A Spritz in Cortina

Day 65 – Wednesday 28th of August – Ljubljana to Cortina d’Ampezzo (296km)

I was very excited to be riding back to Alps and the prospect of spending a bit longer there riding some of the best roads in Europe, since my first taste on the way east had been all too short, but I felt a pang of regret as we rode out of Ljubljana. Slovenia is a beautiful country and there are lots of things we were leaving behind undiscovered – Predjama castle and its cave, the Triglav mountains, Ljubljana itself, where I could easily have spent a couple more days… It is definitely a place where I could spend my entire holidays. My biggest regret, however, was not having had the chance to meet Metka and Franci again, my hosts on my first visit to the city. Our improvised travel schedule meant that we were not sure when we would be in the there, and it had been very difficult to find and internet connection on the days leading up to our arrival in the city, so I could not get in touch in time to confirm whether they would be there or on holidays, and on top of that we only spent a night before moving on.

On the way to the border we stopped to visit Bled castle, built on a cliff overlooking the lake that bears the same name. It was a wonderful place, it is a shame that we lost too much time trying to get in and out of the town because of the traffic jams caused by the huge trucks trying to make their way through the old center.

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My first language is Catalan, and as Nat and I had been following a route that took us away from Europe’s main tourist centers, we had grown used to being able to have conversations about pretty much anything without having to worry about the people around us understanding what we were talking about, since there was very little chance of bumping into fellow countrymen. However, walking down the path that lead from the castle door back to the car park, we were having a lively chat over a, let’s call it “interesting topic”, when we came across a group of tourists on their way up. Right in the climax of the conversation, one of them said ‘bon dia!’ in a jokingly tone and we both stopped talking abruptly before bursting into laughter. Well, it goes to show that we are everywhere indeed.

We rejoined the motorway for a while before turning left into a smaller road following the Belca river in order to avoid paying again to use Austrian roads. It would take a little longer to get to the Italian border, but it was worth it – we rode around the north face of the Triglav mountains and the scenery was breathtaking. Unfortunately the rain caught up with us right on the border, so we had to make an emergency stop to put on the waterproof gear.

Once in Italy though, the rain stopped quickly, so we decided to take the chance to stop for a lunch and a rest just in case the weather turned nasty again later.

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Fortunately, it did not, and we enjoyed the ride along the river Fella; there was a motorway, but we had time to spare and decided to take the SS13, which was much nicer. As we got closer to Tolmezzo things turned rather boring, we went through an industrial area and then took a stretch of rather dull road, but soon enough we got to the Dolomiti area and took much nicer roads leading to Cortina.

The scenery in this area was simply breathtaking. I could have spent weeks just riding this roads again and again, not to mention climbing on the numerous via ferrata there are everywhere here or just hiking. It is a wonderful place and I am a hundred per cent sure that sometime in the future I will be back here.

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We got to Cortina and started looking for a place to sleep. Since hotels were horribly expensive and there were no hostels, we decided to look for a campsite. However, I was rather tired – the last bit on the mountain roads had been fun but exhausting- the whole trying to find a place to sleep was getting frustrating and on top of that I suddenly had a bad case of hay fever that left me sneezing like crazy and unable to think clearly.

We found a couple of campsites, but they were not exactly cheap, I needed a good rest and a hot shower and Nat was feeling quite cold after crossing the mountains. In the end, given the small difference in price between getting a plot to set up the tent and renting the small room in the reception building and enjoying a proper bed and a shower, we decided to go for the second option. Once we had already paid for it and were waiting to get the keys, the guy told us that his sister had already rented the room and had not updated that into the system, so he made a couple of phone calls and pointed us in the direction of a nice little house halfway up a grassy hill where an old lady rented a room, and told us he had arranged for us to stay there for the same price.

Once we had settled down at Ms. Maria’s place, I had a quick shower and we went out to finish the day with a Spritz in a nice bar in the center of Cortina.

