Micheala, Tamara and Michael, we rode the short distance to Albanian-Montenegran border.

It’s actually just one border – the first window is Albania, then you move along 2 metres to the Montenegran side. While we’d got away without buying additional insurance on our first entry into Montenegro, this time we were compelled to buy cover. We protested that we were only intending to be in the country for a matter of hours, but this time there was no getting out of it. We got 15 days cover for E10.

The mountain road we took from Serbia was breathtaking, but the coastal route through Montenegro to Croatia was something else again. Who’d have guessed Montenegro has such an incredible coastline? All afternoon we wound through hills and valleys and at every turn we were greeted by views of idyllic beachside settlements, increasingly dominated by resorts and luxury residences.

Montenegran Riviera

We exited Montenegro without any trouble at all. But getting into Croatia… another story. Our green card insurance had the HR for Croatia crossed out, but as we understood it, the form the Bulgarians had used was old, and didn’t account for Croatia’s recent acceptance into the EU. The green card by nature covers all EU nations, so it should be valid in Croatia regardless. Unfortunately, while the border officials understood our argument and sympathised with us, they could not let us into the country without purchasing further insurance. Oh, and you can’t just get it for Croatia (which is what we’d done in Montenegro), you have to buy it for all of the EU. And it’s E90.

We said “screw that, Croatia” (just in our heads so we didn’t incur the wrath of the border officials wielding pistols, mind you), turned around and went back into Montenegro. That’s our third trip into this tiny nation in four days. We assessed our options:
1) catch an overnight ferry from Montenegro to Italy for about E160 – a solid plan, but as it’s the low season the ferries are only going twice a week and only to an inconvenient port in southern Italy. While we liked the sound of it, it just didn’t make sense logistically to end up 200km further away from our destination.
2) go back to the border with our tail between our legs and cough up for the insurance. Not our favoured option.
3) spend the night in Montenegro and in the morning try a very small border crossing about 5km away and hope they don’t check our paperwork too carefully.

Option 3 worked a treat!

We found a reasonably priced apartment for the night in the nearby seaside town and parked up for the night. It’s low season, so there’s plenty of accommodation available for about E25 a night. On a side note, the owner told us that Michael Schumacher and Naomi Campbell own property around here, along with a bunch of Brits and Russians… apparently your pound/euro/ruble buys a lot in this very young and as-yet under-exploited nation.

In the morning, we rode to the border at Granitca-Konfin. The border officer in Montenegro checked our insurance and stamped us out, and on the Croatian side they asked for our bike papers and green card. We duly handed them over – she looked through the papers, handed them back, stamped our passports and waved us through. Telepathic high five!

The Croatian countryside was a continuation of the beautiful scenery we’d experienced yesterday The buildings and gardens here would be right at home on the Italian coast.

‘The riviera’

Croatia

Narrow tree-lined streets in Croatia

It’s hard to imagine that these similar seeming nations have been bitter enemies in very recent history. I’m utterly confused by the machinations of the Balkan Wars in the 90s and the various ethnic allegiances, but it’s something I really want to get to grips with – in each of the Balkan states we’ve seen great outpourings of national pride, verging on nationalism, and disdain for people of one or other of the neighbouring countries.

Later this morning, we stopped in Dubrovnik but we were run out of town by the hordes of middle aged British and American tourists. The old part of the city is walled, and is reminiscent of the meandering alleys of Venice. It suffered great damage in the Balkan Wars. At every turn we were met by an oncoming tour group, and every narrow street was blocked by a huddle of bewildered looking tourists. We spent an hour or so wandering the Old Town and taking in the restoration that has taken place since the city was sieged by Serbians and Montenegrans in 1991-2, but then we had to escape.

Dubrovnik

Wandering Dubrovnik

Busker (but he only played one riff over and over and over and over…)

We then travelled on to Split, further north up the coast. En route, we briefly crossed into Bosnia. By briefly, I mean 8 minutes. It’s just a weird little stretch of road that gives Bosnia access to the coastline, we presume.

Small islands off the coast

Picnic lunch in a tiny seaside village. All the houses seemed shut up for the winter, but we’re still enjoying warm days in the mid-20s.

We arrived in Split at our typical rush-hour time, and searched the city for a while for a likely hostel or apartment. Evenutally we tound one, and discovered that the guy next door is Australian. Of course. We’ve settled in for a night of MTV, a bottle of red wine and a packet risotto.

Day 137 – 140: The Balkans: Part 1

12 Oct

We’ve spent so long riding across vast lands like Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey that it’s now very strange to be travelling through countries more akin to New Zealand in size. Everything is a completely different scale on the map. What used to be 1000km on our GPS screen is now more like 200km. It takes a while to adjust to working out how long it will take us to traverse these small nations.

