Ready, steady… go!!

Day 12 – 6th January – Algeciras to Barcelona (1151km)

That’s what Esteve more or less intended to do the moment the ferry ramp was down – twist the throttle and not let it go until he got to Barcelona. That was a very long way, quite a lot more in fact than the journey to Almeria at the beginning of the trip, which had been a bit over 800km and had taken us quite a lot longer than we had anticipated. We were talking about close to 1,200km here, a distance that we had planned to split in two riding days – the first one from Algeciras to Ademuz, where my family has a house, saving us the cost of accommodation.

Esteve, however, was tired of so many days on the bike and insisted that he wanted to get home as soon as possible, and if that meant doing it on one go, so be it, he would have the whole weekend to unpack, rest, relax, and get ready to go back to work on Monday, a return that he feared would be stressful. I had tried to dissuade him, but there were other factors in play – remember the issue with Gerard’s bike’s forks? He and Raluca were not particularly looking forward to the long ride back either, even if it was in two days, so they were toying with the idea of calling the insurance regarding the botched repair, have the bike sent home, and get a lift back to Barcelona at the insurance company’s expense, maybe even spending a day visiting Granada. I must confess at this point that I was in part to blame for both Gerard’s and Esteve’s plans, as I had discovered some days before that I had forgotten the keys to the house, meaning that if we split the return in two we would have to pay for a hotel anyway.

The night before Esteve had already made up his mind that he was going to ride back in one day, and I was thinking about doing the same. Gerard and Raluca said that they would decide once they got off the ferry, so we agreed that the best thing to do was to say our goodbyes on the ferry and start the journey immediately out of the harbour.

We had got the boarding passes the day before, so this time we did not need to get up ridiculously early – departure was at 9am and we got to the harbour half an hour before. The 6th of January is an important holiday in Spain, when most people exchange their Christmas gifts, so everybody would be spending the day at home with their families and we were not expecting a long queue to board nor problems with traffic across Spain.

When we rode past the booths where they checked our boarding passes I was expecting to go straight to the queue to board, but instead found that we had to go through a customs checkpoint. I thought that we were done with that after crossing the border into Ceuta, we were already in Spanish and EU territory after all, but it seems the authorities were not happy with that.

The boom was down at the checkpoint and there seemed to be nobody at the booth, so we had to wait until a sleepy looking police officer arrived, clearly unhappy to have to work instead of spend the day with this kids. The only car in front of us was a big van with Belgian plates driven by a lone arab guy, and I thought that the police were not going to do a thorough check, it was only 10 minutes before departure time, there were very few cars on the line and, as I said, we were already in Spain. To my surprise, another officer came out of the booth with a dog, they made the van guy open the back doors and got the car inside, sniffing around. At that moment I remembered that I had put the ingredients for the sandwich in my jacket, which was folded inside my left pannier. ‘OK’, I thought. ‘No need to panic, it is a very small amount, for my own use, I can say in case the dog finds it… such small quantities are usually tolerated in Spain.’

The dog finished with the van, the driver got back in, started and rolled away. The police officer with the dog looked at our three bikes, the dog was looking away in the opposite direction, the officer looked at the rest of cars in the line, looked back at us and waved us past with a quick movement. The dog did not even turn to look at me.

With a sigh of relief, we rode on, only to find that there was yet another checkpoint to cross before the ferry, this time with an employee of the ship company and another customs police officer, checking passports. I had already put mine away, and when I stopped by him and started rummaging in my pockets to get it out he just looked at me, still with my helmet and sunglasses on, and asked ‘are you Spanish?’ in a thick southern accent. ‘Yes’, I replied, and he  said ‘OK, go on’. Top notch security here, I got on the ferry without having had my passports checked once.

The boat was a fast seacat and after only an hour of very bumpy sailing across the Gibraltar strait we moored in Algeciras. We had already said goodbye and were ready to go, I was going to ride back with Esteve in one go.