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Relativity

Day 64 – Tuesday 27th of August – Omis to Ljubljana (577km)

Some days seem to have less than 24 hours, some others much more than that. I guess it depends on where you are, what you are doing and who you are sharing the day with. Today was one of those days that seem to have 36 or more hours, not because it felt long, but because by the end of it, chilling out with a cup of wine in my hand, it was hard to believe that we had time to fit so many things in only one day.

To start with, this was one of the long days on the motorbike. I had long forgotten my self-imposed 300km a day limit and was used to riding longer than that, but Nat, who was on her first motorbike trip ever, had insisted on not exceeding that distance. However, much as we wanted to ride easy and have time to visit things, real life was waiting for us back home, and we had a schedule to keep. That meant that if we still wanted to have some time to enjoy the Alps, we had to leave Croatia today and make it to Ljubljana in one day.

I wanted to follow a straight line, both to do less kilometers and to enjoy better landscape, but the GPS said it would take all day and having seen the roads in the Istria Peninsula a few years ago, I did not have any reason to doubt it. Taking main roads and motorways cut the journey down to seven hours, but added over 100km to it, as we had to go all the way to Zagreb. It was a long detour, and I was afraid so many kilometers on motorways would be boring, but in the end we decided to go for it.

We set off relatively early, feeling a bit sorry to leave the comfort of the apartment and the lazy days on the beach behind, but looking forward to being in the mountains again. The motorway had been extended since the last time I was here, and we did not have to spend too long on the coast road to get to it. It was a beautiful day, but there were some thick gray clouds lurking behind the mountains, right where we were headed. Seeing that, I left with the rain gear on, but had to remove it at the first fuel stop, as it was baking hot. As I was sitting by the bike in my underwear, another couple pulled up on a Yamaha – they were from Slovenia, and were also heading back home after a two-week trip around the Balkans. We chatted about Serbia and Bosnia I Herzegovina and they recommended visiting Albania and Macedonia as well. More countries on the ‘to visit’ list!

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We spent the rest of the journey to Zagreb playing the game of trying to stay ahead of the rain, trying to read the weather and putting on and taking off the rain gear when we stopped for fuel or a rest, not wanting to make extra stops. We were relatively lucky and escaped the worst of it, although there was a moment in which heavy rain caught us unprepared and I just went for it, seeing that the sky was clear ahead. Fortunately, it did not last for long and we dried up fast.

We stopped for the last cup of coffee on the border with Slovenia, having ridden around Zagreb on the ring road. I had already seen the city, but it is a shame we did not have time to spend a night there so Nat could see it as well. We bought the only vignette I had paid for in the whole trip so that we could use the motorway all the way to the capital, and a couple of hours later, in heavy rain and rush hour, we arrived in Ljubljana.

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The hostel looked like a 90s teenage sitcom set (think Parker Lewis Can’t Lose) and was a bit far from the center, but it was nice enough and there was space to park the bike on the driveway. As we were only going to be there for a night, we had gone for the cheapest option and booked a shared room. It was still early, the rain had stopped and we had a couple of hours until dark, so we dropped our bags and then took a long walk to the city center.

Nat loved the city, and to me it felt somewhat special to be back here for the second time. I had arrived in Ljubljana on my third day on the road only, all my gear new and shiny, and here I was again, after thousands of miles. We wandered around, enjoying the lively streets, and when it got dark we sat in one of the bars lining the river and had some wine.

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The rain came back while we were there, but it stopped for long enough to allow us to get back to the hostel on foot. We went to bed late, looking forward to getting to the Alps the following morning.

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Day 3 – Thursday 27th of June – Brogliano to Smrjene (555km)

Unlike the first two days, in which I spent the morning on great B-roads and then had to take the motorway in the afternoon to make it on time, with all the boredom and fatigue that means, today has been the other way round. I got up after a great night’s sleep and had breakfast with Danilo (Mattia had already left for work), trying to have a meaningful conversation in my very poor Italian. He gave me some directions to get the most scenic route to Slovenia, I loaded the bike and went off.

The first part of the route took me through even more industrial parks and thick, slow moving traffic, but I was able to make good progress thanks to Italian drivers. I must now withdraw my previous comments on Italian drivers, as today they were absolutely wonderful – the moment they saw me coming on their mirrors they moved to the right, making way for me to overtake them without having to move over to the other lane, which meant that I could pass cars anywhere. There’s some road manners Spaniards could learn!