The moto-camp gang

Fuuzal is ready to go

Shalom and the replacement bearings.

On Wednesday, we had a fond farewell at the moto-camp. Most of the expats we’d met came by to say goodbye to Michael, Tamara and Team Battle Panda. We then followed Michael and Tamara toward the western border near Sofia, where we would cross into Serbia. The orange and white sidecar turns heads everywhere – its highly amusing to follow behind and watch people stop dead in their tracks as this unusual machine and its cargo of people and dogs whizzes by.

It’s also a great tactic for avoiding the attention of border officers and roadside police – all the attention is directed at the KTM. We’re just not that interesting by comparison.

We crossed into Serbia late in the afternoon. We were a little worried that our ‘green card’ insurance cover may not cover us in Serbia. ‘Green card’ third party insurance is compulsory throughout Europe. We’d bought one month of coverage at the border when we crossed Bulgaria, but had since discovered that there are different types of insurance that cover different countries. Upon close inspection, it appears that ours does not cover Montenegro, disputed territory in Serbia, Albania and maybe not Croatia – although we will argue that as an EU member nation, Croatia should be included as a matter of course. We will buy additional.insurance if we have to, but from most accounts it doesn’t give you much in the way of cover anyway so it’s largely a bureaucratic formality.

At the Serbian border the official simply took our passports and stamped them – and added that Igor was a good Yugoslavian name – and waved us through. No questions, no bike documents, no insurance.

I was a little nervous about travelling through Serbia, as all I knew about the country was headlines from the bitter war in the 90s. But from all we saw, it seems those days are far behind. Sure, there’s places where the legacy of destruction is visible, but for the most part it’s just like every other developing economy we’ve seen on our travels.

Serbian countryside

Farmhouses

Michael rescues a caterpillar

Back to the Future – we’ve arrived in the European timezone

We rode in convoy to Nis, a city about 100km from the border, where we found a hotel for the night. I was surprised that travelling with dogs and taking them into hotels hasn’t been an issue for Michael and Tamara so far – I’m pretty sure in New Zealand there’d be no way you could take two dogs into your hotel room, no matter how small, clean and quiet they are.

In the morning, we visited Skull Tower – a gruesome reminder of past tensions between the ruling Turks and Serbian people striving for independence. 952 Serbian soldiers were killed in an unsuccessful uprising, and the Turks constructed a tower from their heads as a gesture of their power.

As if the place wasn’t eerie enough, it was enhanced greatly by the creepy lady who ‘guided’ us through. “Don’t close the door.” she said, as we entered. She then rattled off the story of the tower, in a robotic Slavic tone that we had to strain to understand. “You can take picture now”. Then about 3 minutes later, *cough cough*. Time for us to move on, I guess.

Creepy skulls

Getting up close with Yorick

I think this is when we decided that the situation could very easily be the opening scene from a horror film.

At the border entering Serbia we’d decided to bypass purchasing a permit to use the motorways, and had only converted a minimal amount of Euros into the local currency of Dinah. That meant that we had to use the secondary roads, and we had only enough money on us for breakfast – so we had to ride on to Montenegro that same day. We were pretty sure our insurance wouldn’t cover us for Kosovo, so we steered clear of that area too. Our indirect route took us through small villages and lesser used roads. It was only 250km, but it took most of the day.

By 5pm we were in Montenegro. We again followed the Germans across the border and again just slid through without our paperwork being checked. The dogs provide a fantastic distraction and we’ve discovered that border guards like to autograph our bike too, so we gladly obliged.

Montenegro is a very small nation – so small in fact that it doesn’t have its own currency, but uses Euro despite not being an EU member. Our brains have become well practiced at converting local currency to Euro and then to New Zealand dollars, but working with Euro just makes things so much easier!

It turns out dogs are not so welcome in hotels in Montenegro as they are in other countries. Michael and Tamara made their case, but the hotel manager wasn’t convinced. Fortunately, another hotel guest came by – she’s Croatian and also travelling by bike – and convinced him to allow the dogs in. It cost an extra E12 and a block of chocolate.

We found Montenegro to be a real gem of a country – friendly people, lots of interesting roads, plenty of nature to be explored, and pretty cheap accommodation and food. Autumn is stunning here – trees are every shade of gold and red.

Avoiding the highway across the country, we took some beautiful mountain roads, winding up past farm houses and places where traditional farmers once grazed their stock over the summer months, setting up camp in the mountains.

Looking out across the farmland

Beautiful autumnal scenery

Here comes the KTM (you hear it about two minutes before you see it… it often sets off car alarms!)