They lowered the ramp, we revved the engines and rolled out onto the pier, ready to hit the road and get kilometres under our belts as fast as possible, it was already 10am and we had at least 12 hours of riding ahead of us. We turned towards the harbour exit and found… another customs checkpoint! Again! This time I had about five or six cars in front of me, and the police officer with the dog (yes, there was another dog) was making it sniff around each and every car on the line. Once he was done with the car in front of me, he looked at the bike and he waved me past. The dog was not bothered with my left pannier at all. Crossing borders with a motorbike is great.

We were finally out of the harbour and the long way back home began. We used a combination of motorways with and without tolls, looking for the fastest and at the same time cheapest way to get back to Barcelona, and we decided we would only stop for fuel and once to eat, for lunch. There were clouds and maybe rain forecast in the south of Spain, but once we were away from the coast the sky cleared and we had perfect weather for riding, even though the temperature never went above 12ºC. On the second refuelling stop I had to put on all the clothes I had for the first time in the trip, we had been riding over 1,000km above sea level for hours and I was freezing. Things got a bit better when we got near the coast again past Murcia, but only for a short while. Night caught us still south of Valencia, and I finally made it to my front door at about 10:20pm, after leaving Esteve in Vilafranca. We managed 1151km in 10 hours and 26 minutes, according to the GPS, the fastest we had ridden in two weeks.

As I looked up from the GPS, I saw Nat, who was coming back home with a pizza and some beer as a welcome present. Now, THAT is love.

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Mirror, mirror

Day 11 – 5th January – Chefchaouen to Ceuta (104km)

We visited the medina again in the morning to take some picture in daylight – it was an interesting contrast from the previous afternoon. It was early and most shops were still closed or just opening, and the streets were very quiet.

This time we made it all the way across and out the eastern side of the city, where there are some small waterfalls with an ancient system to provide water for the city, a good example of Arabic hydraulic engineering, as well as two public washing places. These facilities are still easy to see in most small villages in Spain, virtually none of them used for their original purpose. They have either fallen into disrepair or been restored as part of the village heritage, but here they were still in use – some women were hand washing blankets, sheets and carpets in the freezing water.

Soon after joining the main road to the border with Ceuta we came across some people by the side of the road gesticulating and making open and loud offers to sell ingredients for sandwiches. The day before I had read on some blogs a warning against a common scam – these people offered big quantities of ingredients at a very low price, so a lot of tourists were tempted to buy some, particularly if they were coming into the country and not heading for the border as we were. Shortly after stashing the ingredients in the car and driving off, the seller calls or radioes ahead to a police patrol who are part of the scam and stop the unsuspecting tourist to search their vehicle. They immediately find the ingredients, which are enough to be in serious trouble, even jail time, and demand a bribe in exchange for the victim’s freedom. The tourists usually have to cough up between 300 and 400 euros and then are free to go on about their journey, and the police take the ingredients back to the seller to repeat the scam with the next group of kids looking for the Moroccan experience.

At this point, I had completely forgotten about my own ingredients – we wanted to buy very little, only for the previous evening, because we were going to cross the border today and obviously did not want to take the risk, but we had been given enough for several sandwiches, and after the first one we had all gone to bed and not thought about it anymore.

Shortly before joining the main road in Tetouan my bike finally fell victim to the roads in Morocco. So far, we had experienced problems with Gerard’s bike – the headlamp and the mudguard issues, and with Esteve’s – his rev counter had decided to recalibrate itself and had been 2,000rpm above where it should be for most of the journey. The country decided that I was not going to leave unscathed, and with only a few kilometres to the border, while riding last in the group, my left mirror came loose. It was waving like a flag in the wind and I could not see the traffic behind me, which is very dangerous in such roads, so I over took the group and we stopped to tighten it.