Shortly after the road became one of the most beautiful I have ever ridden. All the way no just to Slovenia, but to the very capital, Ljubljana, it was a narrow, winding road with smooth tarmac and beautiful views. I had set off with three (out of five) bars left on the fuel gauge and after seeing how expensive petrol was in Italy I was hoping I could make it to the border and fill up in Slovenia. If I had to, I was even going to use the fuel in the jerrycan. I got near the border at about lunchtime and stopped at a village called Gradisca D’Isonzo for lunch. I found a nice park with a memorial to those who had died in WWI and WWII and sat down to prepare a sandwich. As I was eating there, with those names carved in stone in front of me, it occurred to me what a simplistic view we often get of such conflicts. We tend to think of the war as something with clearly defined sides, the good and the evil, the ‘you are with us or you are against us’ kind of thing some Americans love so much. However, those names belonged to young people from a small village who probably knew nothing about the people they were sent to fight against or the reasons the whole thing had started, they were just told to go there and die for their country. A country. What is that? Riding from one to another, crossing borders the concept becomes blurred, artificial. It is just a random line on a map and it becomes clear that we are all exactly the same, with the same hopes and fears, pastimes, worries, and all those little things that make up moments of happiness in our lives. I shared the last cherries from the box I had bought in France with a homeless guy at the park and headed for the border, the fuel light flashing.

I stopped at the first petrol station on the other side and was pleased to see that fuel was much cheaper and they had stickers. I filled up and rode into biker’s paradise. Slovenia is a hilly country and it seems that practically all roads are interesting.

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When I was planning the trip I sat down at the computer and tried to plan the most scenic routes possible on the software that came with the GPS, BaseCamp. I quickly remembered why I prefer to use good old paper maps. As is often the case with case when there are computers involved, the bloody thing had no logic at all and even though I marked waypoints along the route I wanted to follow, it went back and forth, doubling back and sending me round and round to places I did not want to go. In the end I decide to just get the coordinates for the places I want to finish the day at, set it to avoid toll roads and let it guide me. And boy it works! Yesterday’s route could not have been better if I had plotted it myself on a map – the roads were amazing all the way to Ljubljana.

I got there a bit later than I expected and ran into the afternoon rush hour traffic. I had to cross the whole city, as my host’s house was on a hill on the outskirts on the other side. I discovered that it is not a good idea to get into heavy traffic in an unknown city tired after a long day’s ride. Fortunately I made it to the other side without problems and were greeted by my hosts, Metka and Franci, fellow bikers  who were delighted to see me and the motorbike.

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We started talking about it right on the front door, and Franci commented that I should use a CrampBuster, a plastic thingy that allows you to hold the throttle open without having to grip the handle all the time, so you can rest on long motorway trips. I tried to find one in Barcelona just before leaving, but nobody sold them and it was too late to get one online. He then made a quick phone call to a friend to see if it was possible to get one in the city that day and then gave me his own as a present!

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They took some pictures and showed me my room, which would make a five-star hotel room pale in comparison. Franci works as a translator, but he studied electrical engineering and he really is into domotics. He and Metka bought their house half finished and then he designed a fully intelligent and environmentally friendly house (and wrote the software that controls it himself). It would take pages to describe what the house can do, suffice to say it is mind-blowing.

I had a shower, got changed and jumped into the car with Metka, who had already called a friend of hers who spoke some Spanish and was glad to have a chance to practice a bit. On the way to the centre we discovered that we are both beer fans and while we were waiting for her friend Maja to come she took me to a small beer shop that had an amazing selection of beers for connoisseurs. We bought a few for dinner (which she refused to let me pay) and then went for a drink with Maja at one of the terraces by the river. Back at the house, Franci, who had finished work, prepared some traditional pasta and then we had some beers with a couple of their friends, also bikers, who dropped by to say hi. It was such an enjoyable evening, telling travel stories and anecdotes that I totally forgot to write.

Oh, and Ljubljana is a beautiful city, by the way.

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