Less than 24 hours after arriving in Montenegro, we crossed into Albania. The border guard in Montenegro pointed out that our insurance wasn’t valid, to which we responded in naive suprise. On the Albanian side, they just stamped our passports, checked our bike registration document and waved us through. No need for insurance…

Michael and Tamara are spending the winter at a monastery in Schkoder, in Northern Albania. They visited on their way through to Bulgaria, and felt a real affinity with the work being done here. After spending so long in Bulgaria, they’v decided to park up for the winter and resume their travel in spring. So for the next five months they’ll work here in exchange for board. We’ve joined them for a couple of nights, before we say goodbye and head north for Croatia.

The two nuns, Sister Cristina and Sister Michaela, run a kindergarten and drop-in/emergency medical clinic as well as caring for two disabled children. With their training as a vet and a physiotherapist, Michael and Tamara bring much appreciated experience and skill to the clinic. The nuns are so far from the stereotypical image – they are animated speakers (even though we don’t understand Swiss German), Sr Cristina has a Swiss Army knife in the pocket of her habit, and they make many jokes at the dinner table. They’ve welcomed us into their home, despite our heathen ways.

We’ve learned many disturbing things about the current state of affairs in Albania, ranging from ‘blood revenge’ family feuds that span generations to systematic abuse of women to a woefully corrupt medical system and a political structure that insists on playing ostrich and focuses instead on wooing the EU. There’s even a published book of the kanun, the common law that governs how all crime and retribution should be dealt with.

I’m constantly reminded that there’s so much more beneath the surface, and you just don’t see it if you pass through a country and check into hotels in the cities on a brief overnight stop. Ideally, we’d spend much more time getting under the skin of the Balkan nations, but we are up against deteriorating weather and a bank balance that looks no better, so we need to press on to our end-destination.

Hitting the Road Again!

9 Oct

Our bearings arrived courtesy of a fellow traveller. Shalom’s riding a newer GS and they share these same parts. He was carrying a spare set. Hurrah!

He very kindly let us use his spares, so that we could get to work reassembling Battle Panda.

It turns out it’s quite time consuming to refurbish the universal joints in the driveshaft without a press or vice. The pivot bearings – easy. But by late Monday night, our bike was back on its wheels.

As fate would have it, the parts we’d ordered arrived yesterday morning. The timing worked out perfectly, as Shalom is leaving today.

In the meantime, another couple arrived on GSs, so we decided to ride as a group yesterday. We terrorised many a small village as our unlikely MC gang rode through – three modern BMWs, us, and the KTM sidecar.

The back road

Village

The sidecar

We visited an amazing monument high in the hills. Once a symbol of the greatness of Communism, it’s now fittingly derelict.

The front entrance long ago sealed off, to get inside you crawl up through a small opening in one of the walls.

And then you gape in awe at what remains of an opulent monument, built at a time when Bulgaria struggled to feed its people.

It’s an equally creepy and enthralling place.

Michael’s composed an impressive panoramic view of the interior: http://www.travelnaid.de/Bulgarien-Busludscha.html

The approach

Outside

Sizing up our options

Climbing in

Mosaics

Detail

Taking in the view

Water drips from the ‘ceiling’ as the ice melts

More mosaics

Detail of the tower

Today we are leaving the motocamp. As much as we are itching to get back on the road, we will be sad to say goodbye to our new friends.

We’ll ride with Michael and Tamara through Serbia and Montenegro on to Albania, where we’ll spend a couple of nights with them at the monastery where they are going to volunteer over the winter. It feels good to know we’ll soon be making some more miles.

Mucking around with old bikes in Bulgaria

6 Oct

After a few cold grey days, the sun finally made an appearance yesterday, providing the perfect warm autumn conditions for tinkering. We’ve ticked off most of the jobs on our bike bar actually installing the new bearings and putting it all back together (fingers crossed for they arrive tomorrow!), so it was time for Igor to have some fun with machinery.

It’s called an Izh. ИЖ in Cyrillic.

Amongst lots of other collectible and old bikes, Doug and Polly have some Izh bikes with sidecars stored away at the moto-camp. Igor’s long wanted to see one of these in action, and Michael and Tamara’s side-car had him itching to have a go.

After an hour or so of investigating and problem-solving, and much action on the kickstart, he finally got it going.

And then soon discovered that the clutch lever wasn’t working, so gears had to be changed while manually pulling on the clutch cable.

Much zooming around the yard and then up and down the street ensued…

“This is stupidly good fun!”

Terrorising the streets.

Image

Good morning, Bulgaria!

5 Oct

P1090224

 

P1090222

When we woke this morning, it was 1 degree inside our tent. And much colder outside, it seems.

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