Tetouan took forever to cross, and that was on an avenue that went around the city, we did not even get close to the centre, but heavy traffic and police controls every few hundred metres made for slow progress. We decide to avoid the motorway from there to the border to save some money, as the route along the national road was only a few minutes longer, and the decision gave us some interesting insight into a stark contrast. For most of the last 40km we rode along the coast, going past some of the most expensive looking buildings we had seen in the entire journey. There were beach resort after beach resort on both sides of the road, nothing to do with the run-down buildings just past the border in Melilla, but the strongest contrast was in the hills to our left, beyond the resorts. Somewhere in there, in appalling conditions in makeshift camps, were thousands of people who had made their way north through the continent in hopes of crossing the border into Ceuta and set foot in EU territory in search of a better life. Just a few days before we got here we had read on Spanish newspapers online that a group of over 1,000 of them had attempted to storm the wall that separates Ceuta from Morocco, requiring the intervention of police forces from both sides. Their technique is to make a run for the wall in big numbers, so at least some of them have a chance to make it. It ended with several people wounded on both sides, and only two immigrants made it across the fence, only to end up in hospital from their injuries.

In this time of year, at least in Spain, everybody plays the lottery – there is a widespread craze about the Christmas lottery, and people obsess about getting tickets everywhere, victims of a kind of psychological bribery – the ‘what if the prize falls here, or there, or there…’ People buy tickets at work, at their local pub, at their kid’s school, wherever they travel in the days before the holiday, to all kinds of associations and charities… I have long stopped wasting my money on that because I realised that I have already won the biggest price in the lottery of life. As I was riding to the border in Ceuta I thought that I was no different from all the people I had encountered while travelling across less fortunate countries than mine. I could have been born anywhere in the world, but I was incredibly lucky to land in a 1st world country, in a good city and in a great family. We are often unaware of what a huge privilege that is, the reality we live in is not Earth’s reality. We are a very fortunate minority and we forget it too easily. We should all take some time to appreciate what we have.

This time the border was a much more organised affair than in Melilla. We still found a lot of guys trying to sell us immigration forms and get some money to help fill them in, but we had all the paperwork we needed and rode straight past the border fence, where, unlike Melilla, they were not allowed, so we enjoyed some peace and quiet while we queued to get our passports stamped and the bikes checked out of the country.

We were through in about half an hour, and entering the Spanish side only required showing the passport. It was only at this point that, in a moment of panic, I remembered the ingredients and wondered whether Gerard had taken them with him or left them at the hotel to avoid risking it at the border. Fortunately, nobody seemed to care about a few tired looking guys on motorbikes and we were let through without incident. Tired and looking forward to a shower in the hotel, I forgot to ask him about it again.

The following day was the 6th of January, which meant that in the evening there was going to be a big parade on the streets to welcome the Three Wise Men who come from faraway lands to bring presents to the new born baby Jesus or something like that. It turned out that their Majesties had already arrived in Ceuta by mid-afternoon and were staying at our hotel, so when we got there we found a horde of kids and parents taking pictures with them. We left the hotel and went to get some dinner, a few beers (oh, how we had missed them) and a sandwich.

It was then, celebrating the end of our journey with a long-awaited beer and sitting at a bar’s terrace overlooking the sea from where we could see the hills around Chefchaouen in the distance, that I asked Gerard about the ingredients. He told me that he had put it inside the little finger of his glove.

Moroccan paperwork

Next step on our trip preparation – arranging the import forms for our motorbikes.

I have been told that there are long queues and general chaos at the border crossing in Melilla, and it is possible to expedite the process by having the temporary import forms for the vehicles you are travelling with ready beforehand. That way you save the hassle of finding the right window to obtain the forms, filling them in, dealing with local ‘helpers’, etc.

It is possible to fill in the temporary import form online and print out a copy to hand in directly at the crossing on this website.

Fill in all the information and print a copy. You get three copies of the same form in one A4 page, sign each of them in the ‘signature du déclarant’ section and they will fill the remaining information at the border (date and number). Customs keep the bottom form (Entrée), the second one (Apurement) will have to be handed when you leave the country and the third one (Exemplaire déclarant) is for you to keep.

If you do not speak French and need some help to fill in the online form, there is a translation/explanation in Tim Cullis’ Morocco Knowledge Base.

From Canadian lakes to Spanish badlands

Day 28 – Thursday 25th August – From lake Batak to Vergina (389km)

My days on the motorbike kept getting longer now that I was travelling on my own, and by now I was pretty much into the long distance mind-set. This was going to be the longest riding day so far, but I did not intend to do too much at once – the AT is less comfortable as a long distance tourer than both the V-Strom and the Super Ténéré, so I had promised myself that I would take breaks after no more than 100km.

It had been raining all night and I don’t like folding the tent when it is wet, but there was no sun in the morning, so it was useless to wait for it to dry. I wiped as much water off as I could, took it down and left with all the layers on the suit on, as it was rather cold.
In true Frost style, I took a road less travelled south to a small border crossing, at one more time Bulgaria offered its best landscape – thick forests and mirror-like lakes that would not have looked out of place in Canada.

20160825032650_1When I reached the border there were only a few cars and two lorries in front of me, but as I had already experienced on my way into the country, Bulgarian border policemen seem to be the slowest in Europe. Once everything was sorted, I rode a short distance to the Greek border, was quickly waved in with the usual Barça comments and rode into what seemed another world.

20160825062942_1If you had told me that I had teleported to the hills in central Spain I would not have doubt it. What had been lakes and green forests just an hour ago were now golden brown hills, with very few trees, a dry smell in the air and the temperature rising fast.

Despite the contrast, it was still very beautiful, particularly through the route I had chosen, avoiding large towns and main roads. I went near a place called Drama, but turned south before reaching it, and it was not until near Serres that I started to find bigger roads.

My first good impressions of Greece quickly changed. The landscape was now mostly flat and scorched by the sun, everything had an abandoned air about it, and the roads were no better than what I had found in the previous countries. The ring road around Serres looked like a Russian ring road – with catastrophically bad tarmac, junctions with traffic lights every few hundred metres that made fast progress all but impossible and the worst drivers I had found so far on this journey. Greek drivers seem to be very bitter about being overtaken – I would pass a 15-year old car and I could see it accelerating in my mirrors, trying to catch up again. I would stop first at a red light and the car next to me would be in gear, slipping the clutch and ready not to let me get ahead once the lights turned green. For God’s sake, even middle-aged women in crumbling little hatchbacks did it… how on earth did they expect to outrun a motorbike?

I took the motorway from there on to try and save some time, seeing there was no landscape to appreciate and the main roads were turning quite nasty, and was surprised to find a row of toll booths after riding a few kilometres on it. There was absolutely no sign anywhere before entering the motorway that announced that it was a toll road. First time I saw it. It was not a lot of money, but I paid it gingerly seeing how bad the tarmac was even on the motorway forming foot-tall folds under the heat and the weight of trucks, not to mention the hordes of nasty drivers. Oh, and they would not take credit cards to pay the toll.

A good while later I was glad to get off the motorway and head into the small town of Vergina, where I had found a cheap room in a small pension. At least this was a good ending to the day – the place was quiet, the room good, the girl in reception very nice, and they let me put the bike in the garden, where I could see it from my balcony. The only negative note was that they would not take credit card either, and all the money I had left were a few Bulgarian Lev, so I ad to go find the only ATM in the village.

20160825103754_1It took me a good while, as the town seemed to consist of detached houses and no centre, but in the end I managed to find the ATM and a small supermarket where I got some food and the end-of-the-day beer.

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6th gear

Day 19 – Tuesday 16th August – Skopje to Blagoevgrad (225km)

Today was – maybe for the first time in a while – a rather quiet day regarding visits, excursions and exploration. We rode up the hills on the south of Skopje before leaving the city to see the sights from the Millennium cross, a huge 66-metre high cross built to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity. To our disappointment, the cross could only be reached by cable car, not by road, but there was a good viewpoint from the car park where the road ended and we had a beautiful view of the city that added one more item to the list of places my impressions of Skopje drank from – Barcelona seen from the hills of Collserola.

20160816043255We left the city via the motorway and on the dashboard I saw something I had not seen in quite a while – 6th gear! We covered quite a lot of (boring) distance before running out of motorway, which by the way was not in great condition for what it cost us in tolls. The motorway ended in Kumanovo and from there a regular road, culminating in a really nice stretch of long sweeping corners up a hill, took us to the border with Bulgaria.

Of all the borders we had crossed I was expecting this one to be by far the easiest and fastest – leaving a country usually takes no more than a couple of minutes and then we were re-entering the EU with EU passports and an EU registered vehicle with EU insurance, but for some unknown reason the Macedonians took ages to check each of the few cars on the queue and their occupants paperwork, and it was even worse on the Bulgarian side. I was tempted to do that thing you see in movies, where whenever Americans are abroad they shout ‘I am an American citizen!’ at the first sign of bother, and start shouting ‘I am a EU citizen, let me in!’

Once on the other side we still had quite a way to go before our chosen destination – Blagoevgrad, a small city located between the natural parks of Rila and Pirin. At first this was only a one-stop place before we could find information about the area and decide where to go next, but the hotel turned out to be really nice and cheap, and we saw that the trek we wanted to do the following day was only about an hour away, so we decided to stay a couple of nights.

20160816113552In the afternoon we went to visit the city and get some provisions for the trek, and Nat got another good dose of working-class Eastern European neighbourhoods.

Do not trust first impressions

Day 11 – Monday 8thAugust – From Dubrovnik to Kotor (107,1km)

Today I woke up with the excitement of crossing a border into a country I had never been to before – Montenegro.

We loaded the bike, which as I said on the previous post was parked in the car park of a shopping centre and rode down the ramp that led to the road to find that unlike the weekend, the boom gate was down and there was a guard in the booth. I had seen a sign detailing the prices per hour and more importantly, the price in the event of losing the ticket, and I definitely did not want to pay that so when we saw that the guard was busy with a driver who was paying his stay we seized the chance to slip out through the gap between the boom and wall and zoom down the street without looking back. We’ll be at the border before they realise, kid.

20160808025014And we were soon indeed at the border after a quick ride up the fort to snap
a panorama of the city. Anticipating long queues again we had set off early and taken a road south of the main one which followed the coast in order to avoid traffic. We were not sure whether there was a border crossing on that road or not, or if it would be open to traffic, for that matter. There were no other cars on the road, which was really beautiful, winding its way down to the green slopes overlooking the Adriatic. After enjoying the road for a while we came to the Croatian border, with only two cars waiting in front of us, and were let through very quickly.

Two corners down the road we found the Montenegrin border, where there three cars waiting, but the police there took things a lot more slowly, taking each car’s passports into the building and coming back out again a good while later. We waited patiently in the sun, with the temperature rising as the day advanced, until we were finally cleared through and arrived in the first big city on the other side, Herzeg Novi, ten minutes later, joining the traffic that was coming from Croatia on the main road. At the first petrol station we saw we found a sticker for the bike (the old Suzy doesn’t have this one!).

20160808041713We were at the entrance of one of the most beautiful and remarkable places in the Adriatic – the Bay of Kotor, an intricate bay surrounded by mountains that reach over 1000m above sea level, and which forms what might be the only fjord in the Mediterranean area. All along its winding coast, over 100km of a road I was quite looking forward to.

Unfortunately, unlike other roads that have built up great expectations in me, this one turned out to be a bit of a disappointment… the road itself is great, but it is the main thoroughfare in the area, and this time of year it sees heavy traffic. We spent most of the journey stuck behind slow traffic or not moving at all each time the road crossed a town, there was constant traffic coming the other way and it was too narrow to try and ride down the middle as I did in the Bosnian border. By the time we got to Kotor, where traffic was at its absolute worse, and turned off the road to find the apartment, I was glad we did not have to ride all 100km of it. There is a ferry that crosses the bay at its narrowest point, saving about half the trip, but I did not take it because I had read that the road was worth it. If you come here in the midst of the summer tourist season, I would take it.

Our apartment was perched on the mountain side with a stunning view of the bay, Kotor’s old town and the fortress and its walls. To get there I had to ride some of the steepest streets I have ever seen (and those who know where I used to live know how steep the streets were there). This was Nat’s first contact with far Easter European architecture – haphazard, grey, functional, partly unfinished… and she was not impressed with the place at all.

2016080810222520160808102503Only after seeing the apartment, which was the best we had found so far, and taking a walk in the afternoon in the beautifully preserved medieval old town did she start to like Montenegro. The heat and traffic jams on the way here had not helped either, so to compensate that we went for a swim in the town beach, which had amazingly clear water for a beach that was right next to a harbour where big cruise ships moor.

2016080811255620160808115859With the sun and the temperature going down we felt brave enough to dare a visit to the fortress and the city walls, an impressive feat of medieval engineering that protected the city from attacks from the mountains. The wall clings to the mountain face almost vertically behind the city, culminating in a fortress with a commanding view of the city below, the bay beyond and the mountains behind.

20160808132406Even this late in the day, with the sun behind the mountains, the temperature was quite high, and we reached the top exhausted and drenched in sweat, but the views were definitely worth it.

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No more Russian roads

Day 34 – Sunday 28th of July – St. Petersburg – Joensuu (419km)

And I cannot say I will miss them… A few days ago I was riding to St. Petersburg, a long ride, and I realized that it had been a while since I had had fun on a road. Ever since I went into Ukraine, I had been on main roads, because the back roads were in appalling conditions or simply non-existent. From enjoying wonderful European country roads I had gone to just riding in pretty much a straight line all day, hot, sweaty, eating dust and smoke from trucks, watching out for ruts and potholes… the road had changed from something I had fun on to something to get out of the way before reaching the next destination. I had been doing this for so long I had forgotten that I was supposed to enjoy the ride! Today, the road away from St. Petesburg was a good dual carriageway, and then it turned into a beautiful country road that reminded me of how enjoyable these roads are. The landscape had also changed, and if it were not for the road signs, I would have sworn I was already in Finland, not in Russia. However, this was still Russia, and in Russia you cannot trust a road for long. The minute you think ‘wow, this is a nice one’ and think it is going to stay that way to your destination, it just turns to complete crap. There is no logic to it either, it does not follow province boundaries, proximity to cities or any other rational criteria, it just changes suddenly from motorway to gravel road, to broken asphalt, to no road, to new unpainted asphalt… you never know what is coming next.

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In my case, a dusty gravel road for almost 100km. By the time I was near the Finnish border and it was tarmac again, I was white with dust, so I was very, very happy to cross the border. However, I will miss Russia. It has been an amazing experience and the people I have met there have been wonderful.

Back in the UE, the road was lovely, smooth, new tarmac. Then something strange happened. The speed limit was 80km/h, and people were sticking to it. No crazy overtaking. Nobody pulling out in front of me, everybody waited patiently on the side before driving onto the road. Speed cameras in every town. And I thought ‘this is boring’. I could not overtake whenever and wherever I felt like it, or go as fast as I would have liked to go on those roads… I suddenly missed Russian craziness!

The wonderful landscape, and the fact that I could actually appreciate it because there were no more potholes waiting to kill me more than made up for it, though, and I had a very enjoyable last part of the day until I got to the hostel where I was spending the night.

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It was a really nice place, I parked my bike in the back yard, where there was a barbecue and a couple of picnic tables, cooked some food and then sat outside to finish The Grapes of Wrath with a cup of coffee in my hand.

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And what a book it was! I had started reading shortly before I entered Russia, and it really got to me. A harrowing story, but definitely worth it. I will leave you with a fragment I read, ironically, shortly after having broken the rim:

And his thought and his worry were not any more with rainfall, with wind and dust, with the thrust of crops. Eyes watched the tires, ears listened to the clattering motors, and minds struggled with oil, with gasoline, with the thinning rubber between air and road. Then a broken gear was a tragedy. Then water in the evening was the yearning, and food over the fire. Then health to go on was the need and the strength to go on and the spirit to go on. The wills thrust westward ahead of them, and the fears that had once apprehended drought or flood now lingered with anything that might stop the westward crawling.